In Lewis Carroll’s tale Alice in Wonderland, the following dialog takes place between the King and the White Rabbit. Alice is on trial, and the Rabbit believes that he has a letter that might prove her innocence. He asks the King to allow him to read the letter. After the King agrees, the Rabbit asks: “Where shall I begin, please, your Majesty?” And the King answers: “Begin at the beginning…. And go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Writing, of course, is not the same as reading, but writers who are used to the product-based approach to composing often work on their compositions in a manner similar to the one in which the Rabbit read his letter. As you recall, the product-based approach requires writers to “think before they write.” According to this theory, we have to plan and lay out our whole compositions in our heads before we can begin writing them down. Consequently, a writer who has the whole piece stored in his or her mind, can quite easily write it from the beginning through the middle and to the end. After all, according to this approach nothing should change in the content of the piece during the act of writing itself. According to the product theory, writing is a sequential and orderly process of transcription.
Having studied the process model, however, we know that the content of every piece of writing gets developed during composing and not before. Thus, when we are working on a paper, we are not merely committing to paper or computer screen some pre-determined and pre-planned ideas that existed in our heads before we began composing. Instead, we are formulating and refining those ideas as compose. Such an approach allows us to take care of the content of the piece before be begin to worry about its structure.
Writers who approach composing in a linear way, tend to think about their pieces in terms of structure rather than content first. That is, before they even come up with enough to say, they, at least subconsciously, begin to worry about introduction, body, conclusion, and other structural elements of a text that does not yet exist. It is difficult for them to do otherwise because, if writing is linear (and in their minds it is), then you have to create the pieces of the future paper sequentially. According to this method, it is impossible to write the body of a text before the introduction. Similarly, within this framework, you cannot write a conclusion before the introduction is finished, and so on.
Writing is a non-linear and recursive process. This means that most writers do not “begin at the beginning” of a piece and “end at the end.” Instead, composing takes places in chunks, with authors going back and forth between clusters of ideas and writing possibilities, constantly reviewing and revising them, and moving them between the various parts of the prospective text.
So, how might this non-linear approach to writing work in practical terms? To understand, consider one student’s composing process.
Melissa Hull was a student in one of my first-year writing classes. One of the assignments in that class required her to find and study a text produced by some oppressed or under-represented ethnic or cultural group and to show how that group had, over time, adjusted its writing and its self-representation in order to survive in a society dominated by other cultures. Melissa decided to study texts produced by Arvanites, an ethnic and linguistic minority in Greece. Melissa’s approach to the project is an excellent example of the recursive and non-linearity nature of writing. I interviewed Melissa to gain an insight into her research and writing processes.
The following are summaries of parts of our conversation.
PZ: Could you describe the early stages of the project? How did you begin to make sense of the assignment?
MH: I started to take notes and jot down ideas before even finding any texts written by Arvanites. However, I did not want to get too far along into the project without showing it to someone first. I was worried that maybe I was doing something wrong.
PZ: How did you start your research and why did you choose to write about Arvanites?
MH: I did some searches of online databases on the library websites on marginalized cultures. At first, the assignment was a little confusing, though.
PZ: Could you describe the writing of the first draft?
MH: I did some searches and found a lot of materials about Arvanites but none by them. It appears that their language is almost dead, so there aren’t many written texts by them. I found some texts on the web that said they were by Arvanites, but they were in Greek, so I could not go with them. I decided to start writing the draft just to make a better sense of the assignment and to go by what I had. I thought things would become clearer as I went. I ended up writing five drafts.
PZ: I seem to remember that you struggled after you write the very first rough draft? What was difficult and how did you resolve the problems?
MH: I knew absolutely nothing about them, but they seemed interesting and wanted to find out.
PZ: Could you describe the differences between your first and following drafts?
MH: After I wrote the first draft and received some feedback from my workshop group, I began to understand that I need a change of direction in my approach because I was not going to be able to find enough texts by the Arvanites. So, I looked a bit broader and wondered if I could use other elements of their culture, such as architecture and crafts, as texts. I was also beginning to realize that the point of my paper could be that there weren’t enough texts by the Arvanites and that facts showed something about their culture. So, my point of view on the subject changed as I kept writing drafts and researching.
As you can see from these excerpts, Melissa’s plans and the direction in which her paper was going change as she conducted additional research, revised, and received responses from her classmates and instructor. She was creating meaning in and through the process of research and writing.
How does the non-linear and the non-sequential nature of the writing process affect you as a writer? It urges you to move away from thinking about your compositions in structual terms of an introduction, body, and conclusion. Very often, when students discuss their writing plans with me, they say something like “and then, in this paragraph, I will have idea X. And then in the next paragraph, I will include story Y.” Certainly, there comes a time in the writing process when a writer needs to revise for structure and coherence deciding how to organize paragraphs and sentences. But, in my experience, many student writers begin to worry about structure way too early, way before they have fully formed and developed their ideas for writing.
So, as you begin to write your next piece, I invite you to begin by thinking not about the structure of your yet unwritten text but about its content. You will create the structure later, once you know what kind of material you have for your writing. Your content will determine the structure of your paper, and you will generate that content not by going through some predetermined routine, but by working in a creative, non-linear, and non-sequential way.