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Organic Writing and Digital Media: Seeds and Organs

 Published on June 21, 2012 /  Written by /  1

The act of writing is organic and generative. Ironically, this biological approach to writing is strengthened by digital environments that allow students and teachers to cultivate better compositions. Composing is a demonstration of thinking, and in any hybrid classroom, students should be able to a) see this thinking modeled and b) practice it themselves. Digital environments maximize the potential for organic writing in three distinct ways: they rebuild “audience,” expose the organic layers of a composition, and invite outside participation in key stages along the way.

Academic composition involves a number of connected cognitive skills: reading, interpretation, argument, research, organization, and vocabulary. The best composition instruction isolates these skills and teaches writing as a method of engaging academic material rather than simply an activity that results in an essay. Organic writing develops in non-linear clusters, like the way organisms develop. Calling writing “organic” is not solely poetic; it’s a concept that permits a clearer view into the pulpy, fleshy process of giving linguistic, visual, and electronic architecture to our ideas.

(My use of this approach and the following techniques grew out of my reading of Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers. Elbow’s multiple composition metaphors are not just ornamental. Like all good metaphors, they grant access to new understanding and impact behavior.)

We usually learn to write “the essay” in the opposite fashion: we write the first word of the essay first, then the second word, and so on. It’s a logical approach to what seems a linear problem, but it does not respect how our thinking develops as we compose. A seed is not a tree. In fact, a seed cannot even be clearly imagined as a future tree; it must first move through several unpredictable stages. Organic writing begins with a seed — an idea — and grows in unexpected ways.

Approaching composition like this, we — teachers and students — become word breeders.

During the first stage of an organic writing project, we treat ideas like seeds waiting for pollination. We talk in detailed and precise ways about the assignment or lack of one (here’s an example of an assignment I’ve used in a class on argumentative writing). We pick apart the thesis criteria. Whether tied to a specific topic or fueled by student choice alone, we have to know the boundaries of the project. We should know generally whether the composition 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. These discoveries are recursive; we must be ready to return to them throughout the composition process.

We practice writing thesis statements, and we review them frequently through digital and analog technologies. Students post thesis statements to a Twitter hashtag and reply with suggestions to their peers’ work, or we have more extended discussion through a forum (which can happen on a blog or within an LMS). We ask questions: What verbs do the thesis statements 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 students become familiar with the topics of their peers and start identifying with their own. The turning point is when we all start seeing everyone in class as his or her topic: “There’s Alex; she’s writing the ‘illegal alien’ essay.” Thesis statements and the discussion about them are posted to the digital environment, and commenting on peer thesis statements becomes an assignment. As thesis statements become more viable, we discuss them in class, soliciting another round of feedback on how the topics have evolved and whether each one satisfies the assignment criteria.

Composers must be encouraged 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 middle of the essay, avoiding an introduction or conclusion. This stage is about building the organs of the essay, its guts. At this stage, ideas begin to differentiate, like tissues, to be used or scrapped as the body develops. It’s useful to think about the different rhetorical strategies of a composition (definition, contrast, causation, narrative) as organs that serve different functions.

The best advice for writers at this stage is to “write loosely.” 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 can be messy and free from transitions. They will be re-ordered later.

One way to write the guts of the essay is to begin with a list of key quotations from research 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 to practice defining terms in granular ways (i.e., what are multiple ways that computer scientists might define “artificial” or “intelligence”?). Use of any of these methods provides good material for reflection at the end of the process.

These textual organs are shared within the community and, sometimes, outside the community (using Twitter, Google Docs, or any number of tools). Instead of generating multiple static drafts, we share dynamic versions 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. We think in terms of “the paragraph,” and we see trial paragraphs added over a period of days. A good metaphor for paragraphs at this stage is the relationship between individual Legos and the structure they comprise. The best “assignment” relates to word count or length. “Write 500 words,” I will sometimes say, then a day later “write 500 new ones.” They should have some relationship to each other, but newer ones might make older ones irrelevant.

Though the organic writing process described here reorders the composition process, citation can’t be delayed. If outside research will be a component of the final composition, writers should begin citing sources, formally or informally, from the beginning. The best method to use is a share-able bibliography site like Diigo, where students can quickly collect links. Even while writing the guts of the piece, quotes and paraphrasing must be precise and attributed.

In addition to modeling freer composition, we must also model commenting as a skill. In class, we analyze the nature of the comments collected on the drafts. In “Document Sharing and Markup” I discussed useful tools and strategies for digital peer review or markup (my use of “markup” here is intentional and allows me, in a class already exploring traditional and new media forms of composition, to draw connections between “marking up” a paper text and the markup languagesof the web). We must realize that comments are mini-compositions too, ones for which students may need models. Sometimes we attach comments to a composition in class and on screen, talking our way through the process.

We can’t worry if paragraphs don’t play well together. Composers should be exploring multiple directions. 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 whether specific approaches are valuable, useful, or empty.

As with anything organic, there is not one “right way” to evolve. Growth is determined by the encouragement and critique of the community. Later, after a significantly long and messy draft develops, we move into two more stages — organizational (skeletal) and technical (dermal) — each with its accompanying set of strategies.  Organic material and compositions move through particular stages with a goal in mind, but the process takes precedence over the product. Using the digital landscape to frame academic composition allows us to attend closely to that process and encourage research fluency and critical inquiry.

For further reading on the theory of organic writing, I suggest “Against Formulaic Writing” by Gabriele Lusser Rico. What other texts contribute to this discussion?

[Photo by Tatcher a Hainu]

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