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Are you a drafter or a thinker?

ThinkerAs a graduate student in rhetoric and composition, I’ve been reading endlessly about the composition process and writing instruction. A literature review of the writing process takes instructors through many perspectives: writing is social (Linda Brodkey); writing is about cognitive problem-solving (Linda Flower and John Hayes); writing is a distinct “process” (Janet Emig and Donald Murray). The common elements in all of these approaches, though, are “the draft” and the written phases to move students to “the draft” and ultimately “the final draft”, which, in the name alone, implies writers really aren’t even finished here.

But, even as I teach my students that writing is a process that involves all the smaller written steps toward a final draft, I don’t actually practice any of it. I’m simply not a drafter. I can’t remember the last time I actually sat down to freewrite as a way to generate ideas. I rarely craft a documented outline before I’m ready to sit down and write the actual text. And, unless I’m working collaboratively or with a new genre, you won’t search through my computer and find multiple versions of a text. It’s just not how I work.

So, how do I write? I think. A lot. I think and think and think, sometimes for weeks if I have time, sometimes for an hour. My brain is constantly churning around ideas. I imagine the topic in the center of my mind and swirling around it are all sorts of ideas—virtual mapping, perhaps. When I “see” ideas I like, they then push out other ideas. And, through all of this mind sifting, I know that eventually, an idea will be the “it” idea. When the “it” idea emerges, it all makes sense. As if in some mechanical puzzle, the pieces begin to move into place and click together. In my mind, I can begin reading through my paper that is not yet written. It’s only at this moment that I can sit down to write. Over the years, I’ve become better at honing the thinking process, but the core approach for me is the same. I just don’t pre-write and draft.

I’ve started to wonder if my thinking approach to writing has partially resulted from my professional writing training. In my experience, there just isn’t time to physically do all of the pre-writing and drafting stages we talk about in composition. Writers are assigned tasks, given a deadline, and expected to produce. It’s often the case that there just isn’t enough lead time to have multiple iterations of a text. And, as professional writers, we’re trained to think through all of the questions about a particular project almost instinctively. Who am I writing to? What is the purpose? What is the channel? But, in most cases, we have little time to answer these questions before we need to start researching and writing.

So I have to think that surely I’m not alone in this. What would be really helpful for me is research on how to hone the thinking process that takes place before the writing. Instead of more texts on the writing process, what about a text on the thinking process and how to internalize that process in a more efficient way? Already, in my mind, an idea is floating around.

So, how do you write? Are you a drafter or a thinker?

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