Yesterday, as part of the internship I have with an education nonprofit, I accompanied a group of about 30 elementary and middle school students to the Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles. Another volunteer and I were responsible for guiding a smaller group of four kids, all of whom were 7 or 8 years old, through the main gallery. We asked them questions about the artwork and took notes about their extremely imaginative responses in preparation for a writing workshop later that day.
After two hours of looking at art, fielding nonstop and often inexplicable questions (“Are you a girl or a boy? What’s your mom’s name? Do you like tomatoes?”), and reminding our students every two minutes not to touch the artwork, I was very ready to sit down and let the kids write on their own for a while. Unfortunately, one student was having trouble with a prompt asking him to write a story about one of the pieces we saw.
“I don’t wanna write anything,” he grumbled.
“Why not?” I asked.
“It’s too hard. I’m tired.”
You’re telling me, I thought. “Just write down to here,” I said, pointing to a spot about halfway down the page. “Then you can stop.”
Still, the student seemed reluctant. He closed his eyes and cradled his head in his hands, looking like he was about to doze off. But when I prompted him gently to start writing, he chastised me – he was thinking, and I was interrupting him.
I then had to help out a couple other students, and when I returned to the reluctant boy, he’d quietly begun his story.
“How do you spell ‘adventure’?” he asked.
Over the course of the next half hour, this student proceeded to write a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, only stopping every now and then to ask me how to spell something or excitedly share a plot twist he was about to write. He filled up the entire page.
Was the story full of spelling and grammatical errors? Sure. But was it also well-structured, imaginative, and hilarious? Absolutely. And if I’d been watching over his shoulder as he wrote, correcting his spelling every other word, I doubt it ever would have been completed.
I thought of this student while reading Winalski’s and Sommers’ pieces earlier today. Winalski tells us how her inner grammaticist blocked her from writing anything of substance for years, and once she got to college, she had to figure out a way to muffle her own concerns in order to actually complete her work. As Winalski puts it, “writing…is perhaps an ongoing process that necessitates a persistent willingness to try, fail, and try” (307-308). There’s no way that process can take place if one’s time and energy is taken up with attention to detail rather than the creation of a whole piece.
This same dilemma is present when overly-detail-oriented critiques come from external sources rather than internal ones. Sommers shows how teachers’ and professors’ comments on student work can be detrimental in that they collapse all aspects of revision into the same level of importance. For rough drafts, Sommers argues, the main concern should not be the clarity and composition of the individual sentences themselves – it should instead be the essence of the ideas within the paper. At this early stage in the writing process, students need to worry about getting their thoughts together and onto the page as completely as possible. It would be counterproductive at that point to prioritize grammar and spelling.
The point of the writing prompt at the museum was not to get students to produce a clean, finely crafted piece. It was to start them off in the process of writing, to help them engage creatively with the artwork we just saw, and ultimately to encourage them to write something at all. I think this is a good mindset for writers of all ages to adopt, especially when just starting out on a piece of writing. Here our focus should be on ideas, questions, arguments – intellectual content over writerly form. Following the rules of grammar and spelling, while crucial for clear writing, plays almost no role in the generation of written work itself.