BY JULIE DANNEBERG
Jun 26, 2012
When I work with my middle school students as they conduct research projects, I find that often, their most pressing concern is to find out exactly how much (i.e. exactly how little) actual research they have to do in order to complete the assigned project. Of course, being the committed, diligent students we know middle school scholars to be, they explain that they don’t want to “waste” time doing research that they don’t need.
Ironically, as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, I often find myself faced with the same dilemma, only from the other side. I love doing research and can easily get caught up in the joy of tracing an interesting anecdote or tracking down a fascinating tidbit. As research or writing projects stretch out longer than I expected, I often find myself worrying that I am “wasting” time doing research that I don’t need, or tinkering with writing that doesn’t need to be tinkered with.
Whenever I face this dilemma, however, I often comfort myself with the words and sentiment of Richard Bausch, in comments he contributed to a book about writing called OFF THE PAGE. Bausch, a professional writer, assures both the inexperienced and experienced writer that “nothing is wasted.” This simple phrase has become my mantra as I do research and as I write rough drafts and it is the response I use with my middle school students when they are wondering how much is too much.
In OFF THE PAGE, Bausch tells about the first thing he ever published, a short story. But unfortunately, when he started writing it, he thought he was writing a novel. And he kept writing that novel to the tune of eight hundred pages. And only after he had done all of that writing did he realize that he didn’t have an eight hundred page novel but instead, a short story of less than one hundred pages.
What did he do? He scraped most of his original work, whittling away the words until he found the story within.
Obviously, Bausch spent a lot of time writing those eight hundred pages. Obviously, it hurt to let them go. But as told himself, “Nothing is wasted.” All of the writing, thinking, and research that went into his 800-page novel was the necessary knowledge base he needed in order to create the story that he eventually wrote.
It is good to have the attitude that no research that you do is wasted, even the gathering of facts and information that isn’t put into your final piece. It is good to have the attitude that no writing that you do is wasted, even the writing that you have to throw away. This is an important mindset because it allows you, the researcher and the writer, the freedom, or maybe it is the courage, to take a risk and to invest time and energy and thought into tracking down information that might never get into your article or working on a piece of writing that may never get beyond a first draft. And even if that writing is eventually thrown away, even if that research doesn’t materialize, it pays off.
Well, first of all, it is practice. Just as in sports, or music, or math, to get good at writing the writer needs to practice. A lot.
Secondly, if you believe that everything you write must be good, you won’t be willing to write something bad. And if you aren’t willing to write something bad, than you won’t risk experimenting with something new, or playing around in a new way with something old. You will be stuck writing the same thing over and over again because that is what you know how to do. As we know, it is a risk to step out of one’s comfort zone, but it is only outside of one’s comfort zone that one gets better and learns something new.
So, how does this thinking translate into the classroom, where you are limited by time and resources and student motivation? I believe that if you, the teacher, understand this concept and truly buy into this philosophy, you will automatically weave it into everything you do and teach in your writing classroom. It will help you, as the teacher, to keep your eye on the process more than, or at least as much as, the finished product. If you operate from this belief you will be more willing to encourage your students to take risks with their writing. You will say things like, “Have you ever thought about doing it another way? Try it and let’s compare the two versions and see which one you like better.” You will reward students who attempt something new even if their attempt isn’t a success. You will know that sometimes even though the writing is not a success, taking the risk always is. You will model this risk taking yourself when you show your students your mistakes or how you played around with a story, telling it from different perspectives or using a variety of formats.
Another way to weave this philosophy into your writing classroom is to design assignments that encourage students to do more writing than they actually need to complete the assignment that is being handed in. For instance, novelists often write biographies for each of their main characters or write about events or situations that don’t take place in the story, so they know the whole back story for each character before they get started. You could require something like this to be handed in along with the finished fiction project.
When I’m writing nonfiction and I get stuck, I often take a step back and write about my topic instead of working directly on it. For instance, when writing my picture book, MONET PAINTS A DAY, I wrote a reflection on Monet’s unswerving passion for his art, wondering on paper about where it came from and what fueled it. That, of course, morphed into a reflection on how I could create or follow my passions in my own everyday life, which then morphed into how to develop passion in my students. That thinking and wondering and writing eventually found its way back to my Monet biography in such subtle ways as my word choice when describing Monet’s work habits, and the facts that I decided to put in and those I chose to leave out.
This kind of additional writing for both fiction and nonfiction is important. Although the exact thoughts or words might never end up in the finished product, the additional thought and research adds depth to what you write because it adds depth to what you think about your topic or your story.
For me, “Nothing is wasted,” is a core belief I have that shapes my own writing and my teaching of writing. It is something that I hope comes through not only in the words I say but the choices I make, the ways I respond to my students and the assignments I give.
If you believe it, you teach it—and I believe it! Julie Danneberg has taught reading and writing in both elementary and middle school. Currently she teaches 7th grade reading. In addition, Julie is the author of many books for children and young readers, including FIRST DAY JITTERS and her just-released picture book biography, MONET PAINTS A DAY. Visit her website at www.juliedanneberg.com. Are you a teacher whose class is participating in the 2012 NaNoWriMo Young Writer’s Program or has in the past? We want to hear from you! Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2012 Julie Danneberg. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. Teaching Tips: The 'Fast and Furious' First Draft