Tuesday, January 5, 2016


by Colln Kinner
 Creative Commons License

Writing is hard.

We struggle to make ourselves visible.
We wrestle with memories, experiences, and everyday living.
We heal ourselves, we expose ourselves---and we hide.

Writing is personal.

We drain our veins.
The blank page welcomes our greatest joys, our deepest secrets, and our unsuspected fears.
No one else can tell our individual, unique stories.

Writing is satisfying.

We silently cheer  when we find just the right word.
We sigh with relief and release when it ends.
We grow a bit taller and glow a bit brighter when a reader gets what we are trying to do,

What is the writer trying to do?

That becomes the crucial entry point into the writing of another.
Our first action, if we are sincere about reading and responding in a useful, supportive, and generative way, is to find out what the writer is trying to do.

What is the overarching vision held by this writer for this piece of writing?
What is her intention as she writes?
What comprises her content?
What  form or genre is used to present her ideas?
What  structure or framework supports and undergirds her work?

What is she trying to do?

Ignoring these questions results in feedback that is less than helpful at the very least and dismissive at its worse. In  my own experience, responses that do not begin with these questions and honor the answers leaves the writer with little direction for moving forward.

To support us as we ask this crucial question, Peter Elbow, in a memo to the Marist College Writing Center on responding to writing, suggests asking students to write a brief piece describing what they as writers are trying to do, where they are is in this process--contextualizing the writing, so that it can be  considered in its intended context..

Therefore if I have to write substantive comment on student papers, I try to ensure that I can do so on the basis of some information from them about “where they are at” with this paper. That is, I ask for a short piece of “process writing” or “writer’s log” or “cover letter” with any major assignment. I ask them to tell me things like: what they see as their main points; the story of how they went about writing and what it was like for them as they were writing; how did they get their ideas; what were some of the choices they made; which parts went well or badly for them; were there any surprises; and above all what questions they have for readers. If it is a revision it’s particularly helpful to ask what changes they made and why. Reading the cover letter usually helps me decide what to say in my comment. Often I can agree with much of what the student has said--sometimes even being more encouraging about the essay than the student was. With process writing, my comment is not the start of a conversation about the writing but the continuation of a conversation that the student started. (Italics added by blog author)

In concluding his memo, he explains why this contextualized consideration is important:

... In my view, these are the things that in the end are least likely to waste our time or cause harm: to get students to want to write; to read what they write with good attention and respect; to show them that we understand what they have written--even the parts where they had trouble getting their meaning across; and respecting them and the dialogue to tell them some of our thoughts on what they are writing about. Surely what writers need most is the experience of being heard and a chance for dialogue.

If you are new to responding to the writing of students or fellow writing group members, most universities offer practical strategies and principles.  A small sampling of what is available includes: The University of Michigan, Harvard University, and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The National Writing Project also offers a wealth of articles and other resources about responding to writing.

In Writing to Learn: Strategies for Assigning and Responding to Writing Across the Disciplines: New Directions for Teaching and Learning, editors Mary Deane Sorcinelli and Peter Elbow offer us a variety of alternative, creative, and sometimes unusual strategies for considering and responding to  writing by others.

What is the writer trying to do?

As a writer, not asking me this question, or asking me and then ignoring the answer, is a rejection of my work.

The first publishing company to which I sent my book proposal for Deeper Writing, sent me 30 pages of feedback ( yea!), a lot of it positive and complimentary toward my work (also yea!).  Yet, they ignored my intentions-- my answer to the crucial question.

I was writing a book of writing prompts or suggestions.  The book assumed the reader/teacher knew how to teach writing, manage writing workshop and so forth.  This was clearly stated in the introduction.

Yet, this company, despite all the positivity, wanted me to write a " how-to" for writing workshop.-- rejection of my intentions and my work.

What do we do with  rejection?  
In a previous post. Rejection Letters, I considered this related question.

What do we do when what we are trying to do is ignored?

Corwin, my publisher, on the other hand, asked this question and helped me achieve my intentions.

What is the writer trying to do?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

What are you trying  to do in your writing?

When was the last time someone asked you this question?

When was the last time this question should have been asked, but was not?

Write about the effect on your writing and you as a writer.