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Process Analysis

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Maybe the first thing I ought to do is to make a distinction.  There are different kinds of writing well. 

Writing really well is of course a talent, and people either have it or they don’t.  You can train your voice forever and never reach the quality necessary to sing at the Met, even if you’re not tone deaf.

But as long as you’re not tone deaf, I can teach you most of the basics of carrying a tune and singing in harmony with other people. Those are skills that, barring a basic disability (like tone deafness), are available to everyone.

What composition courses these days concentrate on is what’s called “writing as a process,” and it’s not a totally stupid idea, as far as it goes.

It sets out the steps of the process–brainstorming, researching, outlining, drafts–and then insists that students follow those steps with each and every paper.

It provides “sample essays” of each kind–compare and contrast, classification and division, exemplification, process analysis, description, narration, maybe more–and then has students write one of each kind using the process.

And, like I said, it isn’t a totally stupid idea.  A sstudent who can learn to follow this process will learn to produce an acceptable essay in terms of its overall organization, and will probably have cleaned up most of his grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes.

By now, a number of you are probably sitting there wondering why I seem to be having trouble with this method.  And in some ways, I don’t have trouble with it.  I really can get standard five paragraph essays out of most of my students by the end of the term. 


What should probably be the least of my objections is this:  no professional writer I have ever heard of writes like this.   If you’re trying to produce something that zings and sizzles, this is a truly terrible way to write.

And I know myself well enough to know that if I had been required to write like this in school, I might never have written a word once I got out of it.

The process is laborious, boring, and stultifying.  Some of the terminology is precious and embarrassing (“brainstorming,” for instance, seems to mean “thinking really hard and concentrating”).   Some of the steps are not only unnecessary but can actually work against the production of really good and organically conceived pieces.

I’ve never outlined a single thing in my life–and I’m not the only writer of fiction who feels that writing outlines leaves you, at the end, with no great desire to write the book, because you’ve already written it.  Never mind sticking you in a straight jacket that you’ll find difficult to get out of when it turns out that some of your outline ideas don’t work.

But those particular criticisms, above, are the criticisms of someone who writes for a living, and someone who started writing at six.  I write when I’ve got deadlines.  I write when I don’t have deadlines.  I write because I write.  It’s as natural to me as breathing.

But most of our students do not write like this.  They don’t write at all.  So a process is a good idea, because with a process we can replace what I do naturally with something that will at least produce, at the end, something that is nominally coherent.


The process remains boring and stultifying, and it remains artificial.  It corresponds to nothing going on in the heads of the students working on the projects, whether they have an ear, have no ear, or are just sort of in the middle. 

It does not, and cannot, provide any kind of context for the writing, either, and context is at least as important as mechanics in what is going wrong here.

But the sheer monumental boredom of it, the incredible struggles it inevitably results in when the student is asked to write something for which the general contents have not been already provided, mean that most students leave composition so repulsed by “the process” that they avoid writing as much as they can as long as they can–

Almost always resulting in their doing any actual writing beyond deadline available, leading to writing things not only not according to the process but according to any process–

Leading to the messes they continually produce at work and at school in the aftermath of composition.

I think that what I’m trying to get at here is that the “process” doesn’t so much teach students to write as it provides a kind of intellectual machine to produce writing. 

And it does produce writing.  It just produces bad writing.

Written by janeh

August 11th, 2010 at 9:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Process Analysis'

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  1. Hm. That wasn’t what we were taught in the ninth grade. All we got was the structure of a good essay – use the first paragraph to introduce your topic, use the paragraphs in the middle to discuss it in detail, and the final paragraph to wrap it up and maybe summarize.

    It does assume that you HAVE a topic in the first place, which is why we didn’t need to brainstorm.


    11 Aug 10 at 10:04 am

  2. I think I’m temperamentally unsuited to be a good creative writer, because I do a LOT better with a framework or outline! Without something like that, I just stare at the page blankly.

    I didn’t learn that particular process for writing – I think it came along after my time – but it sounds sensible to me. I think my teachers either gave us all a title and nothing more (‘What I Did on my Summer Vacation’; ‘The Adventures of a Penny’) or instructions to do much as Mary describes, although we had a bit of an extra emphasis on outlining. I liked knowing where I was supposed to – or planning to – go, and without it, my writing tends to wander all over the place, leaving out important points or interesting ideas I meant to put in. If I got what I thought was a bright idea and wanted to use it effectively, of course I’d change my outline, so I wasn’t taught to be terribly rigid about its use.

    I don’t know that you can teach ‘creative writing’, although certainly a lot of people try. I think ‘brainstorming’ was intended to free up creativity by encouraging you to write down all your ideas on the topic, no matter how silly you thought some of them were initially. Perhaps it doesn’t work terribly well if you don’t have a creative mind to begin with.

    But I do think that the basics of clear, correct written communication are beyond the reach of very few people who have the basic skills and the will to practice them and accept feedback and correction. Maybe that kind of writing isn’t exciting or creative or ‘good’ in those senses, but it’s certainly useful.


    11 Aug 10 at 10:16 am

  3. I’m not a creative writer, but my job for many years was as a military staff officer during which time I wrote hundreds of thousands of words for or on behalf of senior officers right up to four-star general level and beyond. Like Jane, I never seriously outlined anything in my life, although at the behest of various people at different times I attempted to do so with less than impressive results.

    My method can be summed up simply by the old idea that every “story” has a beginning, a middle and an end or, depending on the topic, simply the teaching method of telling your audience what you are going to tell them, telling them, and then telling them what you have just told them. All the “process” nonsense seems to me to be just a waste of good thinking and writing time.


    11 Aug 10 at 11:08 am

  4. Sure, Mique, but it seems so to you because you do it instinctively. Since that class in the ninth grade, I’ve never given the structure of a paper much thought either, and I never write outlines.

    I’ve been giving my teacher credit all these years for teaching me how to put together a coherent paper, but for all I know, maybe I would be doing the same thing anyway. But what the heck. I’ll probably continue to give Mr. Troje credit.


    11 Aug 10 at 2:08 pm

  5. “Brainstorming,” in the context I first learned it, meant to actually *not* think hard or concentrate, but to allow the mind to roam freely, to write down any and all ideas, whether they are profound, stupid, impractical, impossible or embarrassing, and then after that, go back and discuss them, edit them, and perhaps find that one or two (or none) of them are worthy of further development.

    This was in the advertising business, and was normally done in groups. Real creativity required some mutual trust and respect among the group members, as the wilder the idea, the more reluctant one was to reveal it in front of people one has to look at every day, and perhaps report to or who report to you.

    In other businesses I’ve been associated with, it works the same way. As applied to creative writing, I would expect that for someone who can do that kind of “turn off the brain, let the imagination go” method, it’s a path to some really radical plot twists. “What if Billy takes a ride on a spaceship, but he’s dreaming?”

    If the person who is doing it has absolutely no imagination or intellectual grounding, it’s unlikely they can either generate wild ideas, or recognize the germ of a decent plot element in one.

    So, Jane, when you muse on the path your story is going to take, it may be that you’ve been brainstorming all along, and didn’t know it.


    11 Aug 10 at 2:47 pm

  6. I’ve read professional writers who can’t stand outlines–and others who swear by them. But composition class to the contrary not all writing requires the same technique. It’s one thing when you’re “telling a story” in the usual fiction sense, and another when you’re trying to organize a mass of non-fiction material.

    I have on my shelves five volumes of F. L. Petre–histories of individual Napoleonic campaigns, written for the centenials. They’re being reprinted for the BI-centenials because they’re absolute models of organization. I also have every piece of the science fiction of Leigh Brackett I can lay my hands on, and Brackett, famously, never used an outline or synopsis. She had a character or so and an idea and ran with them–and knew exactly when to stop, which is a rare gift.

    Like Mique, I don’t use an outline, and haven’t for decades, but I may have internalized some of the process. College technique was to marinate in the research material, know EXACTLY what to say and how to say it, then do it in one draft–like some Japanese calligraphy artist, staring at his canvas for days and painting in seconds. It’s more fun in these word-processing days, when you can switch paragraphs around and revise the introductory paragraph without retyping the whole thing.

    Which is why those three prargraphs took half an hour.


    11 Aug 10 at 6:20 pm

  7. I suspect that people who do much writing, have outlines “internalized”. Or as mique says, a beginning, a middle and an end.

    But the process could be useful for a salesperson reporting on a visit to an important customer or a supervisor reporting a work place accident.

    Robert, my college technuque was to write a first draft, throw it out half way through, and then write the 2nd draft which was handed in. The first draft served to organize my thoughts.


    11 Aug 10 at 7:03 pm

  8. I used the draft technique to organise my thoughts too, John. Depending on my deadlines, and they were often ridiculously short, I wrote at least two drafts. On long complex papers, with longer deadlines, I started each day’s writing session by rereading the whole of what I’d previously written, editing and revising where necessary, and then carrying on from there.

    I had good teachers: at school, in my first serious job, and later in the Air Force. But far and away the person I mostly credit for my learning to write was an American lady from North Muskegon, Michigan, whom I first met in Papua New Guinea in 1963 and with whom I kept up a regular correspondence until she died, aged 93, in 1993. I met her again in 1989 when I visited her in her retirement home in Livermore, CA. She was lifelong teacher and gently (and sometimes not so gently) critiqued my writing whenever she felt it necessary. I still miss her.

    So there are obviously many paths to learning, but I think that a genuine love for the written word is the essential criterion, and I doubt if anyone who doesn’t like to read will ever learn to write even adequately.


    11 Aug 10 at 8:37 pm

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