Writing Paralysis–First-Year Style

We’ve all had it. The blank page. The blank screen. Not so long ago, for me, it was a blank unlined sheet of white paper with a fast-growing trellis of little leaves  and flowers scrolling around the edge. More recently, it has been a blank Scrivener page  or Mellel  document. The first sentence written… the first sentence deleted…repeat.

Our  students have it too; whether they are doodling flowers or staring at the blank page  or doing what I refer to as “bouncing off the work” and spending time on Facebook or twitter… they have it too.

Recently, I happened upon an assignment that I’ve done before but somehow this time it struck a particular chord. Before asking for a draft, or even an outline of their next essay, I asked my students to send me an e-mail telling me what their plan was for writing this paper. I didn’t set the length requirement on the e-mail, nor was I very specific about what the e-mail should contain, but the responses I’ve gotten so far have been remarkable. Students whose essay writing is awkward and difficult to read have written me clear and well organized e-mails–e-mails in which the writing quality exceeds that in their essays by quite a lot.

When I first started teaching, I had the experience that I’m sure most new teachers have: I crafted what I believed to be an excellent assignment only to have the essays come back the universally disappointing. When every student in a class doesn’t do well on an assignment it isn’t a stretch to suspect that the assignment might be to blame. By the same token, when a critical mass of students do well in an area where they have not done well so far, perhaps we might also give the assignment some credit.

My only hypothesis so far is that the writing situation of drafting an e-mail is less stressful and that reducing the stress produces better writing. What I have to figure out how to communicate is how they can bring these more interesting, dynamic, and frankly grammatical voices into their other assignments. What is it that we, and here I’m including the elementary and secondary school teachers who have gotten their students to the first year in college, do to our students so that as soon as we say “this is an essay,” or “you will be graded on this,” the caliber of writing goes down? Is it only stress? Is it the legacy of essay tests? Is it the new SAT? I don’t know. But I would like to believe that all our students have it in them to find a voice that is both authentically theirs and up to the academic standards we try to set.

I’ve learned a lot of “magic words” in my life, but I have to admit that I never expected that “tell me your plan” would unlock so much.

And, though I don’t expect it, if any of my current students are reading this: good job!