By Professor Debra Myhill, Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, The University of Exeter
One of the themes that is very present in our Teachers as Writers data is what we have called Just Write. This refers to points in the writing process when writers let the words and ideas have space to form by writing freely without reviewing or evaluating what they have written. In the wider world of writing and writing composition, this is often called freewriting, but ‘just write’ reflects the words used by professional writers, teachers and students to describe this process, and for us, it captures something important about the Arvon experience.
So why might we just write? Advocates of freewriting are very clear about its value: firstly, it is writing without fear of evaluation. Writers are encouraged not to think about the accuracy of their texts, or how effective it is, or whether readers will enjoy it as when the writing mind is too focused on what is being written, it can prevent the free-flow of ideas or stop the writing altogether. Secondly, it is used to help let ideas, thought and emotions which may not ever have been expressed to lead the writing – to let the ideas create the current of writing, or as one of our professional writers said ‘it’s like a big splurge’.
Indeed, some of our professional writers explain how they just write at various points in the process of composing a text. For them, just writing seems to be predominantly about creating space for an emerging idea or narrative line. One writer said, ‘More often than not it’ll just be an idea and I let it take shape, I let it fit and then I’ll just write it and it comes out’ whilst another writer describing just writing as helping her ‘get it all off my chest and on to the page – so it was just this absolutely unholy mess of stuff’. There was also an element of discipline in the just writing too. One writer had a regular routine where he would ‘sit down in the evening and just write those 500 words’. This writer also noted that this kind of disciplined just writing can overcome a sense, or fear, of having nothing to write about: ‘there were times when I really didn’t want to write and then I realised that I had a really important bit of the story to write when I sat down to write, and that surprised me’.
But an important aspect of the Just Write strategy is that is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. Although very occasionally the first ideas, the first images, the first phrasings that appear on the page are Just Right as well as a consequence of just writing, more often than not the ‘splurge’ of text is not usable in its free-written form. Indeed, sometimes almost all of a free-written text will be scrapped but it has helped to re-energise the impetus for writing, and it is common for this writing to need to be reshaped and moulded to create a final satisfying piece of text. As one of our writers said ‘I had to get it all down so that I can then start excavating the story out of that, because then once you step back you see which bits are important and which bits are relevant’.
All an important reminder of the significance of thinking about the process of writing, and not just the final polished piece.
Professor Debra Myhill
Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean
The University of Exeter