Re: Freewriting

Marie Wilson Nelson (mnel@NLU.NL.EDU)
Wed, 24 Jul 1996 12:41:11 -0500


In response to your questions (see below):

On Wed, 24 Jul 1996, Craig Branham wrote:

> Marie Wilson Nelson writes:
> > What I tentatively found (this was not the focus of study, just one of
> > those gratuitious analyese that make qualitative research so rewarading,
> > was that the experienced (published) writers I studied all struggled
> > with issues of finding a form for emerging/evolving ideas, but that some
> > struggled before they began to write, while others struggled after. In
> > other words, the struggle went on either in the head or on paper, though
> > some persevered in that struggle more diligently.
> This work sounds _very_ interesting. Since you have been studying
> this question for almost 20 years, I have to ask you a question. As you
> look through your data, do you find any generational differences that
> follow trends in Composition pedagogy? Not too long ago, students were
> taught that before writing they should just "think really hard" and it
> seems the trends have shifted more toward teaching a variety of pre-writing
> strategies. Have these trends affected your data? I'm curious about whether
> writers actually discover writing processes in courses or whether they
> learn _despite_ their courses.

My career is unusual in that I spent 8 years working with the whole gamet
of university writers--creative writers, comp classes, professional and
business writers, tech writers, basic and esl writers, academic writers,
both faculty and students writing across the curriculum, then went to a
college of ed where I work with teachers across the curriculum. I suspect
my "sample" is far broader than that of most comp/rhet teachers, but this
makes it difficult to be sure I'm giving you waht you're interested in.

However, I'll tell you what I _think_ I see in the writers with whom I've

I. I have seen generational trends, of a sort. When I went to George
Mason U. in 1981, very few of our students had heard of freewriting. (I
no longer use the term freewriting, by the way, as I think it leads to
superficial, aimless wandering; instead I use the term _thinkwriting_
which I first ran across in about 1980 when Anne Miller Wotring used it in
a study of writing to learn chemistry which was later published by the
National Writing Project. (She may have used writing to think, but my
students long ago shortened that to thinkwriting, and I see others using
the term as well).

2. what seems more important than genenrational trends is whether or not
writers have to _un_learn what they've been taught, regardless of what
tradition they come from. Over the years at GMU and with the help of my
graduate students (whom I trained to teach in comp programs there), I
found patterns and shifts in the attitudes and hangups vis a vis writing
of the students with whom we worked. We were using teaching approaches
advocated by introspective writers who teach (Don Murray and friends) and
the writers that I labeled "expert practitioners" in my dissertation study
(because they relied on personal writing experience as a guide whenever a
conflict arose between their personal knowledge of writing and any of
several teaching traditions (i.e., "what English teachers are supposed to
do"). When in doubt, we relied first on our own writing experience,
whehter we were creative, academic, confident or insecure writers.

The main difference we found relating to your question was between people
who trusted their linguistic intuitions and those who could not let go of
what they had been taught, even when it was blocking their writing. For
example, the place where I have done the most formal analysis was with
basic and ESL writers whose development was strongly inhibited by rigid
adherence to what they had bbeen taught in English classes (plan first,
follow formulas, write topic or thesis sentences, have a traditional
structure of some type, think about correctness as you write, etc.). By
contrast, those who trusted their natural (and universal) linguistic
intuitions, keeping an eye on what they'd been taught but ditching it
when they were drafting or whenever it made things easier, were
those who made it through the university's screening texts and through
compositions courses without help.

As the years went by, we got more and more writers who had had some
process-based instructionn in public schools, and we did not have to do as
much "unteaching" with them. They were less resistant to
process-to-product approaches, and tended to have less persistent problems
than those who had been taught more traditionally, whether americans or,
(for another example) our many east asian international students who had
never heard of such a thing as freewriting or thinkwriting and (often)
took longer to get up their nerve and give it a try. We documented the
amazing breakthroughs in effectiveness (and grades, confidence, attitudes
toward writing, etc.) that occurred when basic and ESL writers let go of
past instruction and began getting swept up in (and committed to) what
they wrote.

Actually our work on cultural differences may be even more telling than
generational diffrences (though they are similar), for there was probably
less muddling of methods in some of the countries our students came from
than there was in widely diverse and always changing american classrooms.

As you probably know, some rhetoricians have proposed that people from
different cultures have different ways of thinking, and that the dominant
rhetorics of their countries shape the way they think tha therefore the
way they should be taught. Interestingly, we did not find this to be
true. We found that though they (like us) had been socialized into
"correct" ways of thinking/writing, once they began to thinkwrite, the
differences fell away, or perhaps I should say their differences became
accessible to them as strengths, became resources on which they could
draw, rather than formats or formulas that constrained writing and
thinking. Apparently there was something deeper, some "human" way of
being or thinking, that structured their thinking, memory, logic once they
began to thinkwrite. In other words, our international students, just like
our 5-paragraph theme steeped American students, often had some unlearning
to do before writing eloquently.

This happened even though the differences among cultures were often
clearcut. For example, compared (in general) with ameriacn students, who
tended to over censor (which is why freewriting can be aimless and
commitmentless) and often attempted bland, vapid formula essays that
required few risks in structure or in form, vietnamese students (most of
them immigrants at that time) tended to write passionate pieces that were
particularly rich in imagery. The play-it-safe suburban students learned
about the role of risktaking in writing well from them.

Latin American students tended to be very fluent and unafraid of
thinkwriting but were (tended to be) less skillful with monitoring for
correctness and this was something they had to learn. From them east
asian students learned the benefits of thinkwriting. Japanese, Korean, and
Chinese students had strong tendencies to over plan and over monitor, but
once they leaned to thinkwrite, they could then could go back and find all
their errors (and teach others how they did it as well).

And, though we did not document it as formally, we found similar
similarities underlying personality differences as well, so that though
personality certainly shapes what people will try willingly or
spontaneously, there are underlying patterns (like the waterline I
referred to in an earlier post) that transcend personality. At least
that's what I've seen in (or projected on?) my data.

I apologoize for going on and on here (you struck a vein, I think). I
guess I should also say, should anyone be interested, that most of what
I've mentioned here is in our report on our five-year study in _At the
POint of Need_ (Nelson, 1991, Boynton/Cook, Heinemann).

Hope this gets some ideas flowing. Response, anyone?


Marie Wilson Nelson
National-Louis University
National College of Education