Taking the Pot off the Stove: Teaching Students to Stop Writing Well

Writing Center Tutors, Writing Centers / Monday, March 2nd, 2015

By Rob McAlear

Rob McAlear is an Assistant Professor of English at The University of Tulsa, where he also directs the Writing Program. He is a former Assistant Director of the Writing Resource Center at Case Western Reserve University and UW-Madison Writing Center consultant.

“The aspects of things which are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something –because it is always before one’s eyes.)” -Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

McFarlin Library
McFarlin Library, the Home of TU’s Writing Center

Writing may be an endlessly recursive process, but writing tasks are not. My grocery list is finished, not abandoned. My writing, like my students’, has deadlines. In fact, from what I can see, lots of writing gets done every day. Yet teachers of writing are reluctant to talk about stopping writing, and this reluctance is often coupled with the idea that writing is never really finished—a conception observably untrue and discouragingly Sisyphean for our students.

There is an important difference between writing never being finished and our learning to write never being finished—especially for our teaching of students. Here I think recognition of our orientation is important. Teachers of writing usually enjoy writing (or think they should), and they value writing and written works. So talking about stopping writing can carry a symbolic charge, the equivalent of discussing stopping thinking critically. But this is not the situation that many of the writers that come to see us in the writing center find themselves in. The writers we see have writing tasks that they want to finish, and we should teach them how to finish well.

The Kendall Bell, which TU students ring to mark the end of their time at the university.
The Kendall Bell, which TU students ring to mark the end of their time at the university

After all, despite our focus on writing processes, much of what we actually are trying to teach writing students is when to stop writing. When we tell a student that they need to further revise a draft, aren’t we also telling them that they have stopped too soon? Don’t students leave our writing consultations with revision plans because we want them to do at least “these things” before stopping? Isn’t the warrant behind the disparagement of merely spellchecking and turning in that this person does not know the sufficient conditions for stopping? Once you start to look for it, when and how to stop hovers all around our teaching of writing.

Our students are aware of this on some level too, but most of them also know talking about it is taboo. They have learned that. Instead, they come to the writing center or our office and ask questions around it: about projected grades, and whether this is “what we want” from them. They become frustrated when they feel that they have answered all of our comments and are told to revise yet again. Can we really blame them? Imagine being given a task and not being given clear criteria for finishing, or being told that you will never be finished, not really, or that you will be finished when you have met your purpose in some abstract way that you don’t understand. That sounds pretty frustrating!

I think writing teachers’ inability to talk about doneness well, and our reticence to discuss it with students is actually a significant pedagogical hurdle to teaching writers. We need to talk openly about how and why to stop writing with our students. My time in writing centers has convinced me that they are an ideal place to encourage students to think about stopping writing. In this post, after laying out some thoughts that have come from my research on stopping, I want to put forward why and how writing centers can help students talk about finishing their writing tasks.


Talking about Stopping

Acorns, a common symbol of entelechy
Acorns, a common symbol of entelechy

My own interest in doneness is not just an inversion of the process mantra, but an attempt at Kenneth Burke’s “perspective by incongruity.” That is, thinking about how to talk to students about doneness can provide insight into to my own pedagogical blind spots. It is tempting to see an emphasis on stopping as a reversal of Donald Murray’s well-known dictum, to say instead “product, not process.” However, I don’t believe that talking about doneness with students is a return to a product oriented pedagogy unless the discussion is procedural, taking the form of a prescriptive list of steps. In fact, since students will always respond differently to writing prompts, doneness means multiplicity, endless variation in response and writing processes. After all, however similar starting points to writing might be, endings are almost always different. A solid pedagogy of doneness would recognize this diversity and encourage it.

I make this point to dispel the idea that talking about ending is prescriptive or limiting. On the contrary, I think doneness pushes at the limits of our vocabulary as instructors. Teachers, we feel, should know where they want their students to go and help them get there. In the classroom, teachers construct syllabi backwards, scaffolding assignments to build skills toward learning outcomes. Writing tutors plan conferences with the goal of having students arrive somewhere at the end of the session. Even as we acknowledge that students have different ways of getting to the destination (and that not all arrive), we aspire to have our pupils arrive in more or less the same place. In short, we are accustomed to having a clear idea of purpose. We are guides, and guides should have an idea of where they are going. What else would be the point of teaching? So it is understandable that many of us are uncomfortable with not being able to fully articulate for students what a finished piece of writing would look like. We feel it is an area to be “passed over in silence.”

In the Gorgias, Socrates says that rhetoric is a knack, like cooking, something learned from experience rather than built upon truth or causes. All these centuries later, when we tell students that their writing is “not quite done,” we still feel a bit like cooks— or judges in a baking contest. But, so what? People need to learn to cook too. We shouldn’t be cowed by the dominance of positivism. As long as people form societies, rhetorical sensibilities are here to stay. In fact, the longer I teach, the more I believe that teaching writing is about helping students to develop a rhetorical sensibility based on experience, to transfer a kind of judgment that they already have in their everyday life to their writing and to help them to develop it further. In our daily life, part of a developed rhetorical sensibility is not only knowing your purpose, but also when you have met it or should stop trying. Likewise, stopping well when writing requires an understanding of the rhetorical situation that is sophisticated and not easily reducible to skills—though skills are clearly constitutive. Stopping well involves, at a minimum, a thorough understanding of purpose, criteria, audience, reasons, persuasion, and evidence, and the ability to integrate these into a coherent piece of writing.


Why and How Writing Centers

A tree winding down for the winter

One reason I find writing center work so rewarding is that it allows me to “just teach.” To put this another way, in Peter Elbow’s gatekeeper/ally dichotomy model of institutional instruction, the writing center consultant is all ally. Writing center consultants are able to talk to students about writing in a non-oppositional and supportive way. For students who may be struggling with understanding how their writing fits into their evolving schema, talking about doneness with their instructor feels risky. It requires admitting that they are not sure they have (and indeed may not have) an understanding of an assignment, and it feels dangerously close to discussing grades—something savvier students know to avoid with their teachers. In contrast, writing centers have as their mission “teaching the writer,” and a strong center makes the student feel supported and safe, structurally safe, in a way that the type of evaluation inherent to a classroom can make difficult.

Not only does the type of relationship that centers have with students make them so valuable, the type of training and practice writing center consultants have makes them ideal for teaching students to consider doneness. Through training and practice, a good consultant will work to figure out purpose and the rhetorical situation by combining an understanding of writing across the institution with her and the student’s understanding of an assignment. The experience that consultants have inhabiting the positions and purposes of other teachers across the university, often from disciplines quite different from their own, can make them particularly astute at arriving at a writing assignment’s purpose—and purpose implies the criteria to end.

Despite this seemingly ideal positioning, consultants often inadvertently hide or suppress their work to discover telos from their students. Consultants may ask a few questions and read the prompt, but they seldom take the time to verbalize their own understanding of the assignment and what it is that informs that understanding. Yet this is a teaching moment for doneness, purpose, and rhetorical judgment that arguably outweighs any help offered to the particulars on the page; it speaks directly to modeling an understanding of the rhetorical situation for our student. Adopting an attitude of joint discovery of purpose and criteria for finishing can lead to a type of collaborative rhetorical teaching that can happen especially well in a writing center appointment.

While verbalizing our thought process when consulting can be a great first step, we can also just make doneness part of the discussions about writing that we have with our students. Making doneness something that is explicit can be empowering to students, who then leave our consultations having externalized some completion benchmarks to guide their revisions. I would encourage other consultants to try making a discussion of stopping part of student revision plans. Since stopping is so entangled in the types of conversations that many of us already have with writers, this is usually a matter of emphasis rather than wholesale change, but I have seen it powerfully transform the understanding of students as they move from purpose to end and in between.

Sunset in Tulsa
The sun setting over Tulsa

Finally, consultants can talk explicitly with writers about what types of strategies they use for deciding to stop, and suggest some additional ones. In a forthcoming study of how beginning college writers decide to stop writing, my colleague and I discovered that many new college writers use a narrow range of strategies when deciding doneness. For example, many students rely only on affective criteria such as whether the paper makes them “proud” or seems “clear.” By working with students to offer additional strategies for deciding to finish, such as considering external criteria and process steps, writing centers can help develop in students this important part of rhetorical judgment.

Our ability to fully articulate criteria for doneness seems likely to always fall short for most types of academic writing. The rhetorical situation is just much too complex. Yet writing, good writing, gets finished every day, and we need to do our best to give our students the rhetorical sensibility to finish well even while acknowledging that such a sensibility is non-exhaustive. In fact, in the field between our ability to articulate ending and ending itself, lies the writer’s voice. Our jobs as teachers of writing should be to bring students up to the edge of that field and set them loose. And if, as Socrates would have it, rhetoric is indeed similar to cookery, then we should remember that no one has ever learned to cook by being told to leave the pot forever on the stove.

7 Replies to “Taking the Pot off the Stove: Teaching Students to Stop Writing Well”

  1. I applaud Dr. McAlear for addressing a topic we rarely discuss or think about, really, except in the most random and haphazard ways. As writing center consultants, we have opportunities every day to confront the issue head-on. In my experience, students (and this applies to graduate students as well as undergrads) often write until the project is due and then simply stop, or they become frustrated with the work (or run out of ideas) and give up. Dr. McAlear suggests ways in which we can intervene before the student gives in to despair and instead have a realistic discussion about what it means to finish a given writing assignment. Of course we have to contend with deadlines, but we need to help our students learn to do it in a productive and pragmatic fashion. “Doneness” in many ways is situational, isn’t it? We also need to talk about bringing a written text to a point at which the student has addressed the requirements and/or the purpose of the piece to the fullest extent possible at that moment. What a great time to take it to the writing center and get a second opinion—before it is due.

    I will look at my own writing in a different way after reading this blog post. How do I decide when a conference paper or article or a dissertation chapter is “done”? What do I mean when I say that? My tendency to tinker and revise endlessly might explain why I don’t cook: it never feels good enough to share. Teaching others to address doneness in a way that assures they have expressed their ideas and perceptions clearly within given constraints will only help me figure out how to do that with my own writing. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll even learn to cook. Thanks for this stimulating post.

  2. Professor McAlear’s thoughtful post opens up an interesting question about how we conceive of process. As I started my dissertation, my undergraduate advisor offered two pieces of advice:

    “Think of your dissertation proposal as a kleenex. It will get soiled and torn and you will throw it away when it has served its purpose.”

    “Think of your dissertation as a handkerchief. It will get soiled and torn, but you may be able to clean it and use it for something.”

    I took these two statements to heart as I wrote and adopted the twin mantras of “It’s better than good, it’s good enough” and “It’s better than good, it’s done,” I conceived of the process of researching the dissertation as the particularly valuable part (in terms of what it was preparing me to do afterward) and writing the dissertation as a sifting and winnowing process that would sufficiently demonstrate the valuable part. I had the purpose. However, after publishing a number of articles and then returning to the dissertation to revise it for a book, I am able to see the development I have undergone. The dissertation was good enough, if problematic. It was functional, but it lacked elegance, and it is the elegance of thought as demonstrated in expression that is going to make the book more broadly valuable. What I have come to see is the purpose of the longer process as one of developing me.

    What any of that has to do with writing instruction is, I think, to help students see that they are participating in a larger developmental process for a purpose. When they go to college–many going for the degree (and the football and beer), but others truly going for the education–students think in terms of a final product and what it will get them to. It is difficult to remember, in the midst of the process, that all of this (the classes, the exams, the papers) is supposed to work in support of everything else, which is to develop the student into someone who can continue the process of developing herself afterward. That is the real purpose universities support. It may be worth reminding students who are stressed about the emphasis on process that it is okay to see something as good enough, i.e. as having helped them develop toward their own goals. It is okay to make the decision to be done with a paper because they may discard it after or they may circle around. But what they are practicing (and it is practice, whether the writer is an undergraduate or a graduate student or beyond) is to develop toward that elegance of thought through expression that will propel them toward their goals.

    Such is only ever going to be mildly encouraging to the student who wants to know if it will satisfy their professor, but it is always good to remind him that it is just a paper, and that he can decide what and how much he is getting out of it to make it worthwhile to him.

  3. Great post, Rob. Thanks.

    I immediately thought of my experience teaching middle school. Unlike college students, 7th and 8th grade students are often making their first foray into critical or analytical writing. And they’re clearly concerned about doneness, too, judging by how frequently I’m asked, “Is this good? Am I doing this right?” Transparency about what I want from them and how they’ll get there is essential to getting them to write well (and, I think, getting them to internalize that there’s more to finishing a composition than merely meeting its length requirement). I often provide students with rubrics and many, many examples of exemplary work before walking them through the process.

    Unfortunately, this sort of transparency seems to drop off once you reach the college level. Few, if any, of my professors provided a rubric or intimated in any concrete way what they expected from their students. Not to imply, of course, that the professor’s to blame for shoddy work. Responsibility, I think, lies somewhere between the student and teacher.

    I’m all in favor of having frank discussions about doneness with students, especially at the college level. Just because you’re a freshman taking your first poetry class doesn’t mean you know how to think (and talk) about, around, and through a poem. As you say in the post, learning about writing is an endlessly recursive process, and even undergraduate (or graduate) students can benefit from having conversations about stopping writing well. Writing centers, as well as savvy professors, can help.

  4. Thank you for your thought-provoking post, Rob. I appreciate your refreshing discussion of the (perhaps counterintuitive) fruitfulness of talking about doneness.

    I couldn’t help thinking of Robert Boice’s “Advice for New Faculty Members,” in which he provides ten rules for achieving one’s goals in writing, teaching, and service. Rule number four is stop. He writes, “Timely stopping may be harder than timely starting because the former relies on impulse management, something largely untaught in U.S. schools. Without it, we work beyond the point of diminishing returns and displace other necessary activities. Without it, we let impatience and its mindlessness rule at a point in life where we need to be taking care of ourselves and solving the right problems.”

    What better place than a writing center to cultivate patience and mindfulness in the pursuit of one’s academic goals? Indeed, if part of our work is demystifying the writing process, why keep the importance of finishing (or letting go of) a piece of writing so shrouded in mystery?

    I look forward to you and your colleagues’ forthcoming study.

    Lauren Vedal
    Writing Specialist
    Bates College

  5. Thanks to you all for taking the time to respond. Your thoughts have helped me to develop some further questions for my research into this aspect of writing. I hope to have more to say soon!

  6. Rob, I really like your idea of a “pedagogy of doneness.” I have some very clear memories of WC sessions where I felt that the student was, essentially, “done” with that writing task; these sessions stand out in my mind (in part at least) because I felt somewhat transgressive telling them they were finished.

    Your post is very useful for me in thinking about how I might approach these situations in the future. In particular, your idea that doneness lies alongside purpose – that seems like an extremely useful idea, both for tutoring contexts and for classroom teaching. It connects the idea of finishing – a universal motivator, for better or worse – with rhetorical context in a way that I can see being really useful and effective for showing students why parsing, articulating, and attending to that context matters. This opens up new language and new logic for discussing writing as a process – a process that can and should reach an end.

  7. I agree, Becca, with your admiration for the concept of a “pedagogy of doneness”. The phrase itself makes me wonder how one could communicate these concepts to students, and reveals how little I have done to address this with my students.

    Because I am working within an environment that imposes artificial ends, with assignments, semesters, and grades all imposing their own finality, I sometimes forget that writers must be able to see beyond this and know when their work has been finished.

    This post has definitely given me some food for thought!

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