Monday, November 9, 2009

Does cutting time mean cutting revision?

Believe it or not, I'm actually working on my thesis again. I'm only producing a couple of pages a week, but that's more than I produced for the entirety of the summer.

What I want to look at in the next week is the issue of time. In composition, the main criticism of procrastination is that it leaves the student with too little time to write. "Don't wait to the last minute to start your papers," we advise our students. When procrastination is mentioned in an article, it is usually followed with a reference to abbreviated revision time. Donna Gorrell says that students use procrastination to motivate themselves to write, but this creates the problem that "ideas which are essentially rough-hewn must remain that way, since there is no time for revision" (645). Ronald A. Sudol suggests (in 1985) that limited access to computer labs will prevent students from procrastinating, since they can only write when they can get in the computer lab, and that "the time spent reducing procrastination now can be better spent revising later" (332). This is the composition party line--procrastination is bad because it reduces time writing which eliminates revision.

First off, let's question the assumption that procrastination will necessitate chopping off some element of the writing process. When I delay a writing project, I have in mind how long I think it will take me to churn something out based on my personal writing process. I don't cut down my writing process, I just move it as close to the deadline as possible. I prewrite, I draft, I prewrite, I draft, I revise, I revise, I research, I revise, I revise. This is the same writing strategy I used as an undergrad. I may compress my writing process based on time, but I don't eliminate chunks of it.

Notice that we assume that revision is the part of writing that will be cut--not prewriting or drafting. The obvious reason is that revision occurs at the end of writing, and if we've managed our time poorly, we run out of time before we get to that part. But is that even true? I think Gorrell's example suggests that students use procrastination instead of prewriting, not revision. She writes that "Having a paper due the next morning is a marvelous incentive for the flow of ideas. Thoughts which earlier would not come now suddenly spring forward" (645). Isn't she suggesting that students procrastinate as an invention strategy, a kind of prewriting technique? Maybe where they're cutting time is actually on the front end of writing, not the back end.

And anyway, do we buy this "front end"/"back end" business? I thought we agreed that writing was recursive, not linear. Remember my writing process from above? Certainly revision can't occur at the beginning (unless one is reworking an old project), but it isn't a set amount of time at the end of a writing session. "Okay, done with drafting. Now time for revision." Some people may write that way, but certainly not all people. Even if the back end of writing is what's being cut off when students procrastinate, that's no guarantee that revision is skipped entirely.

My advisor has also helpfully suggested that I look at recommendations to "set aside" writing for an hour or a day or whatever. This is another prescription that revolves around time at the back end of a project for revision. But we should remember that time on the front end of a project can also be useful. We wouldn't likely label it procrastination, but we can let our ideas "incubate" before we start writing, adding time to the front end of the writing process. Donald Murray recommends this in "Write before Writing," and Maxine Hairston suggests that writing teachers can tackle their own procrastination by accepting is as part of a productive writing process and allowing it to pass after a few days (68). But we rarely give this kind of advice to students.

Works Cited
Gorrell, Donna. "A Comment on 'Toward Irrational Heuristics.'" College English 44.6 (1982): 644-645.
Hairston, Maxine. "When Writing Teachers Don't Write: Speculations about Probable Causes and Possible Cures." Rhetoric Review 5.1 (1986): 62-70.
Murray, Donald. "Write before Writing." College Composition and Communication 29.4 (1978): 375-381.
Sudol, Ronald A. "Applied Word Processing: Notes on Authority, Responsibility, and Revision in a Workshop Model." College Composition and Communication 36.3 (1985): 331-335.

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