Assignment Overview: A Writer on Writing

For an upcoming meeting at St. John’s University where I teach First Year Writing Courses, I was asked to speak about some aspect of my teaching. I decided to share an assignment I’ve been giving the past few years I call “A Writer on Writing.”

Some ways we learn about writing in our course:

  1. We write regularly for an audience we interact with.
  2. We read what other writers have to say about writing.
  3. We write to learn by situating our thoughts and reflections about writing within what other writers have written about writing.
  4. We learn to read like a writer by paying attention to choices writers make in their creation of texts.

Here are some examples of the kinds of texts students take a look at: 

  • Zadie Smith’s “That Crafty Feeling”
  • Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts”
  • Keith Richards’ excerpt from Life about songwriting
  • Stephen King excerpt from On Writing
  • Alice Walker interview “Writing to Save My Life”
  • Mark Doty’s “Souls on Ice”
  • Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue”
  • Do you have favorite texts about writing to recommend?

My introduction to this assignment from the course I taught this summer:

At least in this class, you have been a writer writing with other writers. I want you to claim this identity of being a writer for at least the purpose of this paper. You are the writer saying something about writing in this paper. My impulse to give you this assignment was that you would tell us about your experiences writing in this class while integrating the thoughts of writers you have been reading.

I do want to give you the space to do something different with this assignment if you’d like. Some students in the past have decided to focus on their learning of English, their dislike of writing, their wish to write screenplays, that they do slam poetry, that they speak five languages, or to think about the writing they publish on Twitter or other social media platforms. It’s a wide-open assignment as long as you focus in some way on writing and/or the use of language. Write at least 1,500 words and quote from at least three of the Writer on Writing texts (Peter Elbow counts as one if you want). You’ll use signal phrases, direct quotes, parenthetical citations, and do an MLA works cited page.

Some titles and “Golden Lines” from papers written by students the past few semesters:

  • I Dare You: I hate what they’ve done to me. They’ve made me into a robot. They’ve made my writing into a Mad Lib. Insert noun here, adjective there, quote here, citation there.” -Tatiana Castellanos
  • Writing for Me: In high school, we were assigned a paper and whenever it was due we would just hand it in to the teacher hoping to get a high grade. Having classmates listen along as you read your paper was something I’d never done before. Something I realized while writing papers in this class was that I was afraid. In “The Teacherless Writing Class” by Peter Elbow, he claims, “You have to keep from making apologies or giving explanations. For example, ‘I just wrote this last night, I didn’t have much time and didn’t revise it at all’” (101). Even though I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable reading my paper to people who were then strangers to me, I stopped myself from making excuses about my writing and waited for their criticism. What surprised me was the amount of positive feedback they had to say about my paper. -Sharin Chowdury
  • Learning to Write an Essay: Have you ever been afraid of doing something? For example, have you ever been afraid of talking to people? Or have you ever been scared of opening your mouth and saying something in your head? I have. I am a student from China still trying to learn English. -Xinxin He
  • Writing Does Not Have to Be a Burden: I remember that my classmate Farzana Haniff wrote in her process essay about how she kept erasing and rewriting her essay about her trip to Guyana because she thought it wasn’t good enough. Then she wrote about how she was able to get over her writer’s block which I think serves as great piece of advice. She wrote, “I decided to just go with my gut and to just continue writing whatever came to my mind. So I completely ignored the ‘delete’ button on my laptop and I just kept typing without even fixing spelling errors.” I thought about what Farzana wrote whenever I encounter the same problem of erasing and rewriting and it has helped me over think less about my writing choices. -Sammie Li
  • The Little Big Things: The writing process was tricky for me. I wanted to avoid being cliché and dull but when trying to write about something of this content, it can be difficult. During this process the reading from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott reminded me that no matter how successful a writer is they often feel like they are “pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid” (22). This told me that it was okay that I was having a difficult writing process; I simply had to feel it out and roll with the punches. -Sarah Khan

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