Join the Program in Writing and Rhetoric’s very own Kimberly Towers-Kubik as she continues exploring the complexities of assessing paper drafts in part two of her four part series! (Click here to check out part one)
Part Two: What Is the Draft, Really?
by Kimberly Towers-Kubik
In the past few semesters, when I abandoned grading for effort and assigned a grade based solely on the existence of mandatory components, it meant that my students were being forced to include elements that they were not necessarily ready to tackle. Contemplating this methodology and its effectiveness, it has recently dawned on me that assigning a grade for a draft might come into conflict with what we perceive as its fundamental purpose.
I once took off points on a student’s draft because it had not included transition sentences. My justification was that while she did not need to have transitions for each body paragraph in her draft, a few here or there would have helped to make her structure a bit more clear in the early stages so that I could better guide her. She came to my office to discuss the points that were lost and told me that she had been taught in the past to leave the addition of transition sentences for the revising/proofreading phase. She had been told to focus more on the thesis at hand and on collecting evidence to help inform her opinion. This student was particularly bright and conscientious, causing me to wonder if, besides my own nudging, her previous teachers had also been in error in telling her to develop transitions later on in the process. Had they, too, disrupted her natural process?
In order to understand the complexities of how we view the draft, it’s essential to look back to its roots. Strunk and White mention in The Elements of Style, originally published in 1959 and based off of Strunk’s much smaller 1919 version (xiii), that “the first principle of composition . . . is to foresee the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape” (15). By this definition, it appears that this early model included outlining and a projection of structure prior to the drafting phase. Hence, nudging my student to include transitions was an attempt to make her forge connections between her current and subsequent paragraphs which would then become indicative of the larger overall structure. This instruction at least loosely followed Strunk and White’s methodology. However, a fundamental conflict over how the draft comes into existence can be noted. Strunk and White go on to mention that sometimes, “the best design is no design” (15). They clarify that they are referencing less formal assignments but they do still acknowledge that in some cases and for some students, planning ahead is not mandatory which at first, appears to line up with the ideologies of Mills.
Barriss Mills seems to promote the idea that writing is an individualized process for each student. In his 1953 article “Writing as Process,” he states that even at that time, “semantic theory conceive[d] of meaning in terms of stimulus and response rather than clearly defined and fixed areas of meaning attached to individual words” (19). While Mills is referencing, in part, meaning making and grammatical instruction, it should be noted that his point about stimulus and response mirrors individualized thought processes. For example, while writing, thought can imbue thought which then imbues further thought and so on. Therefore, while some students are putting a freewrite into paragraph form, they are enhancing and further developing a clear conception of their larger purpose.
Hence, while some students benefit from pre-planning structures such as outlines, some might benefit from a gradual awakening of thought as a result of this back-and-forth process.
Such a concept is echoed by Peter Elbow in his 1983 article “Teaching Thinking by Teaching Writing,” explaining, “when someone really gets going in a sustained piece of generative writing and manages to stand out of the way and relinquish planning and control – when someone lets the words and images and ideas choose more words, images, and ideas – often a more elegant shape or organization for the material is found” (37). Some students, including my former student mentioned above who was quite focused on following teacher instruction, could benefit from a more organic means of deriving a thesis statement. However, there is reason to doubt that Mills ultimately supports such freedom of gradual expression.
While Elbow and Mills appear to have similar ideologies, Mills diverges upon further perusal of his article. He eventually goes on to state that “purpose is at the very center of the writing process” (20), which falls in line with Strunk and White’s stance that a goal needs to be conceived of early on. Furthermore, he states, “if related to the concept of purpose, the selection and organization of material can be made much more meaningful, as parts of the process of communication rather than as ends in themselves” and that “the cumbersome business of formal outlining . . . can largely be dispensed with” (23). While his sentiments on outlining may differ from Strunk and White, he essentially exchanges preconceived goal setting with the notion of purpose. At this point in the article, the reader is led to question the freeing nature of his point about stimulus and response, particularly if he encourages that student writers develop a purpose prior to the start of the writing process.
Although I have only skimmed the surface on varying opinions on the draft, it is clear that even in its conception, our definition of the draft was in conflict. That being said and considering its roots, is it even founded to assign a number to its creation? Should a draft really be written with a particular purpose in mind? Should a thesis statement absolutely be conceived of prior to its creation and should an outline be developed based on this thesis statement? What about the interstitial spaces between additions to paragraphs? Does thought not occur between paragraphs, sentences, and words? Maybe it is time to reconceptualize the idea of the draft and maybe this rethinking has everything to do with context.
Joe Labriola is an author, blogger, and lecturer of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. He enjoys writing, swimming, and cooking crazy Joe-coctions. His more eccentric hobbies include collecting beach glass, reading great books at bars, and describing himself in the third person when writing "about me" biographies. Please visit some of his very professional social media sites for more info!