Before the Draft:
Mentoring First-Year Writers Through Collaborative Invention
In my experience as a graduate instructor and writing tutor, I have found that students who struggle the most with writing are those who have done an inadequate job of inventing an argument. These students build a draft on hastily thought-out ideas, believing they will need to make only minor changes for a good grade. Then, at the writing center and in conferencing, they are told to dramatically reconsider their ideas and argument. At this point, many students misinterpret the seriousness of their instructor’s suggestions and make token alterations, or they become overwhelmed at the thought of drastically changing their paper and give up.
First-year (FY) writers almost universally struggle with invention, often because they don’t do enough of it before producing a draft that “sets up like concrete” in their minds (Hjortshoj), preventing them from thinking further about their argument. FY writers also struggle with invention because they are unaware of its collaborative nature. Since elementary school, they have been trained to use solitary invention techniques like brainstorming and freewriting, yet their best ideas usually come from sustained intellectual engagement with other people. Because of these realities, FY writers need invention modeled for them in a context that highlights its collaborative nature, and they need this to occur before they have written a draft that is set in stone. Thus, I will argue that instructors should help FY writers extend their period of pre-draft invention, modeling adequate invention processes through oral collaboration in student-instructor conferences and in writing center tutorials.
Based on the history of invention in the academy, it is not surprising that FY writers are unaware of the social nature of invention. Although invention is an inherently social act, it has not been seen as such for much of the twentieth century. In the early 1900s, invention was not actively modeled because it was seen as a function of experimentation and rational thought (Bawarshi 59). Stemming from the Enlightenment view of rationality as self-evident, invention was already considered an inherent ability of rational beings. As the process approach gained currency in the 1960s and 1970s, invention became a more important part of teaching composition. This approach shifted attention from textual product to textual production. Thus, invention came to be seen as a primarily writer-centered action, and prewriting activities such as clustering, freewriting, brainstorming, and mapping were developed (Lauer 53).
In the 1980s, scholars began to consider the social aspects of invention and to question the writer-centered view of invention inherent in the process approach. In a landmark text, Invention as a Social Act, Karen LeFevre argues that the radical individualism of Western society has pervaded current perceptions of invention. Rhetoricians treat invention as a solitary activity that occurs within the individual when, in reality, any inward inventive processes are already shaped by the writer’s ecological surroundings. LeFevre’s concerns are primarily theoretical: she focuses on the conceptual importance of viewing invention as a social act, not on developing practical applications for the classroom. However, she does suggest that teachers emphasize the social nature of invention by assigning group projects; use heuristics that emphasize the author’s position within society; and help students to view all texts, including those by a single author, as products of collaboration (128-34).
As a result of LeFevre’s work and the concurrent collaborative learning movement, scholarship has increasingly viewed invention as a collaborative endeavor. Yet these advances have not substantially altered practices in the classroom. Invention is still commonly presented as a writer-centered activity. According to Bawarshi, “It is not uncommon for composition textbooks, even those not designated as ‘expressivist,’ routinely to posit invention as ‘prewriting,’ as a practice within the writer that occurs before and outside the textured midst of things” (4).
This writer-centered view of invention is apparent in standard composition texts for students and instructors. In the Brief Penguin Handbook 2nd Edition, students are advised to invent an argument by thinking about topics that intrigue them, asking themselves questions, freewriting, brainstorming, mapping, using storyboards, and keeping a journal (Faigley 27-35). Almost as an afterthought, the importance of talking and listening is discussed; however, these techniques are presented as activities that should occur after a draft has been written: “It is important to ask your peers for specific and genuine feedback on your drafts and to pay close attention to your classmates’ writing” (Faigley 35). The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing 6th Edition, a popular text among composition instructors, likewise presents a writer-centered discussion of invention. The invention methods it suggests are heuristic: classical topical invention, journal writing, brainstorming, clustering, and freewriting (Glenn and Goldthwaite 151-73). Because these methods depend on questioning as a strategy for developing ideas, they have collaborative potential. Yet the St. Martin’s Guide presents these methods as activities to be completed individually.
Today, discussions involving invention have evolved in interesting interdisciplinary directions, but they have not focused on practical ways to teach students to invent with others. Lauer has noted that current discussions of invention are occurring in areas such as writing across the curriculum, writing in the disciplines, cultural studies, hermeneutics, genre studies, and theories of technology. As a result of research in these areas, more is known about the epistemologies under which invention operates. However, these new areas have marginalized or replaced more pedagogically relevant areas of inquiry such as “the relationship between invention and the writing process” and “the importance of classroom attention to invention” (Lauer 2). For FY writing instructors, the problem of students’ inadequate pre-draft invention still remains.
Because invention is a social act, it should be taught in ways that emphasize its social nature to students. Thus, collaborative learning is a viable area of scholarship to turn to. First developed by British secondary educators in the 1950s and 1960s, collaborative learning became widely discussed among American college teachers in the 1980s (Bruffee 416). Kenneth Bruffee introduced collaborative learning into composition studies with his landmark article, “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’” In Bruffee’s model, collaborative learning is seen as a type of “conversation” that facilitates good writing; it is also viewed as a way of acculturating students into the academic discourse community (421). Fortunately, this vision of collaboration has been acknowledged and incorporated into composition studies. Instructors have adopted activities such as peer review and group work, and writing programs have institutionalized peer collaboration in writing centers (418).
The issue of teaching FY writers to adequately invent an argument could benefit from methods of collaboration already being used in composition. However, two alterations would make collaborative invention most effective for teaching invention. First, collaboration should be implemented earlier in the writing process. Traditionally, collaborative assignments such as peer review and visits to the writing center have been assigned during revision. Based on my personal experience as a writing tutor, I have concluded that the earlier students collaborate with others, the better. In a job where I dealt with many harried and frustrated students, my experience with “prewriting” tutorials caught my eye because these encounters were overwhelmingly positive. In my two years at the center, I found without exception that students who came in early to “talk about ideas” were less nervous discussing their thoughts, felt more validated as writers, and received more genuinely collaborative help from the tutor. From this experience, I have concluded that students who have not yet written a definitive draft benefit substantially from intervention in their invention process.
Second, collaborative invention should be conducted with a mentor figure (i.e., an instructor or trained tutor). Collaboration has typically been used in composition in a peer-to- peer setting such as in-class group work. Because college-level invention is so foreign to FY writers, a mentor figure—rather than a peer—may provide the most beneficial collaboration. This idea is borne out in the work of Lev Vygotsky, a prominent developmental psychologist. Vygotsky describes language development as a paradigm for “the entire problem of the relationship between learning and development” (qtd. in Farmer 56). He notes that as children become older, they begin to internalize social dialogue, using this discourse to guide their actions. Vygotsky suggests that children’s development is maximized when they are exposed to tasks slightly above their developmental level under the guidance of a more experienced peer or adult. In these “zones of proximal development,” children use their mentor’s speech to guide their actions. This model of development also applies to writing tasks. Farmer claims, “The ability to solve problems through dialogue with more experienced adults or peers is a harbinger of competencies that will later become internalized” (56). Thus, FY writers may require the direction of a mentor in order to thoroughly experience the invention process. Accordingly, this act of collaboration sets a pattern that FY writers can later internalize.
The benefits of this type of collaboration are partly due to the oral quality of the interaction. Linguistic theories have connected written communication skills with verbal competence: for example, whole language theory asserts that when used together, reading, writing, speaking, and listening provide added benefits to students’ communication skills (Fitzgerald 13). In the twentieth century, Bruffee’s use of the writing-as-conversation metaphor has made the connection between writing and speech a practical part of teaching composition. Bruffee claims that “to think well as individuals we must learn to think well collectively—that is, we must learn to converse well” (421).
If writing is, as this scholarship suggests, a conversation, then it is a conversation that most students struggle with. In his essay “The Shifting Relationships Between Speech and Writing,” Peter Elbow discusses perceptions of writing that hinder students from entering the conversation. He argues that there are three (potentially conflicting) ways of viewing the relationship between speech and writing: writing as more indelible than speech; speech as more indelible than writing; and speech and writing as similar acts. Because of the formal contexts that most people associate with writing, it is often seen as a high-pressure, enduring act that must be approached cautiously: “thus writing is dominated for most people by the experience of not writing” (154). Ironically, this perception persists despite the advent of technologies, such as email and text messaging, which has made writing less concrete. In Elbow’s words, “Although we float in a rising tide of ephemeral writing, our writing habits and instincts are dominated by the old assumption that writing is indelible” (154).
In some ways, speech is more indelible than writing: once said, it cannot be retracted or truly revised, and it involves more feedback in the form of body language and intonation (Elbow 152). Yet most people perceive speech as a safer medium in which to share undeveloped thoughts. Elbow argues that instructors should work to change this perception by exploiting the ephemeral nature of writing, teaching students to constantly draft and revise. While I agree with Elbow’s overall argument, his solution is not the most productive approach for FY writers. Because these students are so attached to their writing, it is helpful to take time early in the writing process to build on their view of speech as more indelible than writing. In the less- formal and lower-pressure environment of a collaborative conference or tutorial, students are more willing to approach their ideas flexibly, without prematurely committing to an idea simply because it is down on paper. Once they have established this foundation of oral collaboration, students can begin to incorporate drafting as part of their invention process.
There are many ways to conduct early collaborative invention with FY writers. Obviously, early conferencing with students on their topic and argument would be ideal, but instructors realistically do not have time for multiple conferences on each paper. Keeping these time constraints in mind, I have found several simple ways to add collaborative invention to an already full curriculum. Most importantly, the instructor needs to shape the classroom attitude toward collaboration. The most impactful choice I made for my class was to develop an open atmosphere where I encouraged students to share their developing ideas. Early in the semester, I would often end class with an invitation for students to come up and ask questions about their topics and ideas. As the semester progressed, students voluntarily gathered for short before- and after-class discussions with me. As they heard each other’s questions and my answers, more questions were sparked in their minds. In these conversations, I was careful to highlight the evolution of the students’ thinking and remind the students that these changes were a natural and desirable part of the writing process.
Depending on the type of assignment, different means of collaboration may work better than others. With the Issues Paper, I found that students needed repeated help with invention in order to sufficiently narrow their topic. My most successful attempt to help them with this was my use of email feedback. Email “conversations” seemed to work well because they were low- pressure writing that felt less concrete than a handout. Students were more willing to change their thesis statements and outlines for this paper than for previous papers when I had asked for hard copies of this material. Because I knew about their research from their emails, I was able to approach students during class and ask how their papers were coming. At first, students seemed surprised that I was asking, but then they began to volunteer information about their progress. Another benefit of email “conversations” was that they were a less-intimidating method of communication for some students. Once I had opened the door to email feedback by asking students to email me their topics, working theses, and outlines, students who wouldn’t approach me for help in class began to approach me by email. By creating an open atmosphere for sharing ideas—especially ideas they weren’t sure about yet—I helped my students invent more viable arguments before they came to me with a draft.
While student-instructor collaboration is a vital part of FY writing, instructors do not have time to give students all the help they will need. In addition to using email correspondence to facilitate collaboration, incorporating the writing center into the invention process is one of the best ways to give students a more substantial experience with pre-draft collaboration. Writing centers have been set up with principles of collaborative learning in mind: they are intentionally full of noise and other signs of discussion (Boquet 4). In fact, the collaborative nature of writing centers has made them, in recent years, a means of reinvigorating a sense of community within the academy (Murphy 272). A significant benefit of using the writing center for invention is that the dynamics between the student and the advanced peer help to circumvent a common problem of student-instructor conferencing—instructors doing most of the talking and ending up attempting to replace the student’s text with their own (Black 41, 58). While peer tutoring also has the potential to become prescriptive, students generally feel less obligated to make changes that a tutor has suggested. And because tutors are not the instructor, they can avoid discussions about grades or the one “right” way to do the assignment. They can also devote significant portions of time to a student—thirty minutes goes a long way, especially in a “prewriting” tutorial where there is no draft to read and the time is spent bouncing ideas back and forth.
The benefits of using the writing center for collaborative invention are maximized when instructors send students to the center with a particular goal in mind. Considering the open-ended nature of invention, it is especially important to prepare students to discuss their ideas. In my class, I prepared my students for their prewriting tutorials through handouts. For example, I developed an invention handout for the Opinion Editorial that my students filled out and brought with them to the writing center. This handout required students to define their issue, audience, claim, appeals, and reasons. Once they had done this initial thinking, they were able to discuss their argument with a tutor, dramatically refining it. Later in the semester, once my students had gained a sense of the process of collaborative invention, I had some students mention that they had taken the initiative to visit the writing center and discuss their ideas with a tutor. By giving students a specific purpose to their visit by using handouts or other guides, instructors can maximize the benefits of peer interaction while ensuring that students are accomplishing the specific requirements of their class.
As FY writing instructors, we often express dismay at the quality of ideas in students’ drafts, yet we find our students unwilling to revisit their invention process. I have suggested that we use the scholarship on invention and collaboration to develop a practical approach to this issue: we can do something about students’ invention strategies if we model effective invention early on in the writing process, when students are still willing to make changes. Of course, our students will also need conferences during revision, and since our time is limited, we should consider simple non-time-consuming ways of allowing students to experience invention through spoken collaboration. This may mean taking an extra five minutes to talk with students after class, inviting students to email regarding their topics and then following up during class on a later date, or assigning students to take their prewriting to the writing center. If we see invention as a spoken collaborative endeavor and sell it to our students that way from the beginning, they will begin to realize where they can get ideas and when those ideas are coming together into a cohesive compelling argument. By developing this sense of pre-draft invention as FY writers, our students will be well on their way to assuming a fluid method of invention from the very beginning of the writing process.
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Black, Laurel Johnson. Between Talk and Teaching: Reconsidering the Writing Conference. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1998.
Boquet, Elizabeth H. Noise from the Writing Center. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2002.
Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’” Cross Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva. 2nd ed. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2003. 415-36.
Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.
Faigley, Lester. The Brief Penguin Handbook. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Longmon, 2006.
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Fitzgerald, Sallyanne H. “Collaborative Learning and Whole Language Theory.” Intersections: Theory-Practice in the Writing Center. Eds. Joan A. Mullin and Ray Wallace. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994. 11-18.
Glenn, Cheryl and Melissa A. Goldthwaite, eds. The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing. 6th Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.
Hjortshoj, Keith. “Helping Freshman Make the Transition to College Writing.” Writing Across the Curriculum Workshop. Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. 22 Mar. 2002.
Lauer, Janice M. “Rhetorical Invention: The Diaspora.” Perspectives on Rhetorical Invention. Tennessee Studies in Literature, vol. 39. Eds. Janet M. Atwill and Janice M. Lauer. Knoxville, Tennessee: U of Tennessee P, 2002.
LeFevre, Karen Burke. Invention as a Social Act. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.
Murphy, Christina. “On Not ‘Bowling Alone’ In the Writing Center, or Why Peer Tutoring Is an Essential Community for Writers and for Higher Education.” The Writing Center Director’ s Resource Book. Ed. Christina Murphy and Byron L. Stay. London: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, 2006. 271-79.