By Professor Debra Myhill, Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, The University of Exeter
Reading through our interviews with professional writers – acting as Co-Mentors in partnership with schoolteachers on our Teachers as Writers research project – I am struck by the variety of words that are used to describe the process of creating text. These include: drafting, rewriting, reviewing, revising, editing and proof-reading. Apart from proof-reading which is consistently used to refer to the final checking of the accuracy of the writing in terms of spelling and punctuation, the other words are often used inter-changeably with no clear distinction between them. What is clear is that this process of moving from ideas in the head, to words on a page, through to a finished piece is a messy process, or a recursive process, as the cognitive psychologists would term it. Expert writers, such as these professional writers, don’t plan their writing, write it, and then revise it: the generation of ideas, production of text and evaluation of text appear to be constantly interacting throughout the writing process. A beautiful messiness!
For some writers the drafting stage is very much ‘a splurge’, a kind of ideas-dump onto the page which precedes a more iterative phase of writing and revising. One writer who used the verb splurge for her initial draft explained that her first draft was an ‘absolutely unholy mess of stuff’, and she ‘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’. Other writers draft and edit more interactively right from the start – writing, re-reading, thinking, amending, writing…
One of our professional writers was not a keen reviser and recognised this as something she still needed to work on. But a very strong commonality in all the others was the attentiveness to reviewing and evaluating their unfolding texts, even if the term they used was not consistent. There is a sense here of writers with a distinct sense of what they want their text to do – a keen sense of authorial intention – and the evaluation embodied the effort to hone the emerging text to match these intentions. This evaluating element appears to be core to their understanding of themselves as writers and critically important to them: as one writer explained, ‘for me re-writing is as energetic as the first draft and it’s using the same energy’.
So does this offer any insights into how we teach writing in school?
Well, perhaps it invites us first of all to think about how the process of writing happens within the timeframe of classroom work. The National Curriculum recognises the process of writing in the Programmes of Study but does not give any indication of its messy recursiveness, and as a consequence this can be realised in the classroom as a strictly sequential process: ‘you write it, start, finish, hand it in, that’s it, and then it’s someone else’s problem to, you know, to mark it for you’. There are ways to create space for more messiness and less chronological linearity when creating text in the classroom. But it’s also important to remember that professional writers are experts, with rich experience of writing and revising, and greater skill in revising. One of our professional writers reflected on the experience of working with children as writers and recognised this gap between the expertise of a professional writer and of children as writers: ‘They’re writing a lot of bad stuff, which we do. But we’re probably more practised at trying to fix it, knowing that we’ve done it’. Young writers in school need rich opportunities to experiment, be messy, and to play around with words and ideas in a classroom context which fosters reflection on what has been written, and models possibilities for revising texts.
Professor Debra Myhill
Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean
The University of Exeter