Threshold Concepts: Celebrating the Messiness of Writing

(This is Part 4 of a 5 part series on threshold concepts in the teaching of writing. You can go back to see the first post here.)

Writing is processural, and we need to talk openly with students about this and celebrate the mess together.

Since taking Intro to Writing Pedagogy with Dr. Melissa Ianetta in the fall of 2013, I have been utterly convinced that writing needs to be about process, and not just one process but each individual student’s personal process. I’ve always talked with my students about this important understanding of writing as a process-based, not a product-based, practice. And yet I have not always done a good job of structuring my classroom assignments to best embrace the messy, iterative, boggy experience of writing. I have set assignments on tight schedules even as I ensure multiple rounds of drafts and revisions. Most of all, though, I fear that I have not adequately acknowledged and modeled the ways in which even professional and advanced writers bump into major research, drafting, and revising challenges.  

In this case, I crossed a threshold when reading Berthoff’s “Theory and Practice,” in The Making of Meaning, in which she talks about why students suffer from “premature closure” (22). This is something I witness each semester with good students who are scared to take risks.

Berthoff writes, “We can encourage our students, instead, in learning techniques of revision only if we forego treating false starts, unfruitful beginnings, contradictions, and dead ends as mistakes, and see them, rather, as tentative steps, stages in a process,” writes Berthoff (22). This passage convicted me and opened up my realization that it isn’t enough to a) acknowledge that writing is a process and b) to talk to our students about it as such. The final step is moving beyond acknowledgement to actually embracing and celebrating the mess as we’re in it. I look forward to doing this the very next time I teach E110 by sharing more of my own “false starts, unfruitful beginnings, contradictions, and dead ends,” and I’ll share them as necessary blunders on the pathway to a productive process.

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann. “Theory and Practice” from The Making of Meaning: Metaphors, Models, and Maxims for Writing Teachers. Heinemann, 1981. pp. 19-29.



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