Friday, November 30, 2012

JustWriting: A Technique for Increased Student Creativity and Decreased Student Anxiety

During the second five weeks of fall quarter, the School for New Learning hosted its 1st Annual Month of Writing Challenge. The idea grew out of a conversation among SNL’s writing program: Michelle Navarre Cleary, Kathryn Wozniak, Kaitlin Fitzsimons, and I developed the idea during a yearly wrap-up meeting, and as a creative writer pursuing my MFA, I offered to lead the charge. We based much of what we did on the annual National Novel Writing Month held each November (see As part of the month, I taught a class called “WriteNow” that focused on a technique that I called “JustWriting.” During at least two hours of each three hour and fifteen minute class period, students just wrote. The atmosphere in this computer room had an energy that pulsed and flexed with the clicking of fingers on keys. When I would stop to look around the room, I saw mothers, grandmothers, women, men, students, and professionals all becoming writers. Their focus was incredible. Periodically I would invite them to get up and stretch, and many found it a challenge to tear themselves away from their work. On their weekly logs, many indicated that this was their most productive writing time of the week. And in these five short weeks and five short classes, by writing together and occasionally sharing experiences and products, these students grew together, grew closer to their goal of 25,000 words each, and moved from novice to experienced writers.
            Why does JustWriting work? Many argue that it doesn’t, and in the beginning of the quarter some of these voices were those of my students. However, in their longitudinal study of student writers at Harvard, Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz argue that faculty often ask students to “experiment” in the writing that they assign, and I claim one way to become comfortable with experimenting is JustWriting. Sommers and Saltz argue that instructors that often expect college writers to come in as “master builders while they are still apprentices” (132).
            How does the apprentice become the master builder? Experience: “Students who see writing as something more than an assignment, who write about something that matters to them, are best able to sustain an interest in academic writing throughout their undergraduate careers” (Sommers and Saltz 127). They also found that writing experiences in college mean more to weaker (or novice) writers than they do to experienced writers: “Weaker writers often speak with even greater passion about the role of writing in helping them make the transition to college, in giving them the confidence ‘to speak back to the world’” (129).
In another analysis of the revision strategies of novice and expert writers, Sommers found that novice writers think that their first draft is also their final draft. They consider revising as “rewording,” or replacing one word for another, sometimes out of a thesaurus. Experienced writers, by contrast, see a first draft as a “scattered attempt to define their territory” and work on this draft until they have figured out what they want to say. (384). I have worked with many students in courses where they are assigned one, two, three or five page papers, and inevitably a student says that he does not know what he wants to say. Another student, meanwhile, pens an excellent thesis statement in the conclusion of the paper. Though they did not know it, they were using writing to figure out what they wanted to say. By contrast, in WriteNow students were asked to write a minimum of 25,000 words, but were not asked to “say” anything. At the end of our five weeks, almost every student said that he or she ended up somewhere different from where he or she began. In this way, the course forced them to experience some of the techniques used by experienced writers. Because they did not have to create a final draft, students were free to stay in the exploratory, “experimental” stage of writing until they figured out what they wanted to say. Now that they have overcome this hurdle, this fear of writing, the hope is that they might spend more time in a first or rough draft, and see revision as an opportunity to reveal the structure and subarguments of their essays for all of their classes.
One of the reasons that this early drafting process does not happen for novice writers is because writing anxiety is especially prevalent among adult students. This is echoed by many of the students in my class, who said that they chose to accept this challenge because they wanted to become more comfortable with writing. And in fact, Martinez, Kock, and Cass found that higher levels of leisure writing were associated with higher levels of writing self-efficacy, and also that higher levels of writing anxiety were associated with lower levels of writing self-efficacy: “Although quantity of writing does not predict quality of writing, students who engage in more free writing or leisure writing are able to express themselves creatively through writing without feeling constrained by the rules of grammar or structure of formal writing assignments” (357).  In their final presentations, students demonstrated the creativity that this process had afforded to them. Many had plans for what they would now do with the writing they had produced in the course. Some would produce one or multiple ILPs; others would continue a novel or a memoir; still others would finish the work they had begun on their Advanced Project. All had taken a step toward becoming experienced writers.
            So, as teachers of writing across the SNL curriculum, what does this mean for us? It means that students will further explore issues of a given topic in writing when given the time and a word count benchmark rather than a rubric and a grading scale. It means that encouraging students to journal and freewrite well before a final paper is due will result in more refined and structured final papers. Finally, it means making room for experimentation through writing in courses where students are dealing with new material and new terminology which might make them anxious. Giving our students, and ourselves, time to JustWrite will lead to increased levels of creativity, novice writers more likely to write with the authority that we ask of them, and decreased levels of anxiety among our adult students.

Works Cited

Martinez, Christy Teranishi, Ned Kock, and Jeffrey Cass. “Pain and Pleasure in Short
Essay Writing: Factors Predicting University Students’ Writing Anxiety and Writing Self-Efficacy.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 54.5 (Feb. 2011): 351-360. Print.

Sommers, Nancy. “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult
Writers.” College Composition and Communication 31.4 (Dec. 1980): 378-388. Print.

Sommers, Nancy, and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman
Year.” College Composition and Communication 56.1 (Sep. 2004): 124-149. Print.

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