Organic Writing and Digital Media: “The Guts”

During the content stage of organic writing, we talk in detailed and precise ways about the assignment or lack of one. We pick apart the thesis criteria. Whether tied to a specific topic or fueled by student choice alone, we have to know the boundaries for our thinking. We must know whether generally whether the paper will be argumentative or expository; whether it is based on research, personal experience, or both; whether it must cover a subject with which we are already familiar or whether we need time to digest new material. Sidenote: often this process continues as we collect that material.

We practice writing thesis statements, and then we analyze them closely. What verbs do they employ? What is the converse of this thesis statement? What terms are too vague? Who is our audience for the piece? It’s important that everyone in the class become familiar with the topics of their peers. We will know we have achieved this stage when we start seeing everyone in class as his or her topic. “Oh, there’s Alex, she’s writing the ‘illegal alien’ essay.” The writing community forces its members to be careful in their work because the work is open for critique. Thesis statements are posted to the digital environment, and commenting on peer thesis statements becomes an assignment. Writers should be free at this point to explore alternate thesis statements, scrap projects that don’t hold promise, and initiate new ones.

Once we have a workable point of departure, we begin writing the “guts” of the essay, avoiding an introduction or conclusion. If research will be a component of the final assignment, we must already begin citing sources, formally or informally. Even within the brainstorm phase of writing the guts of the piece, quotes and paraphrasing must be clearly identified. We write paragraphs that we can imagine will have some connection to the thesis statement, whether to argue a point, define terms, provide background, or narrate an anecdote. In this stage of our writing, paragraphs should be messy and may be free from transitions. They will be re-ordered later. One way to write the guts of the essay is begin with a list of key research quotations, and develop paragraphs responding to, explaining, or contradicting those quotes. Another way is to develop a mind-map extending from the thesis and to build a rough paragraph from each connected graphic. Another way is practice defining terms in granular ways.

All of the drafting in the concept stage is shared within the community and, sometimes, outside the community. Instead of generating multiple static drafts, we must have the ability to share a dynamic version of the piece as it develops. Here we see the organic and digital nature of the composition project simultaneously. With specific commenting assignments, writers get feedback on their drafting as it unfolds. The number of words or paragraphs required to match the pace of the project unfolds, and we see paragraphs added on over a period of days.

I encourage writers at this point not to worry about whether their paragraphs sit together well. They are mining for directions. They can be free to start a paragraph they think might be useful and, if it proves less so, to move on to another approach. Writers can also attempt to mimic or utilize specific rhetorical strategies they see in their reading. “Write a historical description paragraph. Now try to define a term. Now tell a related story.” Each paragraph is an experiment, and comments in the digital space should focus on the whether specific approaches are valuable, useful, or empty.

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Organic Writing and Digital Media: Introduction

Process-oriented composition instruction works better than instruction focused on products. Most composition teachers agree on this. Given that writing is a complex cognitive activity that involves a number of linked academic skills — reading, interpretation, argument, research, organization, and vocabulary to name a few — the best writing instruction isolates these skills and teaches writing as a method of engaging academic material rather than simply an activity that results in an essay. Writing is a kind of thinking, and process-oriented composition courses are places where students should be able to a) see this kind of thinking modeled and b) practice the method.

Organic writing is my phrase for writing that develops in non-linear clusters. Usually we learn essay-writing in the opposite fashion: we write the first word of the essay first, then the second word, and we are off. It’s a logical approach to a linear problem; it just does not respect how our thinking develops as we compose. It would be like trying on clothes while growing out of them at the same time. Organic writing begins with a seed — an idea — and grows in expected ways related to it’s resources. We become like word gardeners. None of this is new, but I was first introduced to the concept as a grad student when I read Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow.

Digital environments maximize the potential for organic writing in three distinct ways: they rebuild “audience,” expose the organic layers, and invite outside participation in key stages along the way. As with anything organic, there is not one “right way” to grow. Here, however, is a pattern I’ve found useful. In subsequent posts, I will describe the concept, structural, and mechanic phases or organic writing and organize them within a digital landscape.

Initial post

We talked today about having an asynchronous cyber meeting next Tuesday, Aug. 9.

It will be Micah’s 6th birthday that day!

I agreed to begin writing a series of blog posts related to my “organic writing/digital media” course concept. I may also the time to start drafting entirely new syllabi language. Exciting. All for now.