Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Write What You Know (Unless Your Mom Knows Better)

You've probably heard the adage, "Write what you know."

It's good advice for those wondering if they have anything worth writing about. The point is that the people, information, places, and conversations you're involved with are fair game for writing. Any topic can be made interesting, compelling, even fun or funny, if your treatment of that topic works.

But you might also want to write what you don't know. Say you'd like to put something together about aliens invading earth, or weasels doing war dances, or tadpoles. But you don't know the basics of how those things work. (Even in fiction, the reader expects some semblance of reality, whether or not that information makes it into the book.) What do you do? Ask an expert. Like my mom.

Let me explain. I didn't grow up on a farm, but farm animals and farm scenes creep into my writing. Who can resist a wet-nosed calf or a litter of pink piglets? How do I get information about how farms work? I ask my mom. She's my go-to farm girl, with loads of information on chickens and eggs, animal husbandry--that's about animals having babies, to you and me--milking cows and other farmy things.

So today when a critique member (Hi Laura!) wisely asked how all the farm animals in my book were miraculously born in the spring, I called Mom.

"Hi, Mom. Are farm animals usually born in the spring?"

What followed was a story about the hows and whys of animal life on a farm, with a sidebar about the size of chicken eggs.

[In case you're wondering, the answer is yes, farmers plan for their animals to be born in the spring. Who wants to tromp through the snow in the middle of winter to check on a newborn goat when you can simply separate potential moms and dads until it's warmer?]

So, I'd modify the standard adage, "Write what you know" to "Write what you know (Unless Your Mom Knows Better)," or unless you have other experts who can fill you in.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Writing As Process or Product?

When I taught Freshman Composition for two undergraduate institutions, our instructional mantra to our students was, "View your writing as process, not product."

This meant that students should see their writing as works which could be revised, rethought, reimagined many, many times (not just copy-edited), but never really finished. For some, this was a new idea, a new, laborious idea. They preferred to write the paper, turn it in, and be done with it, come what may. Others felt writing as process attached a name to what they'd been doing all along. They were comfortable with the give and take and were relieved to know their institutions valued it as well.

In practical terms, writing as process meant that we used classroom time to brainstorm appropriate topics together and to group-critique or peer-edit one another's papers. For instructors, it meant that once a student finally turned in his paper, he could use the instructor's further feedback to improve the paper, and potentially get a better grade, many times over. But it wasn't a gimme; students had to use the feedback to rethink their works. The dedicated writers in my classes often turned in three or more versions of each essay assigned.

What did all this reimagining entail? Students had to learn not only the value of brainstorming but ways to brainstorm. They had to learn how to provide feedback concretely but tactfully. They had to learn how to receive feedback, how to evaluate it, what to do with it, and ultimately, whether or not altering their works accordingly would meet their writing goals and preferences and the assignment's requirements.

I've been on both sides of the classroom: as an English undergraduate and graduate student and as a writing instructor teaching others how to write. Care to guess which view of writing I was and am most comfortable with--process or product?

Right. Process. It has always come naturally to me. The brainstorming (also known as prewriting)--the time before you pick up a pen, when you let your mind wonder "What if?" The drafting--and drafting, and rethinking, and drafting, and printing out, and reprinting out, and reading aloud, and drafting, and revising, and rethinking, and rereading. The critiquing--asking others whose feedback or skills you trust to read your work and tell you where you fell short and where you hit the bullseye, followed by more drafting and revising and printing out and reading aloud. The editing--perfecting word-level choices, sentence constructions, punctuation, and grammar.

I haven't been in college or taught Freshman Composition for awhile now, but every time I approach a writing task, I use the same things I learned and taught and was drawn to earlier in life: brainstorming, drafting, revising and rethinking, getting feedback from professionals I trust, further revising and reimagining, followed by editing.

As to the feedback portion, I am a long-term member of two online critique groups--shout out to Critcasters and Rhyme & Reason--and to one in-person crit group--PB Thursday. These groups are filled with published and pre-published, agented and pre-agented professionals in the area of writing for children, and I couldn't be more grateful to them for their advice, support, wacky ideas and brilliant suggestions. They are my first and best readers.

I also periodically consult intelligent and witty people I've met along the way whose advice I respect, people like Ellen Jackson and Laurie Accardi. And my mom isn't a slouch at writing and giving honest feedback either. Hi, Mom!

Where do you fall in the process/product debate?