When I was in college and in my MFA program, I wrote poems in these hard-back blue notebooks with green ruled pages. Often I would write a draft on one page, scribble through lines, write new lines, mark out words, write in new words. On the opposing page I would rewrite the poem again, scribble through some more stuff before I’d type it into the computer. In those days, typing was a big deal, so I always waited until the poem was done before trudging over to a computer lab to type it up. Cutting and pasting were hard then, requiring knowing some special functions.

Now that I’m writing prose, I’m starting on the computer instead of notebooks. But my revision process has been a handwritten affair. There’s something about putting giant x’s through section and scribbling in the margins that is more satisfying that highlighting sentences on the screen and pressing delete.

I recently read that one shouldn’t start revising a piece until one has a complete draft. That’s quite easy to do when your piece is a poem that’s only a page long. When you’re aiming for 200 pages, it’s easy to get impatient. So I violated that advice by starting to revise the first section of my piece while writing the second. But now, I’m realizing that that’s a bad idea. I need to see the whole arc of the story before I figure out if I have the pieces in the right order or if new pieces need to go in. I’m feeling like I’ll sit at Starbucks for hours one day with the whole thing printed out, a notebook by my side, and I’ll scribble and write until I’m done, as much like my revision process for poetry as possible. I might even rewrite by hand.

I used to tell students to remember what revision means, to see the work again, to see it anew, to have a new vision for it. There’s something about having a clean page to see your work anew, not like the electronic draft that sits before you on the screen and feels so final, where deleting words means they’re gone and not visible under a line or a squiggle, where you can’t feel the page or the heft of your work. If I wait until the end to revise, going back to the beginning will feel like coming at it for the first time, like a stranger, and will be more like a real re-visioning.

Writing habits

This IHE article on writing was a much-needed inspiration today. Single discusses two myths of writing. One, that one can only write in large blocks of time and two, that you need to be motivated to write. I’ve know for years that these are myths and I’ve worked accordingly, writing whenever I could, as I did when writing my dissertation, and writing whether I’ve felt like it or not, which I’ve had to do most of my life. But these are myths that are sometimes hard to dispel when you feel stuck and/or truly unmotivated.

When I look back on my dissertation writing, there are a few things that distinguish it from the current writing I’m doing. One, I didn’t have as much time then. I had a full time job and if I put off writing one day, a long time passed before I’d get back to it. So I set up a routine where I got up at 6 and wrote for an hour before having to get the kids up for school. I also wrote almost every day after dinner. The after-dinner writing was contingent on how my day when. If I was physically and mentally exhausted, then I didn’t write, but I felt okay about it because I’d written in the morning. I spent weekends researching and/or revising, often for large chunks of time. The second big difference was that I had a more focused end goal with people motivating me to reach that goal. My adviser wasn’t emailing me every day or anything, but I’d set a deadline for a section for myself, and even though he may not have noticed if it passed, I could *not* let the deadline pass. I gave myself a couple of extensions, but knowing that someone might be disappointed with me was a huge motivator to get work done on time. It was also nice to know that once I finished my dissertation, there was a pretty big reward waiting for me.

Now I’m faced with vast stretches of time compared to what I had before. I could indeed write for four to six hours a day. (Though I have to absolutely wait until the distractions, aka the kids and the husband, have left for the day. In the last 10 minutes, I’ve had to field at least three questions). So what’s stopping me? Well, there is other stuff to do, for one thing. Housework beckons. I have to shower at some point. I have to go to the grocery store. I have conference calls and presentations to prepare. I let that stuff hover over me. As I’m writing, I’m also often thinking about whether I’ll have enough time to get the laundry done or the shopping done. I’m in just the opposite situation I was in with my dissertation. No one will be disappointed if I don’t write except me, but there are three people (maybe four) who will be disappointed if the house is a mess and there’s no clean underwear. So I focus on that because it’s harder to worry about disappointing myself or about the reward for the writing, which is a long shot at best. Also, there’s some sort of social norm I feel like I’m violating by not showering before noon. I truly am the pajama-clad blogger!

Single suggests writing for no more than four hours/day. She says in fact, to find the amount of time that works for you. For the last couple of months, I have written almost every day for at least an hour and most of the time for at least two hours. I have tried not to beat myself up if I miss a day or to worry too much if I stop after an hour. I was about to write that unlike Single’s audience, my career is not on the line if I don’t write, but that’s exactly where I am, by my own choice, and that’s exactly why I feel anxious. I feel like two hours is nothing, especially when I theoretically have all the time in the world. But maybe two hours is what works for me, and I need to start being okay with that.

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Nearly end of the week update

It’s been an interesting week around here. It started with a potential tv show appearance, which those of you who follow me on Twitter likely saw me tweet about. No offense to said tv show, but it wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted to do. NPR, 60 Minutes, Bill Moyers, any of those would be good, but a hugely popular but somewhat fluffy show? No thanks.

Despite the drama, I’ve been plugging away at the writing and I will likely finish the first section of my project today. It’s coming in around 70 pages, which is more than I thought it would. Heck it might be 80 by the time I’m done. According to my outline, there are two more sections to write. I’m planning to hand the first section off to Mr. Geeky to read. He’s a pretty harsh critic, so that makes me nervous. But it’ll be good for me, too. My plan is to begin new writing and tackle that in the mornings, and then work on revision in the afternoons. My goal is to finish the whole project by Christmas.

I’m also working on a presentation that I’m giving next month at SLSA. I think it’s going to be a fun presentation as my co-presenter, Anne Dalke, and I are using the techniques I’ve been using with my other colleagues, Leslie Madsen-Brooks, Barbara Sawhill, Martha Burtis, and Barbara Ganley. We make the audience do some of the work.

Last night, I attended the second PTO meeting of the year and I must say, it was much better. One thing I like this year is that the new president insists on introductions at the beginning of the meeting, even though many of the same people are there. It’s a great way to help people get to know each other. This year is a real struggle for the PTO with lots of restrictions being placed on communicating with the families. Membership is down as are our fund raising numbers. The PTO money essentially doubles the amount of money available to the school. Even if much of the money goes to what amount to extras, they are extras that the students wouldn’t have, and not all of it is extras. We do buy books and supplies for the classrooms, for example. So, I think it’s going to be an interesting adventure.

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Writing for Nothing, Writing for Next to Nothing

One of the areas I’m exploring for bringing in income is freelance writing. I was a creative writing major in college, went to an MFA program, and of course, ended up with a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition. It makes sense that I might want to put those skills to use in other ways. I have a couple of things I’m working on that may pan out, but for more regular income, I’ve been perusing sites for freelancers. Another benefit to these sites is that there are also some more technically oriented jobs that I qualify for. I’ve yet to be successful in winning a proposal, but I’m pretty picky about what I submit. You see, I’ve discovered where most of the crap on the Internet comes from–not freelancers themselves, many of whom are talented writers doing a variety of writing work–but from the not-so-great writers willing to do anything for a buck. And literally, they’re making a buck. Many of the jobs posted want you to write articles for $1-2 apiece. Now, granted, these aren’t long articles (around 500 words), but still what kind of writing can you expect? Many of these articles are churned out by software and cleaned up slightly by actual people, so someone can churn out 20 articles a day or more (the actual requirement for some of these jobs). They are often SEO optimized, meant to drive Google searches to their sites so they can either make money of the ads or sell an actual product. Yay, capitalism. I think the places I’m looking are the lowest common denominator places, where the people posting jobs don’t have much money and the people accepting jobs don’t have or need much. I know there are better places out there, but I haven’t had the time to explore them much.

The funny thing is, of course, I write this blog for nothing. Although I have a few ads on the side and an Amazon Associates account, I’ve made less than $50 over the last 5 years of writing this blog. One of my former colleagues suggested I try to make money here and I laughed. The things I’d have to to do make that happen are just not in me. I’ve been contacted by advertisers, more lately than in previous years and most of them are companies I’d be willing to advertise for, but I’ve turned all of them down so far. I’m committed to writing here every day, mostly out of a connection I feel to my audience and out of a desire to continue practicing my writing even if I’m not getting paid. I’m a shameful idealist, hoping in the back of my mind to be “discovered” and refusing to “sell out.” I may not write articles for $1 apiece, but if writing is the path I go down, I’m certainly going to have to let go of some of my purist tendancies.

Process vs. Product

In the composition field, process has been the buzzword for well over 20 years. The idea behind the buzzword is that for good writing to happen, teachers can’t focus on the commas and spelling. Some attention needs to be paid to how that writing gets onto the paper in the first place. Only then will students be able to produce good products. The idea of focusing on the process of something is somewhat inherent to all of education and is, in fact, what the anti-test educators among us are focused on. This next week, I’m putting the concept of “process first” to work in a completely different setting.

Every summer, I coordinate the Summer Multimedia Development Institute, a program designed to both teach students multimedia skills and to produce products. Many of the products the students have produced over the years have been very good. They’ve received rave reviews from alums and have even been cited in MLA presentations. What this has meant, unfortunately, is that the expectations for excellent products has increased and the idea that this is a learning opportunity has nearly fallen by the wayside. And sometimes, honestly, the products aren’t so good, which makes both the students and the people for whom the products are being produced feel bad. I look at it as a learning experience, but because there has been this focus on product, the other people involved are just disappointed.

This summer, I’ve completely reconfigured the program to focus on “educational” products and on the process of learning to create those products. This means that we’re not creating products for the alumni office or the admissions department (both of whom I’ve argued should hire professional multimedia developers). It also means I’ve built in lots of ways for the students and the faculty working with them to become conscious of the process. We have a blog and the students will all be creating their own blogs and will be asked to write and reflect there on what they’re learning. I’m encouraging them to reflect on their technical skills, on working with faculty, and on the challenges of working with technology in an educational settings among other things.

Focusing on process is actually harder. Creating the necessary framework, communicating to everyone involved that it’s not about the product, and doing a lot of reflecting and listening is harder than just giving feedback on a finished product. We’ll be doing some of that, too, but we’ll be doing it within this process-based framework. While it may be harder, I think it will actually be less stressful. Where before students might have felt obligated to produce professional quality work, they can now focus on doing their best and working with their faculty as partners rather than in a kind of client-customer relationship. Honestly, they might produce better work anyway. At the very least, I want them to have thought a lot about what they did and to have learned from it in a way that they can apply that knowledge in the future. Actually, I want everyone involved to learn something–including me–and that’s why I like doing things this way even if it is harder.

Gaming and writing

Even though I’ve only been playing WoW for a few months, I’ve been engaged in many other games since the advent of Pong (so for a long time). Once I jumped into the field of writing, I’ve long thought of games as text (in the same way that films and tv shows are text). But Liz Losh points out something I knew, but didn’t quite register until now–that no one in the writing field has really addressed gaming and writing as connected or written about games in the same way that films or tv has been written about. Douglas Eyman, someone I’ve long kept an eye on even from my position somewhat outside of the rhet/comp field, is starting a group for researchers interested gaming’s connections to rhetoric and composition called “Digital Games/Digital Rhetoric: A Consortium of Scholars in Games and Writing Studies.” That’s a research group I feel like I’d be welcomed into.

Learning to Write in the Digital Age

I’ve just returned from NITLE’s Learning to Write in the Digital Age conference, a conference I helped put together along with a lot of other wonderful people. We did so virtually, via NITLE’s video conferencing software and we also relied on the generosity of attendees to talk about their work. Though some were worried about whether everything was going to come together, it did, and it all turn out fabulously.

Barbara Ganley was our esteemed keynote speaker (link to presentation), who, as always, set the tone for the conference by challenging people’s ideas about teaching and writing. In fact, someone asked afterwards if the multimedia work her students were doing could be writing. She essentially said, it just is. I was thinking about this throughout the conference. If multimedia composition isn’t writing, then some other department is going to crop up to teach this kind of work. Because this kind of work is being done within businesses, ad agencies, on the web, for museums and even educational institutions. If the writing department doesn’t lay claim to it and bring to bear all it knows about rhetoric and the composing process, then the writing department may cease to exist.

Many people began questions and comments with the caveat that they were “skeptics,” which I found quite telling, not about the people asking the questions, but about the defensiveness many faculty who are exploring the use of Web 2.0 technologies instinctively take on out of fear of looking “unprofessional” or “not serious enough.” Several faculty said they were the only ones in their departments doing anything like using a blog in their classes. They had no one to turn to to share successes and failure or to bounce ideas off of. I encouraged some of them to seek out the “me’s” in their schools. Sadly, some said that wouldn’t work because their me’s were just not like me, either because they didn’t have an academic background or because they were too much a part of the IT department (often both).

Speaking of me’s, there were quite a few people there who served in a similar capacity to my role. They were both teachers and technologists, a trend I think we will and should see continue. As some faculty told me, they’ve spent years working on one area of expertise (writing or literature or a combination) and now they had to add the technology expertise and it was proving difficult and time-consuming. I suggested several times that institutions needed to step up to the plate and offer more support for faculty working with technology in their courses. They need more support financially and with a course-release or summer stipend to work on trying out new things. As someone said, they need to feel free to play with some of these tools so they can decide which ones work best. If we see more people like me in the instructional technology department or, gasp, housed within a writing department, that might give faculty more support for this work. It would give them access to a technology expert and also a kindred spirit to talk through things as they’re being developed and implemented.

All in all, a wonderful conference. I have a little more to say, which I’ll save for later. For now, I will point you to the huge number of resources we (mostly Jen and Rebecca) tagged for the conference.

Technology and Nostalgia

Today, in a conversation with a group of people planning a conference on writing in the digital age, we slipped into a conversation about classic rock. It was a tangent from the idea of “old” writing methods. I suggested “classic” and we were off. But then it turned into a more serious consideration of the ways in which nostalgia about old technology affects how we might approach teaching with new technologies.

We reflected for a few moments on typing but then moved on to other topics. But I got to thinking about how people tend to get attached to doing things a certain way. My grandmother used to tell a story about a great uncle of hers, who fought in the Civil War. He lamented the loss of the fire as a source of heat. He said he just couldn’t feel warm without a crackling fire in the fireplace. The new-fangled steam radiators just didn’t cut it. And it didn’t really matter whether radiators generated more heat or not. He perceived that they didn’t.

It’s an interesting parallel since from 1865 to the early 20th century, there was a huge amount of industrial and technological innovation. In that man’s lifetime, the world went from horses to cars, from wood fires to steam heat, from candles to electric lighting. And those changes involved huge social changes as a result. Likewise, in my lifetime, we’ve gone from 3 channels to nearly infinite, typewriters to cloud computing, telephones to Skype. If my grandparents stories began, “Back in my day, I had to walk to school uphill both ways . . .” my stories begin, “Back in my day, I used correction tape to erase, one letter at a time . . .” In both cases, the implication is that the modern era is easier and the stuff we had to do “back in our day” built character and made us better people (cf. Calvin and Hobbes).

We build romantic notions around the tools we used to use, the methods we used that developed around those tools and we have a hard time letting go. We think that the new ways replace those old ways, but that’s not necessarily true. They can build on the old ways or make the old ways more efficient. But it does mean we need to look critically at those ways of doing things and not hold onto them out of nostalgia.

Writing in Public

As it happens, my institution has published a news story with quotes from many of the faculty about how they feel about students publishing their college work online. I have to say I have mixed feelings about what many of them say. I have to respectfully disagree with what the final respondent says: “All you have to do is look at 99 percent of the stuff posted online to realize that writing for a wider audience doesn’t always encourage more polished material.” That may be true, especially for young adults and teenagers, but I have to think it’s due in part to educators not teaching students what it means to write for a wider audience. My experience with my class tells me that most students don’t “get” that they’re writing for an audience, much less what that means. Once they do understand it, I find they start polishing their arguments and their writing. Most people writing online–in a blog, for example–consider it more like talking to friends than writing. Those that do take the audience seriously, I think, write fairly well.

I am also quoted in the article. If I’d known what some of the others had said before I handed in my quote, I might have said something different–just to stir things up.

Writing in public

We bloggers like to think of ourselves as “public writers,” as doing our writing and our thinking out loud as it were. However, a lot of us do other kinds of writing that we may or may not want to be public. I posted my dissertation notes and drafts online because I was writing about the benefits of students writing in public, so I felt it was important that I write in public. Despite my years of blogging before that, I still felt a little uneasy about posting my early material online. I was nervous for the reason that my faculty colleagues say they’re nervous about posting online–getting scooped–but because there’s a certain vulnerability I feel when I’m putting an idea I really, really care about out there. When that idea is still in its infancy, when the words I’m using to express it are still a jumbled mess, I feel even more vulnerable, especially because I know that at some point the idea will grow up and I’ll find the words to describe it appropriately. Why put it out there before then? Well, a few reasons. One, I found it a valuable experience to hear what other people thought about my ideas as they developed. Two, I think it kept me honest in a way. I consciously thought about an audience at a stage where I might not, and for me, that was helpful. And three, it demystifies the writing process to some extent. And that brings me to what inspired this post, a post from Kathleen on a writing in public project from the Institute for the Future of the the Book.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is writing The Googlization of Everything in public. There have been similar projects on both an article and book scale and I think it’s worth paying a lot of attention to, especially those of us who teach writing. These may indeed do a lot to demystify writing for our students. It’s just interesting to see, too, people interacting with the ideas in a book. You don’t get to see that very often. I’m also interested in Google, so I’m looking forward to contributing something or just watching.