Starting a slow-writing movement

Collaborative Learning, From the Director, Higher Education, Peer Tutoring, Tutorial Talk and Methods, Writing Center Theory, Writing Center Tutors, Writing Centers / Monday, January 24th, 2011

slow_writing_movementgraphicAs we launched a new semester in our writing center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this past week, I loved listening to the lively buzz in our center emanating from conversations about writing projects.  And as I eavesdropped, I was reminded of how much I value slow, detailed, substantial conversations about writing in progress.

Our writing center burst back into conversation last week, despite the arctic conditions of January in Wisconsin—through the first four days of the semester, 170 students already came in for consultations or scheduled ones.  These student-writers were, as writing center students always are, wonderfully varied: sophomores writing personal statements to meet a February 1st deadline for applying to our school of nursing, seniors sprinting to finish applications to some graduate schools that have later deadlines, grad students and senior-thesis students resuming regular weekly sessions as they work through long writing projects, students with incompletes from last semester anxiously trying to finish a project they wish they had finished already.

Even though the pace of that talk was usually brisk, these kinds of conversations actually slow down the writing process, right?  Not only for the obvious reason that meeting with a writing center tutor takes time, but also because during those conversations about their writing, writers are not always discovering simple, efficient solutions or following pre-programmed GPS directions.  They have to explain a lot of context to a new reader, go over ground they’ve already traversed, discover sometimes that they’ve lost their way, realize they have to do more research or read more carefully, clarify their goals, sharpen their claims, learn more about the genre in which they’re writing, play with alternative structures, revise, and revise again.  They have to slow down to think or to grope their way toward an answer to a difficult question.  Or they begin to see a connection between two different ideas or a productive tension or contradiction within their drafts, ones that will take a while to figure out and to clarify for readers.  And they have to pause to have a good laugh, to kvetch, to build a relationship with their interlocutor, to sip coffee or another favorite beverage, to trade advice about favorite writing spaces and equipment.  All of this conversation and these detours slow writing down . . . in often wonderful and productive ways.

slow_food_creativecommons2To help us all appreciate this slow, nuanced, and valuable talk about writing, I’ve decided that I want to start a new movement—a slow-writing movement—akin to the international slow-food movement.  Do you know about slow food?  It’s a powerful mix of agriculture, culinary arts, environmentalism, community, regionalism, politics, policy, and sensuousness.  Instead of seeking out the fastest available means to satisfy our hunger, we should, according to the slow-food movement, slow down to think about the sources of our food and enjoy the process of obtaining, preparing, and savoring food with others.  I don’t want to truss writing too tightly with cooking (extended metaphors and analogies are, I’ve concluded, usually better if they’re not extended).  But I believe there is something here.

We need to conceptualize the writing process—and writing instruction—so that a key goal is, in fact, to slow writing down.  Stretching out, savoring, and valuing the writing process have, of course, been central to the process model in composition research and practice for the past 30 years.  From experience, I know that every piece of my own writing is better—way better—when I slow down to think, talk, draft, reread, and really revise.

Some of the criticisms of the slow-food movement— the ways it may be unrealistic given its costs and given the pace of our lives—apply to slowing writing down, so that the process becomes a luxury.  Of course we can’t afford to slow down every writing project, but we can and should pace ourselves differently with some projects.

And we should view talking with readers—genuinely smart, interested readers who truly care, ones who ask hard questions, ones who make us think, ones who challenge us to do our best—as a delightful component of a slower, and better, process of writing.  Writing center consultants are eager to help you slow down.

What do you think—Want to join this new movement?  Explore some of the implications?  Or push back on the idea?  Please comment on this post.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  More later,

brad hughes
director, writing center
director, writing across the curriculum

18 Replies to “Starting a slow-writing movement”

  1. Wonderful post Brad! Given how much I love to cook (with a slow-cooker, of all things), it’s odd that I never thought of this comparison, but it works, it really does. What strikes me as most true here is the idea that the best writing — just like the best, most nourishing meals — happen largely because of and through the presence of other human beings. I’m proud to work at a place that’s long supported the “slow writing” movement, and plan to remain a dedicated member for years to come.

    Dinner, anyone?


  2. Great post. You’re on to something here, and I really enjoy the connection of the Slow Movement to the Writing Process.

    Too often all of us crave quick answers when taking one’s time and going through the process will create a better product. This post reminded me of a wonderful satiric essay I read years ago that implicitly lodges complaints at Americans and our addiction to speed. The essay is titled “How to Meditate Faster.”

    I think sometimes we all have the mindset of “How to Writer Faster.”

  3. This is a wonderful metaphor, Brad! It reminds us that slow food emerged only after a clear diagnosis of a social problem: the impact of quick, cheap food on the lives of busy westerners. This week I’ve read about the slow photography movement ( ), a response to the way digital cameras cheapen our experiences by teaching us that we can capture memories in a fraction of a second. What problem does slow writing seek to solve? The easy brevity of Twitter? The casual irrelevance of a Facebook status update? Or is there a more complicated, less technological source for the careless speed with which I and my students write?

  4. Hi Brad,

    Does this mean I need to start using organic syntax in my writing? All kidding aside, I like the analogy you’ve drawn in your post. I know I need to slow down my own writing process by starting earlier, allowing myself more time to incorporate revisions. My problem is that I tend to get over-anxious about my academic writing assignments, so I tend to want the whole experience to end rather quickly. Next time I begin an academic paper I’ll definitely keep in mind the notion of “slow writing” … thanks for your thoughts!

  5. Thanks for the post, Brad. This is so useful to me, because one of my goals for my Writing Center work this semester is to slow down in my sessions, take time to talk about the background context of the work, take time to wait patiently for the writer to think through a question I’ve asked or to formulate a new sentence, not react to what I often see as impatience on the part of the writer. All of this instead of offering advice right away or telling the writer how she should “fix” her work or how he could quickly improve his work in small ways. It’s interesting, because I think people veer toward fast food when they need a quick fix or are short on time. How many times do we feel like 30 minutes is nowhere near enough time for a slow writing session, so we opt for the fast writing option? And how can we catch ourselves and slow down?

    But this is a difficult problem given writers’ expectations. If I walked in to McDonald’s, expecting to be in and out in 5 minutes with a meal in my hand, and was told that they had to slaughter an organic, grass-fed cow first, then prepare the meal from scratch, I wouldn’t be too pleased. How often do our writers either state or imply that they want a quick fix? And how can we best respond to that and teach the value and benefits of slowing down?

  6. One of the other concepts that Slow Food champions is locality; while Mike raises the excellent point that Slow Food’s mission stands as a refutation of “cheap” and “fast,” to a great extent it also rejects the way such food systems eliminate regional cuisines, local traditions around meals, and the peculiarities of terroir in favor of monolithic standards. It seems to me that in order to embrace the slow, it’s vital to embrace the local–the ideosyncracies that comprise the vernaculars of a given foodway.

    The way I see this translating to a writing center context has to do with the ebb and flow of particular assignments or genres throughout the academic year. A certain determination is required if one would look at the thirtieth business school application with the same enthusiasm and freshness as the first, but this determination seems necessary if (following Slow Food doctrine) each local interpretation of a given preparation –or assignment–stands as its own artifact, demanding that we take it on its own terms. Thus, a “slow” mentality requires more than drawing out the process of the tutorial: it requires that an instructor resist automating the moves within tutorial as a result of his or her familiarity with the conventions of a given genre or assignment, frustrating both the cult of the universal standard, as well as the assumption that the goal of the tutorial is to bring unruly documents quickly to heel.

  7. That’s a powerful analogy. I like the idea of “digesting” writing!

    On the other hand, in watching the news this week, I’ve been struck by how powerful — and indispensable — Twitter has been in the rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia. Some food must be wolfed down, I guess, depending on the situation of the eating.

    Thanks for a smart piece that made me think!

  8. Brad, this is a great post. It makes me think of the discussions that arose when my Florida International University tutors, those still taking the tutor education class as well as those working in the center, read Anne Ellen Geller’s article “Tick Tock Next” in the Writing Center Journal. Then we slowed down our conceptions of time to discuss those times when clock time (fungible time) and experiential time (epochal time) interact in the writing center session.

    I love the way staff meetings, weekly at our center, allow us to slow down our reflections on the center, use our collective smarts in solving problems and tweaking policy, and come to conceive of our practices more reflectively.

    Our center has brisk traffic almost from the first day of the semester, and the students are pressed themselves for time. Finding ways to help them relax enough to do slow writing is a challenge, especially for those students who have jobs, families, and lots of stress.

    Still, as Alberta Gloria points out in her research on retention of Latin@ students, the main population of our south campus, writers benefit hugely from sessions with tutors that slow down enough to get to know the writer, to care about their culture and maybe their families, their backgrounds. They benefit from getting to know mentors and role models who are like them and who are highly successful. Latin@ students also benefit greatly from their own mini-successes, Gloria points out, and we cannot hurry the kind of thoughtful listening that allows us to analyze and respond positively to good writing or good thinking or good research. I feel that Latin@ students are not the only ones to benefit from these elements of the writing center conference. The tutors/consultants do, and so do native speakers. This careful, thoughtful, respectful tutoring takes time.

  9. I think I belonged to this movement before it became one. I’m glad to officially join, even as I try to imagine the limits of the analogy.

    My writing process is slow to begin with–tortuous, really–and writing a dissertation is exacerbating that slowness. The last thing I want to do, or be told, is to slow it down. (The thought is paralyzing!) In fact, I’m realizing that recent feedback from advisors has been helpful because it has actually simplified the writing task and streamlined my writing process. Without this, I quickly flounder and fail to produce anything substantial or sustaining, since we’re talking about food.

    To try extending the cooking metaphor (sorry, Brad!), I’ll compare my process of writing a dissertation with culinary school: because I bring a profound slowness to the training kitchen, my advisors–the master chefs–provide coaching and skill that prevents me from overcooking my meals. I just hope they continue to stomach what I serve them!

  10. I was struck on re-reading these replies to your post, Brad, about how vital listening and reflection are in these processes of slowing the process down, even under time pressure. Stephanie makes that point when she mentions that she has to take time to “wait patiently for the writer to think through a question I’ve asked or to formulate a new sentence, not react to what I often see as impatience on the part of the writer.” Reflection, paraphrasing, re-wording – these are wonderful ways into critical thinking and re-thinking as well as stylistic polishing.

  11. I’d like to join your slow-writing movement, Brad. Thank you. And thanks to Paula Gillespie for telling me about your blog entry. She mentioned it after I had told her about a get-to-know-one-another activity in our writing-tutor staff meeting two nights ago. They called it collabrodating, a spin-off on speed dating and, it now occurs to me, Roger Garrison’s method of two-minute one-to-one tutorials in a writing classroom. But Garrison’s method was good at getting students to write and for noticing discrete issues in a composition, not good for getting to know the composer. Sort of like the thirty-minute tutorials I advocate in Penn State Learning.

    I’m going to send your blog link to Penn State Learning’s writing tutors to find out how they think slow writing matches up with/against collabrodating and thirty-minute tutorials. I’m thinking that when I tell tutors they should feel free to take longer than thirty minutes when they need more time, that’s about as comfortable for tutor and writer as it is to linger at the table of a busy restaurant when the dishes have been cleared, the check has been delivered, the waiter keeps asking if you need anything else, and waiting customers are staring.

    Thanks also for what your responders have added to the idea, especially Tim Taylor’s slow photography, Melissa Tedrowe’s satiric “How to Meditate Faster,” Stephanie White’s notion of locality, and John Duffy’s reminder of the various ways different cultures see time.

    Thanks again, Brad. –Jon

  12. Conceptualizing the writing process and creating a writing center of this extent; is one I’d certainly support. I am an aspiring writer, currently approaching my sophomore year at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) online, and I know this particular writing community would be very beneficial, not only for myself, but for the many aspiring writers and future writers as well.

  13. Hi Brad-
    I was slow to find your article, but I am all in. For the past few years, I have been studying the parallels between industrial agriculture and industrial education,and looking at what education can learn from permaculture.
    Have you written more about this? If so, I’d love to read it. My latest project looks at the economics underlying industrial approaches to agriculture an education and considers what education can learn from environmental economics.

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