Writing means many different things to me, but one thing it is not: writing is not the transcription of thoughts already consciously present in my mind. Writing is a magical and mysterious process that makes it possible to think differently.
-- Historian Lynn Hunt in How Writing Leads to Thinking (and not the other way around)
How often have we taught writing classes wherein most of the instruction and writing support happens after words are on the page?
Many think of teaching writing as improving the writing itself, post-production. Yet many writers find the most challenging stage to be the production phase. Writers are especially at risk of stalling out during long and independent projects, which lack the sense of urgency provided by short-term deadlines and which demand rigorous and challenging development of ideas.
I have generated an experimental approach to supporting writers based on my and my peers’ experiences writing dissertations, as well as my role as Writing Fellow supporting undergraduates writing 20+-page papers based on original research. My method is based on targeted interventions that I call “jumpstarts.”
A jumpstart is essentially an action-oriented prompt that gives a writer a very specific structure to engage with her ideas, with the added productive constraint of a time limit.
A key part of jumpstarts is their delivery: I meant them to be specific interventions presented to the writer, not only a list that a writer would need to hunt down and choose from. Timing was a crucial element to delivering the jumpstarts. I needed them to intervene when students were actually writing – times when I couldn’t be there in person. I also timed the specific action for the stage of their projects. Finally, the jumpstarts themselves were limited in time and action-oriented, so as to be productive, not just another distraction.
I developed a series of very short Vimeo videos of me talking out the directions to the jumpstarts for that week. After some experimentation and student feedback, I discovered that the most effective delivery system was to text them a link to that week’s video at 8:30 pm. (I also later sent out a class email with the link to keep it accessible.) Using MoboMix, I could schedule texts to the group in advance, and it would keep all numbers confidential, including mine. Texting students allowed me to harness daily technologies as a tool for engagement rather than distraction. In fact, much to my surprise, the students literally started cheering when I proposed it! For them, texting was accessible and appealing – the novelty value helped build momentum.
Here's one on brainstorming about specific sources:
My goals for jumpstarts are twofold: to make students see writing as a dynamic process of creation, and to more effectively support writers in this phase.
Embracing writing as a process of thinking rather than a linear procedure of recording pre-formed ideas encourages writers to embrace the “stuck spots.” When writers encounter difficult patches, many feel the instinct to go into a more passive mode, whether that means reading scholarly literature or checking Facebook.
However, if writing is a process of thinking, then it is essential to force active engagement with those stuck spots in order to create the ideas that can then get hashed out and later edited. This process requires producing so that multiple possibilities can emerge and ideas can enrich each other. It is an often-messy process that is not supposed to be linear. It requires temporarily turning off the “pruning” instinct and forging ahead. Stuck spots aren’t sand traps in this scenario; they are fertile opportunities for writers to break new ground.
It’s not enough to think about writing-as-a-process-of-thinking in the limited sense of words on paper. Even writers who try desperately to work through those stuck spots often find themselves staring interminably at a computer screen. They are then stuck in their ideas and stuck in one form of processing. To overcome this, jumpstarts emphasize various modes of production to work through ideas. Writing is only one; others might involve talking or drawing. Each prompt ends, however, with the explicit goal to turn whatever ideas have been generated into words on the page.
After identifying production as an area I needed help with, I collaborated with folks at Stanford’s d.school to come up with a creative solution. Managing Director Sarah Stein Greenberg and K12 Program Manager Katie Krummeck helped me implement some core principles of design thinking: a bias toward action, rapid iterations, attention to process, and collaboration. It was especially liberating to simply try out possibilities, with the emphasis on feedback and experimentation. To make the project feasible and reduce barriers to entry, we kept the videos relatively low-production. We created clean but simple products by having a second person film with an iPhone.
Many of the design thinking mindsets are evident in the jumpstarts themselves: they push writers to take action and embrace a messy, iterative process. In our class, I asked the students to use the jumpstarts’ different modes to learn about their own processes as writers. I also asked them to contribute their ideas for other future jumpstarts.
My initial sample of students provided promising feedback. According to their reports, jumpstarts served as “productive breaks” that helped them stay focused while approaching their project from alternative angles. As short-term deadlines approached for stages of the project, the jumpstarts became less useful. The best pacing for the jumpstarts was once or twice a week, and in advance of a deadline. This trend reinforced my hypothesis that part of the jumpstarts’ utility is to provide a productive sense of urgency.
This quarter, Writing and Rhetoric Lecturer Christine Alfano and I are launching a more extensive process of experimentation and evaluation of jumpstarts as one of multiple options for writing support. We plan to implement a design-thinking style of observation and interviews with various undergraduate and graduate writers in our ongoing process of prototyping. We are also in conversation with the Hume Center for Speaking and Writing about deploying the jumpstarts on a larger scale to the campus community. Stay tuned!
With acknowledgments to Katie Krummeck, Sarah Stein Greenberg, and Christine Alfano. Thanks also to Professor Estelle Freedman, who graciously allowed me to prototype the jumpstarts in her undergraduate research and writing seminar.