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Writers Writing about Writing and Reading

posted: 8.12.11 by Nick Carbone

On WPA-L, a discussion list for Writing Program Administrators, Steven Corbett pointed article in Inside Higher Ed, by Kimberly Epting called “Precision First”. Epting, an assistant professor of psychology at Elon College wrote in response to an opinion piece in the New York Times where the writer called for teaching students concision. Steven’s citing of a psychology professor talking thoughtfully about teaching writing reminded me of a different article, one that instead of being written by a psychology professor, instead cites heavily from a psychology professor writing about writing.

The article is  “Slow Poke: How to be a Faster Writer,” and it’s in Slate Magazine. The writer – Michael Agger — cites heavily from “Professional Writing Expertise,” by Ronald Kellogg, an essay published in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.  As an aside, the Kellogg reference lead me to CompPile, and his work is indexed there.  From CompPile I learned that Kellogg has a book called The Psychology of Writing which I hadn’t heard about before, but that looked interesting enough that I bought an e-book copy.

But back to Agger’s piece and why it’s worth looking at:

Agger starts by citing examples of writers who can write quickly, who can turn out work fast, and wishes he were like them. In his search to find out why he cannot write that fast, he traces to Kellogg’s essay by way of a reference to it in Outliers; he then goes on to summarize Kellogg via the lens of his own writing life and desires. Here’s a sample from Agger doing that.

Kellogg, a psychologist at Saint Louis University, tours the research in the field, where many of the landmarks are his own. Some writers are “Beethovians” who disdain outlines and notes and instead “compose rough drafts immediately to discover what they have to say.” Others are “Mozartians”—cough, cough—who have been known to “delay drafting for lengthy periods of time in order to allow for extensive reflection and planning.” According to Kellogg, perfect-first-drafters and full-steam-aheaders report the same amount of productivity. Methinks someone is lying. And feel free to quote this line the next time an editor is nudging you for copy: “Although prewriting can be brief, experts approaching a serious writing assignment may spend hours, days, or weeks thinking about the task before initiating the draft.”

The Agger piece strikes me as useful in many ways. If you’re teaching a Wardle/Downs approach about Writing About Writing,  Agger’s piece is not too dissimilar in structure to the kind of thing you might ask students to write:
* An opening that frames a question or context or desire around writing
* A transition in to how the writer thought/investigated that issue
* A summary of work that helped the writer get at the issue, using the summary to reflect back on the opening question

Also, the Agger’s piece, coming as it does from a writer and not a writing teacher, but a writer dipping his toes into the kind of reading we do, is simply also just an interesting model for students of an essay where someone who is not an expert starts to engage with works by experts.  Agger’s expertise is applying what he learns to his situation, to his view of himself as writer. Students can do that; they can apply what experts say to their own understandings of an issue.  So even if you’re not teaching a ‘writing about writing’ based course, the Agger essay can be useful for students to think about as one way (not _the_ way) to explore and think about a text they are reading which is new to them.

Oh, and if you get a chance, look at Ronald Kellogg’s work as well.  I’m glad I downloaded Kellogg’s book after learning about him from a non-expert in our field.

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