I recently surveyed more than 1,000 first-year writers at 35 colleges and universities in preparation to revise The Bedford Handbook. The survey respondents helped me see that developing effective habits of mind—curiosity, engagement, responsibility, and reflection—is just as important to students as developing writing skills. Writing skills are important, of course, but by themselves such skills are insufficient if a student isn’t curious to seek entry points in a research conversation or isn’t engaging other writers in the conversation.
In my own classes, I’ve started to tell students “Good academic habits make good college writers. Welcome to class.” And I talk about my writing habits, especially those that motivate me when words and ideas aren’t easily flowing and I find myself staring, unhappily, at a blank computer screen.
One of my pre-writing habits is what I call, for the lack of a better term, rehearsing—finding a way to talk about my ideas, even in their inchoate form, with anyone I can elbow into the conversation. Before writing a first draft, I try out ideas, frame them, find words to explain them, and hear myself think in the company of potential readers. Nothing is more helpful, when starting a new project, than seeing the reactions of my interlocutors. Do their faces go slack when I speak? Do they lean away and stare at their watch or computer screen? Or do they lean forward, smile, become animated, urge me on, and offer a counter position? I want to engage with readers right from the start of a project to rehearse possible directions and to shape possible arguments and rhetorical appeals.
To help students develop the habit of engaging with readers, I pair them with writing partners to try out ideas, to see perspectives other than their own, and to discover questions they might consider, and why these questions may matter. Such pre-writing sessions with peers help students approach writing assignments with the habit of mind of “giving and getting”—that is, giving an interesting twist or angle for consideration, and getting insight into a reader’s concerns about the topic. Such sessions also help students learn how to pose questions and to anticipate counter positions, key elements in framing arguments. Rather than staring at blank computer screens as they plan and draft their papers, students benefit from hearing the voices of potential readers, voices that might encourage them to believe they have something to say to readers who want to hear from them.
Dear Readers: Rehearsing is a writing habit I offer my students. What are some of your writing habits? And how do you pass them along to your students? Share with us by posting a comment below.