By John Mitchell Morris
This essay first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Expose: The Journal of Expository Writing.
Inevitably each term, after discussing with a student the revisions necessary for an assigned essay in my College Writing class, the student stares at me from across my desk (or, now, computer screen) and says, “So I just need to change those few sentences and I’m done?”
“No,” I say. “You need to rethink the essay in light of our conversation and the notes you’ve made.”
“And then I’m done?”
“Well, hopefully you’ll be closer to a draft that more thoroughly articulates your ideas, but it may require another round of revisions—or two—to achieve your best work.”
Temple pressing. Deep sigh. Silence. “But I can use everything I have?”
And so on.
Such exchanges are prevalent between first-year students and their writing instructors, not because students lack the ability to write better or even the motivation to engage with their writing assignments; in fact, many of these students are excellent students, and all have the potential to be. Such exchanges are prevalent because students do not consider themselves writers and, thus, they have neither accepted that writing is a process, nor have they developed the process to write.
This is not to say students aren’t writing. As Dana Goldman noted in her 2017 article for The New York Times, “Why Kids Can’t Write,” “the Snapchat generation may produce more writing than any group of teenagers before it, writing copious text messages and social media posts, but when it comes to the formal writing expected at school and work, they struggle with the mechanics of simple sentences.” Thus, while students are writing constantly, they are writing in forms, in styles, and on timelines at odds with the technical and analytical proficiency necessary for success in their composition classes, future academic courses, and careers. Their habits—bursts of thought lacking in elaboration or evidentiary support, oversimplifying complex social and cultural issues, casual language with little regard for proper grammar or punctuation—are almost guaranteed to produce work that does not reflect their intellectual capabilities. To make matters worse, they are now trapped in this cycle, well-established since high school, as their student loan debts rise, the pressures to succeed mount, the hopes they will amass the material comforts of prior generations of Americans plunge, and the news updates of our chaotic and frightening world crescendo in their overwhelmed ears. The days pass quickly, and they begin to feel they have less time in which to learn as well as survive. It’s no wonder then that students cling to the habits they know, bang out their drafts, and press submit. But therein lies the most basic, albeit oft-overlooked, opportunity for English composition instructors: teaching process, the idea that writing can serve as an enriching practice in one’s life, in an age of speed, distractions, and instant gratification.
At the outset, it’s vital to note that teaching process, and process only, will never produce writers of the quality colleges and universities are duty-bound to produce and on which our civilization’s survival depends (if our civilization is to survive). Rather, process lays the foundation on which students can absorb, implement, and reinforce the lessons of a composition course, namely proficient use of grammar and punctuation, rhetoric, critical thought, and argumentation. Just as the student athlete understands that showing up for a game without training and practice makes victory unlikely if not impossible, so too must the student writer understand that writing only when assignments are due will likely never improve the student’s skills as a writer.
To teach process is to teach students that writing—real, thoughtful writing—is not the midnight-race-to-the-finish-line they too often embark upon the night before an assignment is due; to teach process is to teach students that writing—like every other skill we need and value—requires discipline, patience, and care. Here, I posit how this process requires redefining the identity of a writer, building a habitual daily reading practice, managing distractions and learning how to slow down, and dedicating oneself to writing a page a day.
I Write, Therefore, I Am A Writer
Every person who writes anything, anywhere, should consider him, her, or themself a writer. Our words matter no matter the context in which we write them. But this is especially true for students who enroll in college-level courses, who aim to obtain an undergraduate or Associate-level degree, and who aspire to succeed in a career of their choosing.
The most common statement I hear from students every semester is, “I am not a writer.”
I am not a writer. Round and round I hear the phrase swirling into the ceiling of my office, down the corridors of campuses across America, and into my darkest fears for the future of our nation and world.
“Yes, you are a writer,” I say, waving their work in the air. “You wrote this!”
They shake their heads. They laugh. They glare at me with doubt in their eyes.
Students believe that only the people who will one day professionally call themselves writers—novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists—are, in fact, writers. Such a belief is false. Almost no professional in any field can seriously expect to advance without a mastery of written communications. Imagine the scientist who can’t write the paper documenting her groundbreaking discovery, the lawyer whose pleadings fail to make the strongest case for his client, the entrepreneur whose business proposals fail to excite his investors, or the sculptor whose artist statement is vague, leaving interpretation of her work purely up to critics and viewers—God forbid! The more instructors do in class to illustrate the wide variety—and value—of writing required across disciplines and professions, the more we help debunk the myth that only the next David Mitchell or Roxanne Gay need consider themselves writers and, thus, develop the process therefor.
Students write, therefore they are writers, and it is within an instructor’s power to help them accept this inconvenient truth and develop the process they’ll need to write often and well.
Read Today. Repeat Every Day Thereafter
In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King asserts, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write” (147). While largely directed at aspiring fiction writers, Mr. King’s advice is equally applicable to students. For a writer, reading is the athlete’s daily workout, the dancer’s early hours at the barre, the musician’s warmup exercises and scales. Reading is the means by which writers engage with and absorb—consciously and unconsciously—various composition forms, the potency of ideas, and the effective, eloquent, and evocative use of language and punctuation. Never mind the numerous benefits reading bestows upon our physical and mental health (Stanborough), students who wish to write better must first read better and more often. Otherwise, their reading muscles won’t be strong enough for the heavy lifting required for their course reading assignments. But this critical step in the writing process extends far beyond reading for class. Students must be motivated and inspired to curate their own reading lives.
On the first class of every term, I challenge students to read ten pages of high-quality prose, beyond assigned course readings, every day of the semester. We devise strategies for integrating this reading time into their schedules. Early risers may wish to start the day with a quiet twenty minutes to read as a way of warming up their brains. Night owls may reward themselves for a day’s hard work with ten pages of a novel by their favorite author. Maybe it’s the first twenty minutes of library time to boost concentration before the student begins completing homework assignments. The point is, reading ten pages a day equates to over 3,600 pages a year! Any person with that robust a reading life is sure to improve, amongst other things, the person’s concentration, comprehension, vocabulary, and grammar.
At the college level, students should, of course, be reading material that interests them, but they should also be encouraged to challenge themselves. There’s nothing wrong with reading YA or graphic novels for fun, especially if one’s aim is to write and/or illustrate them professionally. But engaging with such works exclusively is like only lifting ten-pound weights in the gym: one will never develop the strength for heavier lifting. The converse, however, is also true. Recommending the non-habitual reader start with Plato’s Symposium or Henry James’s The Wings of a Dove will almost certainly prevent the reader’s change of habit. Thus, students must understand their current skill level and curate their reading accordingly.
And that’s where instructors come in. Most writing instructors regularly conference with students one-on-one or in small groups. Sure, there are essay drafts and plenty of assignments to discuss. But we can also dedicate part of this time to asking students what, if anything, they’re reading and help them create reading lists that speak to their interests and needs. Some of the most fruitful conferences I’ve held with students have involved Googling authors and genres the students’ love, or even searching for academic papers on topics that interest them. Does this take time? Yes. Everything worth doing does. But the benefits of investing such time in students’ process are two-fold. First, students shift from seeing reading as an assigned activity curated by a third party (namely their teachers) to a self-directed tool vital in exploring their curiosity and maximizing their intellectual growth. Second, dedicating a little time to topics off the main road of course assignments helps build trust and develop the instructor-student relationship, which can be especially important for first generation college students and students from backgrounds historically underrepresented in colleges and universities, who may contend with feelings of inadequacy and not belonging. Connecting with their instructors and feeling encouraged to explore their ideas and interests in readings beyond the classroom can help grow the campus community roots they’ll need to successfully complete their degrees.
Once students have a solid reading list, the next step in teaching them process—the idea that reading and writing are lifelong pursuits in which both practices strengthen and become ingrained over time—is following up. I keep track of what my students are reading, refresh my memory before our scheduled conferences, and often begin with a question about their reading, along these lines: “Hi Tara, come on in. Before we begin, tell me about Toni Morrison’s Jazz. Are you enjoying it?”
Not only can these conversations serve as great icebreakers and help diffuse any tension or anxiety that may exist for students, they also serve to reiterate that reading—and talking about reading—merits a place in our daily lives equal to Netflix and Hulu.
If we are to create better writers, we have to do more than tell students to read more. Helping them develop their reading lives is an essential part of their writing process. Beyond the numerous adventures one can enjoy as a reader, reading nourishes one’s writing by exposing one to new ideas, to new structures and styles, and to the risks other writers have taken that inspire one to take risks of one’s own.
The Mindful Writer: Writing in the Age of Distractions, Speed, and Instant Gratification
Once students accept they are, in fact, writers and begin reading rigorously enough to inform their writing lives, the most essential part of the writing process students must learn is that they must make time to write. In class, we can talk about writing and think about writing and workshop writing and exhaust all the writing exercises ever created. But at some point, students are going to wind up in the library or in their dorm rooms and discover the tragic reality that essays and research papers do not write themselves. What to do? Scheduling time to write is easy; knowing what to do with that time is more complicated.
In the Age of Distractions, it’s easy to sit down at one’s desk with the good intention to work, only to soon find oneself twelve YouTube videos deep into fish taco recipes and DIY room remodels. My first semester teaching at Purchase College, a student submitted a draft research paper that read like a cross between an excessively active Facebook page and a Tweet storm. When I, somewhat jokingly, brought this to the student’s attention, she laughed and said, “Oh, my God. That’s so me.” While writing, she explained, the most active windows on her laptop were always Facebook and Twitter. In this sense, the internet is the writer’s worst enemy. On the other hand, the Jonathan Franzen approach—no internet at all—seems unrealistic and a waste of an invaluable resource.
Good work almost always takes longer than one thinks it will or should. This is true across all disciplines and professions. The professional, however begrudgingly, learns to deal with this reality, but the student writer often finds it crippling.
We live in an instant gratification world, filled with “likes” and “follows” and same-day delivery and “Influencers” who appear to live the lives many people think they can quickly acquire. With so much quickly available to us so often, it’s understandable how a process as time consuming and multifaceted as writing can feel uncomfortable when it doesn’t come fast or easy (and it almost never does). The thing to remember, however, is that while technology has mechanized and sped up our ability to do, it has done little, if nothing, to mechanize or speed up our ability to think.
The writer’s journey across the blank page is still one of trial and error, experimentation, and a series of choices one becomes more skilled at making with practice. Thus, the uncomfortable truth is that while the internet may enable us to conduct research faster, the time required to read, take notes, synthesize sources, outline, draft, revise, proofread, and so on hasn’t changed much at all. And while we may operate at one speed in our electronic worlds of social media and content consumption, our writing—that is to say our thoughts, our experiences, our efforts to observe and positively influence our world—will often require us to be patient and slow down. “There are no shortcuts,” as one of my law professors used to say. Student writers must understand they are not alone in their feelings that it’s taking forever to write their research paper on the projected impact of Artificial Intelligence on the labor market. But a paper approached thoughtfully and diligently over weeks stands a far better chance of success than the one thrown together in a midnight fever dream. Moreover, embracing the patience necessary to write will prove invaluable in students’ future lives and careers; almost none of our personal and professional successes materialize instantly, but rather require weeks, months, years—and in some cases decades—of dedicated effort to achieve realization.
To make excellent use of one’s writing time, one must rid oneself of as many distractions as possible and be mindful of one’s particular vices (phone, social media, blackholes on the internet, texting, etc.). Students can create productive writing habits by slowly increasing their work time between distractions. Instructors can help them set achievable goals. I once had a student who checked her phone obsessively during class. She constantly pulled the phone out, and I constantly told her to put it away. In conference, I asked if there was any reason she needed to monitor her phone so often (children, a sick parent, etc.). She said no, and that her “phone problem” often kept her from completing her classwork. I asked her to meet me in the library the following day. At a table, and at my instruction, we both placed our phones in our backpacks, and I set a timer for thirty minutes. “We’re going to work for half an hour with no phones,” I said, “then we can take a three-minute phone break.” She was skeptical, but she did it. After the phone break, we repeated the cycle. After an hour of focused writing time, she had composed a solid introduction for an essay in another class. I challenged her to repeat this cycle in her own study time and slowly try to increase the work time before phone breaks (from thirty minutes to forty to fifty and so on). Not only did she become more focused in class, her assignments started coming in on time, and they possessed more fluidity of thought and technical proficiency.
Several weeks later, I repeated this experiment with a small group of students who were struggling to complete their assignments. An hour and two phone/internet breaks later, they were getting words on the page. Since studies suggest being around people who are working hard can motivate one to work harder (Desender, Beurms and Van den Bussche 630), I then left the group alone to complete another one-hour cycle and hold one another accountable. The group reported to me they’d been more productive in that two-hour period than they had their first month in college. Three (out of four) of the students continued studying together regularly throughout the semester. And while their writing was by no means A-quality, it did slowly improve, largely because they’d developed a process that consistently allowed them to practice.
Obviously, these examples do not represent an instant, one-size-fits-all fix to larger attention, concentration, and/or disability challenges many students face. They do, however, represent one behavioral therapy tactic instructors can employ—in class or out—to: (i) help make students aware of their writing habits; (ii) encourage behavioral changes to improve such habits; and (iii) demonstrate that short bursts of concentrated work can be exceptionally productive and help prevent procrastination and last-minute word purges.
By creating realistic goals that enable one to focus, and by modeling positive writing habits (i.e. working alongside students throughout these cycles), we as instructors can help create productive habits that will enable students to maximize the skills we’re teaching them in class. Thus, beyond “scheduling” vague writing time that’s doomed to become an internet time trap, students will develop their writing process by learning how to focus once they’re in the chair. This consistency will soon become part of their days–perhaps even a mental refuge from the frenzy of modern life, where they relish the interplay between their thoughts and their words.
Teaching Process, A Page a Day
Many, if not most, writing instructors utilize a concept in their curricula known as scaffolding. In a writing context, this approach breaks larger assignments into smaller skill building assignments that slowly help build the larger assignment. Scaffolding develops students’ process by working incrementally and methodically on the discrete elements of an assignment. It can also be exceptionally useful to students who are easily overwhelmed by big assignments.
Similarly, Anne Lamott’s essay “Shitty First Drafts,” has become somewhat of a classic on first-year English composition syllabi. In an effort to break writers of the anxieties that can inhibit their first drafts, Lamott’s idea is to allow oneself the freedom to write without judgement so that the real writing—revision—can begin (95). Both scaffolding and tempering one’s inner editor, who often suggests that writing cannot be completed or shared until it is perfect, are vital for student writers to grow and improve as writers.
And, there are other practical methods, such as the Page-A-Day Method. The Page-A-Day (or PAD) Method challenges students to write one, double-spaced page of prose at least five days a week for the entire semester. It takes scaffolding to another level because even scaffolded writing assignments may require two or more written pages, which many students will struggle to compose in one sitting; the PAD Method, then, breaks the cognitive task into even smaller units and emphasizes consistency (writing a little every day) over duration (dedicating hours to one class or assignment on any particular day). This consistency becomes a key tool in the student’s writing process, as it not only develops a routine that encourages strong time management skills, it helps dismantle resistance, procrastination, and fear by virtue of constant exposures. Human beings are less scared of—and more confident in—the things they do every day.
In addition to establishing a realistic daily goal that students can consistently achieve, the second major advantage of PAD is that it jumpstarts the conscious writing process so the unconscious writing process can begin earlier. Most writers are familiar with the phenomenon that their ideas beget more ideas, and once they start working on an essay, research paper, or story, the work takes on a life of its own in their minds. The result is that they’re writing even when they’re not writing, and much of that unconscious think-work becomes invaluable in achieving one’s best work.
Student writers experience this phenomenon, too, but only when they begin an assignment early enough to benefit from this unconscious think-work. By writing one page a day, they empower themselves to keep thinking about their writing even when they’re not writing. By increasing the duration of time over which they compose their essays, their ideas stand a better chance of crystalizing, and they will more consistently practice and engage with the concepts we’re teaching them in class.
Of course, the PAD Method requires instructors to space out assignment due dates sufficiently to make such incremental work practical. Throughout the pandemic, as students struggled to remain engaged and motivated in online classes, I found giving students more time to slowly compose their essays greatly benefitted those willing to adopt the PAD Method. What’s more, students realize the value of short work bursts and become less inclined to believe they can produce high quality work in writing marathons. (They can’t.) Utilizing PAD can also help minimize the anxiety that comes with working on multiple essays for multiple classes at the same time. In such cases, the student may wish to compose a page a day for each assignment, so that each essay is developing consistently, and the ideas for each are flowing.
Students who struggle to write one full-page a day should be encouraged to write as much as they can, and no less than half a page, and slowly work their way up to one full-page. But an essential requirement of the PAD Method is that students should commit to writing one page even on days when they have no outstanding writing assignments. Such a commitment reinforces consistency and allows them to be creative and practical in deciding how they use their writing time. Perhaps they’ll write a one-page email to a friend or a family member describing their college experience thus far. Or maybe they’ll write a one-page response to an article they read (because now they’re reading every day, right?). Or a personal journal entry to reflect upon aspects of their rapidly changing lives. Or a draft cover letter for a summer internship for which they’re planning to apply. Whatever they choose, writing, like reading, will become a natural part of their days and thinking process. By consistently composing mindful prose, students will increase their flow of ideas and generate stronger work, decrease their fear and resistance toward writing and revision, and absorb more of the concepts their writing courses aim to teach them.
It is, however, important to note the PAD Method is not meant to be monitored by the instructor. While students will likely use PAD to craft their course assignments, and these efforts will be reviewed by peers and instructors, they will, as discussed above, inevitably also use it to write on their own. Thus, not all of the students’ work will be submitted to or reviewed by instructors. And therein lies part of the point: encouraging students to curate their own reading and writing lives, to incorporate these skills into their daily routines, and to experience reading and writing as a sustained and investigatory lifelong process.
To encourage use of the PAD Method, I explain the method and guidelines on the first day of class and challenge students to use their first course assignment (a one-page response essay) as a way of getting started. Then I point out that they will have two more days before we meet again to utilize PAD in whatever ways they choose. During the next class, I ask what they wrote beyond the course assignment, invite some to share part or all of their work, and ask how or when they found time to write. By spending a few minutes of class engaging with students on their process, we frame the entire course as one equally dedicated to this component of their writing lives. At least once a week for the remaining semester I ask how students are using PAD, and during times when they have less work due for our composition class, they share bits of essays they’re working on for other classes, journal entries they’ve written, creative writing assignments, and the like. Will all students utilize PAD five days a week? No. But hearing from those classmates who do utilize it consistently may encourage others to try it, and even writing three or four days a week will help them improve.
Too often we as instructors focus on the things our students can’t do instead of focusing on the things they can. The accumulating frustration that comes from such a focus sometimes prevents us from looking beyond the classroom for strategies that will help students in the classroom. The habitual reading, distraction management, and page-a-day strategies I’ve proposed here are effective because they’re simple and because they build on basic behavioral patterns all students are capable of developing, even if in their own ways. In essence, I’m proposing that students read more, write more, and distract themselves less. But by breaking these larger goals into simple daily goals (limit distractions for an hour, read ten pages, write one page) students begin to realize their own capabilities. After more than a year of Zoom fatigue and settling into less-than-ideal study habits, I suspect many students will embrace the opportunity to return to in-person classes this fall and push themselves in exciting new ways. Instructors, then, possess an exciting window in which to harness students’ enthusiasm and inspire them to develop their writing process, one page at a time.
Desender, Kobe et al. “Is Mental Effort Exertion Contagious?” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, vol. 23, no. 2, 2016, pp. 624-31, doi:10.3758/s13423-015-0923-3. Accessed 10 June 2021.
Goldman, Dana. “Why Kids Can’t Write.” The New York Times, 2 August 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/education/edlife/writing-education-grammar-students-children.html. Accessed 15 May 2021.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, 2000.
Lamott, Anne. “Shitty First Drafts.” Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers. Ed. by Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005: 93-96.
Stanborough, Rebecca Joy. “Benefits of Reading Books: How It Can Positively Affect Your Life.” Healthline, 15 October 2019, https://www.healthline.com/health/benefits-of-reading-books. Accessed 31 May 2021.
John Mitchell Morris is the Chair of College Writing at Purchase College.