English 101 - Project 1
Writing isn’t easy. In fact, it gets harder as you get better at it. It’s kind of unforgiving that way. As you develop your skills with words and research, you will find a growing awareness of how to do things better. And sometimes, in working to write better, you end up feeling as if your writing is somehow “worse.”
For other writers, it can be the opposite. You write something, and the more you work on it, the better you feel about it. The more you love it. The more convinced you are that every word is perfect, and you couldn’t possibly change a single one.
In both of these scenarios, your brain plays tricks on you. With time and practice, we almost always become better writers than we were before — and regardless of how good anyone may feel about their own writing, there will always be someone who disagrees. After all, there is no such thing as perfect writing.
Thus, you can’t always trust your own instincts about your own work. So in this lecture, we discuss how to evaluate your thoughts, feelings, and experiences so that you can maximize your successes in writing.
What a Bomber Pilot Can Teach Us
When I served in the army, we used to do this thing called the AAR: After Action Review. After a training exercise or some assigned task, we would sit down and talk about what went well, what went badly, and what lessons we had learned for next time.
Now, the military units I served in were fairly ordinary — we didn’t take on “special” or “high profile” missions or anything like that. For us, the After Action Review was pretty relaxed — we didn’t always use it, and we weren’t very formal about it when we did. And this is important to remember because you don’t necessarily need to conduct some formal review of everything you do — instead, what I want to do is help you develop a habit of evaluating what you’ve done, figuring out your progress, and deciding how to improve the next time around.
For this, one of the most helpful videos I’ve watched is the TEDx talk by Air Force pilot Bill Crawford. In it, he talks about how to use self-reflection to aid in continual improvement:
To help better remember the key lessons of the video, take a look at Logan Nye’s article on Crawford’s TEDx talk
. We see five crucial questions that Crawford asks himself and his team after every mission. For English 101, we’re going to adapt these questions to help you evaluate your own progress, and then apply this system to future courses you take:
What went right?
What went wrong?
Full disclosure: I like the Army AAR better than Crawford’s Air Force version. But Crawford’s video is pretty cool, so that makes his system easier to teach. He talks through the thought process of reflection, and he gives some pretty neat examples, as you would might expect from a stealth bomber pilot. And that right there is a lesson in multimodality and rhetoric: if you put together a cool talk that reaches a wide audience, your information will be shared by others.
But a second lesson here is perhaps more important: the system of reflection is less important than the fact that you do it. To be a successful student, it’s important to look at your successes and shortcomings in an honest and nonjudgmental way. You don’t need to remember Crawford’s five questions above — you just need to level with yourself.
Applying Crawford’s Lessons to Your Own Writing
In the following discussion, you’ll be applying Crawford’s advice to your Project 1 progress. IN doing this, the goal is not simply to say “this writing went well” or “I totally bombed that project” or “I can’t believe the grade I got.” Instead, we want to focus on the process of writing. I want you thinking about how and when you did your work, why you chose those times, whether those were the best choices.
When you write your reflections, consider some of these aspects of your writing:
When and where did you do your writing?
Where did you find your research sources? Did Google provide good sources? Did the library provide enough sources?
Were you under a lot of stress because of work and family? Did you actually have the time and energy you wanted?
Did you spend too much time on video games? Or did you find that short breaks for video games helped give you energy?
Did you take time to reread your writing? Did you even have time?
So, let me give an example. Years ago, during my MFA, I once wrote a story for class. I don’t remember the story because I was so tired that I was literally falling asleep at the keyboard as I finished the last five pages. You know how sometimes your head will bob up and down if you’re falling asleep in class? That was me. Fingers clacking away at the keyboard at 3:00 a.m., pretty sure I got drool on the space bar. But I had a deadline. I had to get the pages printed in time for class so I could hand them out to my classmates. And somehow I did this. But the last five pages of that fifteen-page paper emerged from that stupor of writing — again, I have no idea what I wrote. Still, I turned it in, everyone read it, and a week later my professor and classmates discussed the story for our class workshop. Here’s how that discussion started:
Professor: “Well, Ryan, your story has some very interesting sections, but there are some portions of it that need a lot of work.”
Me: “Oh, yeah, I’m sorry about that. I was kinda nodding off when I wrote the ending.”
Professor: “Oh, the ending was beautiful! Those last five pages — this is some of the best work you’ve written. Now let’s talk about how to strengthen the first ten pages . . .”
So on reflection, let’s consider the five questions:
What happened? When I was awake, I wrote ten pages that my professor found boring. while half-asleep, I wrote five pages that were better than most of what I normally write.
What went right? I got the story written and printed on time. The ending was good.
What went wrong? I didn’t proofread because there was no time. I didn’t revise for the same reason. And I didn’t know which parts of the story were strong and which ones needed work.
Why? Back then, I used to write new stories every day. Typically, I waited until the night before a deadline to choose the story that I would revise for class — and by “revise,” I mean “start again from scratch.” Hence, I submitted my rough drafts as “final” drafts.
Lessons learned? It’s true! Your best creativity comes from your unconscious mind! Sometimes!!! Bigger lesson: if I had churned out that rough just 24 hours earlier, I would have had time to fix those early pages in the story to make them fit the “cool” ending that I wrote in my sleep. The choice of story to write was less important than channeling all the “creative energies” early enough in the writing to really put my best foot forward.
For me, this experience showed me a lesson I’ve forgotten and relearned against and again: often, it’s best to just churn out a crappy rough draft as early as you can, and then set aside extra time before deadlines to revise that draft. This helps me in two ways:
Writing a messy draft helps me with “inspiration” because sometimes I just have to let the ideas out. When I worry too much about making a “good” rough draft, the writing is really dull. (I’ve noticed this among many of my students over the years. Often, the more you think about what you’re writing, the less you end up writing.)
Writing the rough draft early helps my writing look more professional. Fewer typos, better sentences. Also, for research papers, that’s the time when I double-check my sources and look for those “extra” sources that can really drive a point home.
Now, I want to emphasize: this one experience did not instantly make me a better writer. I often don’t follow my own best advice. I am, actually, writing this lecture here at 3 a.m. because I didn’t get as much word done today as I wanted to. I’ll be posting it before I revise it — if you’ve seen some typos, it’s because your teacher doesn’t always have the best study habits. And this is another important lesson about the reflective process: no matter how many times you do a task, you will always have room to do it better. It will never go as perfectly as it could have. And it takes time — and a lot of practice — to get really good at something. Especially something as complex as writing.