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Reflecting on Long Writing vs. Hard Writing

posted: 5.10.11 by Traci Gardner

hard workHow much of the writing you do is long writing? That is, what writing would you describe as a kind of ongoing maintenance, repetitive task, or continual research? What parts of your writing consist of filling things out or finishing things up? When are you grinding out text, explaining ideas, and working out the last details?

Now compare that kind of composition, long writing, to hard writing. Think about the writing projects where you have to apply yourself, think deeply, and take some risks. Hard writing may still take a lot of work and many hours of scribbling, typing, and revising. Where long writing is about gathering ideas and explaining connections, hard writing is about discovering and recognizing connections. Do you see the difference?

For me, long writing most often takes the form of searching and thinking about news feeds, journal articles, and blog posts for stories about teaching at the college level, composition and rhetoric, literacy, and literature. A lot of that work is public, shared via my Twitter account @newsfromtengrrl. Some of it I jot out and save in one of three folders on Evernote: lesson ideas, blog posts, or social media. Beyond that, I have notes in journals and notebooks, cryptic ideas on sticky notes, partial drafts in HTML files, and scribbled lists on the back of recycled paper I’ve pulled out of the trash.

The hard writing comes when I look through all those assorted notes and ideas, notice some connections or find an idea that grabs me, and manage to pull everything into some kind of new text. Usually my hard writing is marked by frantic typing and completely focus on the computer screen. One of my former officemates described me as “typing like a mad woman” one afternoon. She didn’t realize I was just doing some hard writing.

I found this way of describing my writing in Seth Godin’s blog entry, Hard work vs. Long work. The way Godin pitches it, you might think there’s a class difference at play. Long work is done by pencil-pushing lawyers, farmers, hunters, and factory workers, while the hard work is done by an insightful litigator. Hard work and long work don’t really break out that way, though. Farmers and hunters do plenty of hard work too. Everyone does.

Further, no one out there is likely to be doing just one or the other. People do a lot of long work on their way to hard work. Godin’s hard worker, the insightful litigator, put in plenty of hours at long work. She has to read volumes of case law, keep up with current legislation, and study the nuances of the case at hand before she does the hard work that “synthesizes four disparate ideas and comes up with an argument that wins the case—in less than five minutes.” Likewise, hard work can be followed by lots of long work. That insightful litigator still has to go to the trouble of looking up the references, preparing the briefs, and arguing the case.

So how does all this matter in the classroom? I often ask students to reflect on their writing. Usually those questions ask students to step back and think about their drafts. For instance, here’s a question on reflection I wrote for one of my Lists of Ten:

REFLECTION: Once you’ve reread everything you’ve written, spend a few minutes reflecting on the piece. Jot out answers to the following questions before your session:

  1. What part of this draft is the strongest?
  2. What part of this draft will you work on next?
  3. Imagine at least 3 things that you might do to change this text. Jot down what they are and why you’re thinking of doing them. Begin your response with “What if”—for example, “What if I cut the second paragraph completely? I wonder if that would make the focus clearer.”

I still like those reflection questions. They’re a good way to see how students read their own work and whether their plans are likely to improve their drafts.

Having read Godin’s description of long work and hard work, however, I see the potential for another very useful kind of student reflection. By asking students to tell me about their long writing and their hard writing, I can see if they are applying their effort in the right places. Are they so worn out by the long writing that they never get to the hard writing? Do they stick with the hard writing long enough to take real risks? Have they allowed enough time in their writing process for the long tasks? Do they understand that it takes both kinds of writing to arrive at an effective text?

Suddenly, I have a completely new way to talk with students about their writing. I’m especially interested in those conversations I have with students who insist they have worked so hard on their drafts. Now I know how to reply: Did you do hard writing or long writing? If I can help students understand that question, I’ll be a bit closer to helping them improve their texts.

[Photo: hard work by silas216, on Flickr]

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