Punctuation and Visual Rhythm

Recently I was proofreading a novel draft of mine, and I came across this sentence:

Anne advanced; he retreated; she cornered him against a wall and pounded his shoulders.

Now, I love me some semicolons, so it’s no surprise that I would somehow manage to get two into a single sentence in the first five pages of a novel. One of my committee members on my dissertation systematically circled every semicolon in frustration until finally giving up two chapters in and writing “you get the point.” I only conceded on about half of them. I love a good semicolon.

Punctuation is often mistaken for grammar by students who have been taught both in a punitive, prescriptivist way that makes writing into a confusing labyrinth of conflicting and arbitrary but inviolable rules rather than a Lego-like toolbox of linguistic building blocks for expression.

But two in one sentence? That gave me pause. Especially occurring so early in the novel, so that it might easily be part of an agent, editor, or reader’s first impression. That was a risk.

But I decided to keep it. I rewrote it with no semicolons, I rewrote it with only one, and finally I put the semicolons back. It’s a very tense moment in the novel, and the semicolons gave me the rhythm I wanted, a sense of simultaneity that is nearly impossible to achieve in writing because prose is, by its very nature, linear. Semicolons by their nature hold two things as connected but equal.

How does punctuation affect your reading experience?

Punctuation for many writers is a tricky thing. In my experience teaching college writing, punctuation is often mistaken for grammar by students who have been taught both in a punitive, prescriptivist way that makes writing into a confusing labyrinth of conflicting and arbitrary but involable rules rather than a Lego-like toolbox of linguistic building blocks for expression.

Let me be clear: punctuation is not grammar; punctuation is orthography. Grammar has to do with how language speakers modify and arrange words to indicate their relationship to each other in utterances and make sense within the rules of the language. Punctuation often indicates grammar, but it is not a convention that is natural to the spoken language the way that grammar is; it is strictly othological, in that it is strictly a convention of how the language is written when it’s written.

Punctuation as a writer’s tool, though, is similar to rhythm as a musician’s tool. It has very much the same purpose: it helps organize material and indicate relationships between concepts while also setting the pace and tone of the work.

I often tell my students that I didn’t really learn writing in a classroom. I tell them this so they understand that what they’ve been taught in school isn’t the whole picture and, in some cases, may even be hindering them. I learned writing through critique groups and through reading. For punctuation in particular, I learned it from reading. Specifically: from reading Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett is one of those writers with an unmistakeable voice. One of the notable features of his writing is that it’s very dialogue-heavy, which means in novels that it’s got a lot of white space on the page and a LOT of punctuation.

My biggest punctuation struggle in elementary school was paragraph breaks. Like a lot of students drawn to STEM fields, as I was at the time, I wanted answers and algorithms that worked all the time and fit into a larger system. But the rules for paragraph breaks didn’t make sense at all. Either my paragraphs were too long or too short. They never seemed to satisfy. Some said 3-5 sentences, some said 5-7, some said something else entirely, and it never quite fit with what I saw in the real world anyway.

Enter Terry Pratchett. I read my first Discworld novel, Small Gods, in 5th grade. I started really paying attention to what I was reading in 6th grade. There’s a strong correlation between these events. Pratchett’s paragraphs were obviously broken with intention and conviction in a way I’d never seen another writer do. Moreover, because of how much dialogue he used, I was able to easily analyze for myself and figure out the patterns for dialogue punctuation without the confusing assistance of school textbooks. Here it was in situ, where I could do fieldwork on grammar by looking at a professional author’s work. And suddenly it started to make sense.

Some of it was mechanical algorithmic rules, such as when an end punctuation mark appears inside a quotation mark or outside a quotation mark. But most of it was rhetorical, a term I didn’t really know back then but describes well what I was seeing. That is, it was punctuation with a purpose.

Punctuation is not grammar; punctuation is orthography.

When I teach punctuation, I teach John Dawkins’s concept of rhetorical punctuation. I give students the concept of punctuation as markers of “degrees of separation” and present a hierarchy of punctuation marks. I have them experiment with modifying sentences to change their meaning simply by changing the rhythm with punctuation.

Which is exactly what I was doing with that sentence we started with:

Anne advanced; he retreated; she cornered him against a wall and pounded his shoulders.

I might have used dashes—those are more flashy and would have served a similar effect to emphasize the tension and simultanaeity of the actions in the scene. But they also are interrupting, and I wanted fluidity to the motions, like a dance; in this case, semicolons, with their unobtrusiveness and ambiguity, had the rhythm I wanted.

How exactly does punctuation do rhythm? It’s not quite as simple as “put a comma where you want your reader to pause.” There’s a visual element to it. I mentioned that Pratchett’s writing characteristically uses a lot of white space on the page (with some very notable exceptions he uses for effect). That white space helps set the rhythm of the prose as well. It’s why a fantasy novel by Pratchett feels breezy and fast compared to, say, a fantasy novel by Tolkien, who uses deliberately long and lush sentences and paragraphs that echo the alliterative rhythms of Old English long-line verse. It’s not just the representation of the spoken words, but the way they appear on the page.

How might thinking about writing as visual affect your writing?

This, of course, leaves the question: What about audiobooks? While that’s a topic for another post entirely, I do want to answer that I believe the reader’s performance and use of rhythm, voice, and tone suffice in completely equal measure (and in some cases superior measure) to any considerations of punctuation’s visual effect on rhythm on the page.

So how do you implement this in your own writing? Firstly, don’t worry about punctuation in first drafts as much. This is a revision level concern. Secondly, think of punctuation the way you might think of color: yes, there is theory that you can study quite satisfyingly, there are rules that can help, all of that exists, but at the end of the day the question is only “Does this achieve my goal?” and not the restrictive “Is this correct?”

Reading for Saturation

When we teach college writing, we’re generally asking students to write in genres that they may have never read. Why, then, do we expect them to be able to write these successfully?

Genres are, as I have often observed, slippery things and can’t really be completely understood through explicit instruction. Sure, scholars can and often do catalog features of a genre, but as Thomas Beebee has argued, “genre is never fully identical with itself, nor are texts fully identical with their genres,” and thus they’re constantly changing, so any attempt to catalog a genre will inevitably be outdated the moment it is published.

Instead, genres are better understood through immersion. Since people tend to imitate speech patterns as they hear and read them, then it’s necessary to read in the genre you want to write in if you want to sound fluent, in the same way that a person can’t really gain fluency in a foreign language if they never hear or speak it outside of sanitized classroom setups.

If we are to teach a genre, then, we need to have students read it. This becomes a problem, though, with most classroom genres, because those genres don’t actually exist outside of assignments. Certainly we can give students model papers, either artificially generated or generated by previous students.

Oh no the apples are back!

Rather, the question becomes: What are these artificial genres trying to approximate? If the goal is to have students write papers similar to, say, conference papers in a given discipline, then we should have students read conference papers and simply say “write a conference paper.”. If the goal is to have them write a blog post, then they must read blog posts. (It is worth noting, though, that the blog post is sort of an outdated genre in my experience, despite my use of it here. Most first year students aren’t aware they’re reading blogs even when they actually are, but most aren’t reading them at all.).

For us as writers instead of as teachers, though, this carries another important implication: We need to be reading the genres we are writing. This is common writing advice, of course, and easily done if you’re writing a novel in your favorite genre to read. But how do we gain access to the things that are not fun to read: the query letters, the portfolios, the resumes, etc?

The key here is the concept of saturation. Reading one example of a genre isn’t enough to spontaneously reproduce that genre, because, as Beebee says, no text is fully identical with its genre, so you don’t have enough data to make a complete picture from one text. If you read enough, though, you will become saturated and, like a saturated towel, begin to drip out the genre in whatever form makes sense for your purposes. That is how we naturally learn a new genre.

Don’t Let Anyone Steal Your Words!

In one poignant session with the best therapist I ever had, while I was in the depths of a severe depressive episode as a graduate student, the therapist asked me what I would have if, tomorrow, my entire academic career was taken away: if I couldn’t be a teacher, I couldn’t work on my Ph.D., who would I be. I struggled with this question for most of the session. He was right. I’d wrapped my entire identity around my work.

At the very end of the session, as he stood to check his computer and set up our next session, I remember looking up at him from my chair and saying weakly: “My writing. No one can take away my writing.”

I meant it, of course, and it’s always been true. My writing has sustained me in all my darkest and brightest moments. It’s the truest friend I’ve ever had. It came to me in a time when I was literally trying to erase myself, and it’s never left me.

But at the same time, at that moment when I told the therapist that no one could take away my writing, I also realized that in a way the graduate studies that I thought would make me a better writer were actively taking my writing away from me, making me push it aside in favor of other tasks that felt like writing but weren’t feeding that part of me in a way, giving me a sort of literary malnutrition. I knew the feeling. I’d felt it before, too. I quit online roleplaying in forums in high school because I noticed that I was putting all my writing time into these ephemeral stories and neglecting my own stories; I felt like I had done enough writing for the day (and I had!) but at the same time I felt like I had no progress on my own projects to show for it.

When I say don’t let anyone steal your writing from you, I don’t mean don’t let people “steal” your ideas in the way many new writers fear. Ideas are cheap, and honestly no one really wants to steal them from you. Ideas aren’t that important: it’s execution that matters.

Nor, however, do I mean don’t let anyone steal your actual written words, which are (in the USA, at least) copyrighted to you as soon as you write them, and again, probably won’t be stolen anyway.

No, I mean don’t let anyone steal your writing in the most abstract sense. This is more in the sense of “don’t let anyone steal your joy.” Don’t let anyone take your reason for writing. Don’t let anyone interfere with your writing practice. Cultivate relationships that support your writing practice. Don’t let anyone take your writing from you.

This happens more often than you might think. I’ve known so many people who have, when the conversation turned to writing, told me that they used to write until something happened in their life: a toxic relationship, an exhausting job, something else that hollowed them out and left them having to rebuild their joy from the foundations. And to those people I have always gently suggested that, with the utmost patience and love for themselves, they return to the writing. Reclaim that part of themselves. Make it their own again. Make it a part of their joy that no one can steal away.

This applies, of course, to not only writing, but writing is what I know. Certainly I’d give the same advice to someone who used to love baking, or sewing, or whatever. But writing seems to be a frequent victim, perhaps because taking time to write doesn’t look productive in the way other hobbies might look. People who want to reshape you into something you aren’t will attack your writing because it is so personal, so resonant with yourself, and the time you are writing is time you aren’t serving them.

I don’t care what you’re writing, either, as long as it’s bringing you joy. Sometimes it’s romance, sometimes it’s fanfic, sometimes it’s fantasy, sometimes it’s poetry… but the story is always the same. When the person speaks of the writing they used to do, it’s with sadness, as if mourning losing a close companion. But it’s something they can get back. It doesn’t take much. Twenty minutes every other day, perhaps.

You don’t have to aspire to be a bestseller. You don’t even have to share your writing if you don’t want to. What matters is that it’s your writing, and that it gives you joy.

I’m in that process of reclaiming. It’s been a many-years process. That conversation with the therapist keeps echoing in my head, as I suppose it was meant to. Sure, I kept doing NaNoWriMo, but there are entire years I don’t remember what I wrote because my writing had been taken from me, bit by bit.

I’m in a healthy relationship (as far as I can tell) now, and my partner values my writing. Not because he wants to read it (I’m thankful that he doesn’t!), but because he cares about me and he knows it’s a part of me. He helps me set goals to remember that part and make priorities for it. So now I’m walking back through those dusty passages in my own brain, pulling up files from my past, and remembering that these were my friends. They’re waiting for me. It’s awkward, sure, and it’s a process, but it’s still there. I just have to make myself a priority.

So that’s my take-away today: if you feel like writing is an important part of you, don’t let anyone take it away from you. If someone in your life is dismissing your writing practice, protect your writing from that person. And if that person is you, it’s time you took care of yourself and made your own identity a priority too.

Writing In Community

The image of a writer in popular culture is often a solitary one: we imagine writers of old scribbling away in cold rooms with quill pens, and writers of now hiding in closets with their laptops, or else in a café alone at a small table with noise-canceling headphones on signaling that they are to be left alone at all cost. And I admit, as an introvert, these images are really appealing. But they’re also quite wrong. Writing is not solitary. Writing is social.

An old typewriter with a solitary lamp shining on it, all in sepia tones
The lonely image of the writer

Sure, I’ve spent a lot of time hiding in my writing. High school and college were filled with late nights, just me and the computer and music blasting as loud as I could to drown out the rest of the world so I could avoid being social. But that’s not really the formative moments, nor is it how most of the writing gets done for me these days. That period in my development as a writer is also marked by, well, not finishing anything.

Most of my development as a writer has come from social situations: online role-playing games, writers’ groups of various kinds, meeting with friends at cafes to get work done, and most recently streaming my writing on Twitch and using other writers’ Twitch streams to get things done. And this isn’t remotely strange. Writers throughout history have moved in social circles with each other, reading each others’ work for criticism and writing in tandem.

A table around which several people are seated with notebooks and pens
Writing works a bit more like this in practice.

Obviously, with the pandemic, we’ve all had our social lives overturned in various ways. Most people I know are struggling with “what next?” If you want to grow as a writer, I recommend that you consider making your writing practice social in some way. This can be as simple as having a friend text you to check on your writing goals at a certain time each week. It can be as complex as joining a writing group, of which there are plenty online. The key here is not only accountability, but that language and storytelling have always been, and always will be, primarily social activities.

I am not, of course, suggesting that you should go out and join mass gatherings of writing. The pandemic is still very real, and you should put your health and the safety of others first. However, I do think it’s wise to consider how to consciously incorporate social situations into your writing practice, and perhaps use that as a way of building your social networks in conscious ways. Notice, for instance, that a lot of ways that social writing has happened for me are online: there’s plenty of ways to bring social elements into your writing no matter what your situation.

This isn’t a new realization, of course. I have written on it here before. And even before that, I realized that I needed to hold writing and the social together. When I was young, I wanted to be a botanist. I fantasized about long hours alone in a greenhouse, surrounded by my plants, working to breed better plants. And then, as I was seriously considering my major and my career path, I decided I should be a writer because it was more social. While I stand corrected in a lot of ways from my childhood ideas, I stand by my assertion that writing is a social endeavor.

Overdue Update and End of Semester Reflection

I’m back!

Updates

I know it’s been literal months since I updated this blog. As glancingly indicated in my last post, the new year brought a lot of changes, and this blog is a little lower in priority than other things going on. Since then, I’ve resigned from my job, moved to the west coast, had unexpected major surgery, and a fair number of other things besides.

I want to emphasize that leaving my job was with goodwill on all sides, and was solely because of an opportunity that was too good to refuse for my family. Honestly, apart from the expense, even losing an organ has been a pretty good experience, as much as that can be. The thing is, though, I’m currently unemployed (well, a “homemaker” as has been graciously offered to me by others as a title until further notice).

I mean, this is home now. I can’t complain at all.

So where does that leave us, here in this space, where you’ve become accustomed to me reflecting on pedagogy and other such things? Sort of in limbo, just like my own career right now. I’ve got some reflections today on how last semester ended, to follow up on the discussion about alternative approaches to traditional grades, and I’m going to try to update the blog more regularly now that the dust has settled a bit, but what comes after… well, we’ll see.

Semester Reflections

I didn’t know last semester would be my last semester in that position when it started. It’s sort of surreal how quickly that decision was made. I didn’t even tell my students (ok, I told one). Last semester was, honestly, just very strange, but nothing to do with my pedagogy, with some of the darkest and brightest moments in my recent memory mingled together.

At midterms, I reported on the self-assessment strategy that I used last semester. And, as I reported then, I think it went very well, but now I have the benefit of final grades and hindsight on it, and there are definitely some considerations that bear mentioning if someone else were to implement it.

To recap, last semester’s resolution was to try out a grading system that I devised in the course of an inclusive pedagogy seminar I took over the summer for professional development. In this system, students are not graded on the quality of their final products for projects, but rather on their reflections and self-grading of those projects submitted after receiving ungraded feedback from the instructor as guidance. This was in addition to using flexible deadlines, which I’ve been experimenting with for some time and finding them very practical for me in addition to helpful for many students (a certain minority of students doesn’t do well with them, and that should be considered).

Overall, I found that students had a very solid sense of how good their products were. This may have been from reviewing the rubric in the process of working through the projects, but I think it might also be simply that by the time students get into college they have a pretty solid understanding of what grades mean and what kind of work is expected in a writing classroom. As I told my students repeatedly, they don’t get into that classroom by accident; they get there because of their hard work and proven ability to do work acceptable enough to get into college. They are not blank slates at that point; they’re trained experts in studenting, with 12+ years of experience.

Although students working through the rubric and justifying the grade was absolutely necessary to the structure, I found that I didn’t value the grade they argued for as much as the argument itself. That’s where the real learning was demonstrated.

I did find that grades were significantly inflated from what I would have expected if I were teaching with traditional grading schemes, so that in essence the course became a pass/fail course: students either wound up with an A or an F. There was very little in between. Those who had Fs were primarily failing on missing assignments or poor attendance (which usually went hand in hand, especially as attendance was measured by assignments that could be made up). A few students passed by herculean efforts, having fallen behind through the semester and somehow making up the work at the last minute, taking advantage of the loose deadline policy. And I don’t mind that those students passed at all; in fact, I was quite proud of them. After all, a passing grade, as far as I’m concerned, claims that the student has demonstrated the skills required of the course, and I wouldn’t have passed their work if it didn’t meet minimum proficiency, last minute as it was.

The grade inflation could be a bit concerning (if I liked traditional grades at all), and does actually have me a little worried because, honestly, the final essays were not the best that I’ve seen come out of a class. I think there were a number of concepts that, in my effort to provide as much in-class laboratory time for one-on-one instruction as possible, I may not have taught as well as I had in the past.

However, I stand by the grades the students earned because in nearly every case, the students were able to articulate what it would take to improve their own work, given more time and a reason to revise. While it is true that being able to say what needs improvement and actually executing those improvements are somewhat different skills, they are intrinsically related skills and one naturally tends to follow the other. I am confident that, with the inevitable practice they will have in their other courses, they’ll be caught up in writing skills with any of their peers, and perhaps exceed. Plus, you know, they’re still working through the trauma of a pandemic, which is not to be dismissed lightly as a variable in this setup.

As I have noted before, setting up the assignments was a bit of a challenge, and in some cases the loose attendance and late policies may have worked against me here, as in order to do this kind of self-evaluation, it was necessary that students work in a rhythm with my own work on the course. Indeed, the most common comment I got when I asked students how the course might be improved was about putting more teeth in the attendance policy. Students who attended regularly or sometimes tended to say that they found class sessions extremely helpful in understanding assignments and improving skills and staying on task, and speculated how other students might be encouraged to attend more frequently. Those who attended more seldom often said they struggled and knew they should attend but didn’t feel like it was urgent, as the policies were forgiving. Forgiving policies are important for many students, of course–I had some disabled students who desperately needed the flexible attendance policies for various reasons, for instance–but there is a sound argument to be made that these policies were in fact too forgiving and thus didn’t really encourage participation, which is a problem.

In sum, I would definitely do this self-evaluation approach again. It is a little like contract grading, in that it takes the pressure of performance in the project itself to some degree, but focuses more on the student’s self awareness of learning than on labor itself. Does it need some improvement? Of course. And I’d be happy to hear how to improve it. It definitely needs some better way of managing attendance policies in tandem with it, because it does depend on a certain schedule working to manage the working load for everyone involved.

Was it a great last semester at that institution? Well, it wasn’t a bad one. It wasn’t my best performance as a teacher, I think, but it was far from my worst, and I do think the students learned a lot, even if I wasn’t as impressed with their final products this time. And, as I told the students at the start of the semester, I’m more concerned that they learn than that they write well. The writing will follow.

What’s Next?

So what happens next? I don’t know.

I’m on the job market again, and I’m looking at both academic and non-academic opportunities actively. I’m a strong, efficient writer and I enjoy working on teams. I should be able to find something where my skills are useful. If nothing else, I could always go into cake decorating, of course 🙂

And exploring this beautiful place. I’ll be doing more of that!

In the meantime, the plan is to focus on my writing. I’m working on a text-based adventure game, and when that’s finished, it’s back to the novels. I really need to focus on submitting those for publication. To that end, I’m focusing on developing my streaming skills on Twitch. I’ll be hosting writing time there regularly, at least twice a week. As my brother pointed out, I’m still a teacher, even if I’m not in a classroom right now; I don’t see my writing streams as a teaching space, but it’s absolutely a space for mutual learning and support, where writers can get some accountability when they need it (and, oh, I need it).

Anyway, look for more posts around here about writing craft, community building, and games analysis as I won’t have a classroom to reflect on for a little while. The blog is evolving, but it’s still here.

Evaluation Without Grades: A Suggested Activity

I’m wrapping up finals week for what, unexpectedly and excitingly, is my final semester teaching at my current institution. Several years ago, on the advice of my colleagues and supervisors, I abandoned final exams for my writing courses, and although I miss my tricks to check that the students read the directions, it’s been overall and improvement.

If you’ve been around here for a while, you’ll know that grades are the bane of my existence as a teacher. I think they’re a distraction from learning because they focus students on an extrinsic (and ultimately rather unimportant) metric of success. This might be because I learned a lot of my basic pedagogy principles from my art teacher mother, who generally and happily operates in spaces without grades. However, I’m also the sort to follow policies to the letter, and generally institutions of higher learning still want a grade at the end of a semester, so I am continually trying out new ways to handle grades.

Oh hey, the apples are back!

Today I want to talk about some ungraded things that I’ve been doing at the end of the semester to assess learning without the students even necessarily being aware that they’re being tested. Do these exercises have any impact on their grades? Not at all. Do they tell me (and the students) what they’ve learned? Definitely.

On the last day of class for my research-based composition course, I asked my students to draw diagrams on the board as if they were teaching someone else the research process. This is, of course, what we’ve been working on all semester. I haven’t given them any single diagram to work with, nor have I drilled them on a specific model of the research process. But nevertheless, we’ve been learning to research.

The diagrams were varied. Some were very linear, others were more like a flow chart. They used a lot of different terms and emphasized different parts of researching, and modeled different end goals for researching. And all of them demonstrated learning.

This activity had no grade attached to it. The students did it because I asked them to, and no other reason (the authority of a teacher in her classroom does have a lot of weight, though).

So, how does this evaluate learning better than an exam? It allows the students to express freely what they’ve learned. It shows you their understanding and allows you to correct confusion wherever it might exist. There’s no guessing. It allows for immediate feedback.

How could this be used elsewhere? Pretty simply. Asking students to diagram any process or concept that you’re teaching is flexible, takes very little planning, and requires very little supplies.

I did this exercise on a chalk board with only white chalk. That’s just what was in my classroom.

If you need daily exercise grades, a substitute for an exam, or something like that, you can have students do this on construction paper (or whatever you have) with crayons or markers and post them around the room when you’ve marked them complete and given feedback.

This is suitable for any age. I teach college students. They’re adults. But this is still an age-appropriate skill; it’s a communication skill that helps in other fields as well. And it can work just as well for any age, although the youngest students should be invited to explain it to you as they present it, as it’s likely to require some explaining.

If you try this, I’d love to know how it goes for you!

Report from NaNoWriMo 2021

First, I apologize that I haven’t been updating the blog. My personal life has been, well, complicated lately, and if I’m honest, the blog is often the first thing to go when I need to prioritize. But let’s talk about how November went (and next week I’ll have some pedagogy content, I promise).

According to the NaNoWriMo website, this was my 17th year and 17th win. Every year is different, of course, and 17 seems like too many to me but I did the math myself and, yeah, it checks out. It was also my second year as an ML, and thankfully this year I had a co-ML. It was a different game, but it was a good thing.

Several hands of different colors along with pencils with a banner that says National Novel Writing Month Winner 2021
2021 NaNoWriMo winner banner

This year I barely won. My final count was something like 51,000. I hit the 50k goal with only about an hour to spare, which was actually earlier than I thought it would be. I wrote mostly every other day. There were a lot of days, because of grief, stress, or other factors, or just not being excited about the project, when I couldn’t bring myself to write. And that was ok.

If you follow my Twitch streams, you may have noticed that I abandoned the novel from November immediately. I only hung on an extra hour after midnight to encourage another writer who was in a timezone one hour behind me and was racing to the finish line (and crossed! It was great!).

Some years, the novel pours out. Sometimes it pours out beautifully, like a waterfall, giving life to everything it touches, and you just want to revel in it. Sometimes it pours out like blood from an open wound, hot and numb and you can’t stop it.

Sometimes, like this year, you have to force nearly every word. It squeezes out and doesn’t really go anywhere, like cold toothpaste. You can make it happen, but you have to make every moment happen.

Does that mean I don’t like my story premise? Not at all. I’ll definitely return to it someday. But that approach didn’t work. And that’s what I learned. It’ll take another start or two before I get it right.

And that’s the thing. Sometimes it takes a few false starts before it works. That’s true of a lot of different things.

Restarting a project isn’t disrespectful of the work you did before. Restarting a project can honor the work you did before, because it marked the path (or at least, it marked the paths you don’t want to take).

If you’re stuck on a project, be it fiction, research, or anything else, I’m giving you permission to scrap and start over. Sometimes starting over is exactly what you need so that you can be free of the burdens of the earlier attempts. Maybe you’ll use some material from the earlier attempts, but maybe you won’t, and that’s ok!

I’ll go back to that story. And I’ll write it very differently when I do. But for now, I’ll let it rest while I reset. I’m thankful to the novel for being there for another NaNoWriMo, but this was not its time to bloom, so I’ll give it a bit more space to rest and give myself space to likewise rest.

Ready for NaNoWriMo?

It’s that time of year again! Time to hang up the skeletons and put out the tombstones, but also time to brush off the Word documents and start a new novel. It’s time for National Novel Writing Month!

Banner reading National Novel Writing Month Writer 2021 with a stack of books between a diverse group of people seated on pencils.
2021 NaNoWriMo writer’s banner, via nanowrimo.org

If you’ve been around here for a while, you may know that I’ve done and won NaNoWriMo every year since 2005. I can’t count, so you can figure out how many 50k+ drafts that is for yourself. (Please don’t ask me why they’re not published yet, unless, that is, you’re offering to help publish them)

As you may know, National Novel Writing Month is a now-global challenge in which writers attempt to write 50,000 words of a work of fiction in 30 days during November. That comes out to an average of 1667 words per day. It’s not easy, but it’s quite doable.

While I love participating in NaNoWriMo every year for a lot of reasons, I am nevertheless constantly accompanied by a sense of doubt. Although participants in NaNoWriMo often speak in basically evangelistic terms, and participation does seem to be increasing over time, I’m not sure it’s working well for everyone who tries it, and I’m worried that for some people it may even be a harmful challenge.

I teach writing for a living; not fiction writing, but writing. I have a PhD in rhetoric and composition, a field entirely devoted to understanding writing processes and other phenomena associated with those processes. The research is very clear: there is on one-size-fits-all writing process.

NaNoWriMo culture (and it definitely has its own culture) does offer a number of paths for participants. There’s specialized vocabulary in that culture for talking about how a writer approaches invention (planners, pantsers, and plantsers), for instance. And I think there’s a lot to be done with researching that culture; it’s grown organically, although there is a central organization that runs the website. Obviously the way the NaNoWriMo community works is good for a lot of people.

But at the same time, a lot of people just drop out. I’ve been in this community long enough to know the rhythm of November: there’s a lot of excitement in the first week. Everything settles down a bit in week 2. And then people start disappearing.

What happens to the people who disappear? Do they go on to find a way to write that works for them? Do they just conclude that they just aren’t good writers and abandon the craft entirely? Obviously there’s a lot of stories there. But we don’t hear those stories very often. And I think, as someone who professionally has to do a lot of work helping students remediate their relationship with writing because of negative past experiences, that we ought to be concerned about these experiences.

NaNoWriMo is fun for me, but is it harmful for some people?
Image via StockSnap

I don’t have answers for it. Some people have written about why they abandoned the challenge, and I’m thankful for their stories. But there’s not enough data yet.

The problem is that I don’t know how to get that data. I’ve scrapped a number of studies at this point because I couldn’t get the data. I’m not trying right now because it would be a conflict of interest (I’m currently in a leadership role for my NaNoWriMo region), but as I’m prepping for my own novel this year, I’m also wondering, as I do every year, how to get that data once and for all.

At any rate, if you are doing NaNoWriMo this year, please come along with me! I’ll be doing sprints on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings from 8-10am (EST) on Twitch. My favorite part about both my job and my volunteer positions is encouraging writers; I want to support you!

And if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, that’s ok! I won’t try to convince you. If you’ve tried it before and dropped out, I want to assure you: your story matters.

Hinges and Stitches: Thinking About Transitions in Writing

I was winging it in the classroom the other day, analyzing some paragraphs in a response to a very important landmark physics paper and how they transition, and I hit on an image that I think is going to be useful for a long time: hinges and stitches.

My class uses Graff and Birkenstein’s excellent They Say I Say textbook, which has some very memorable diagrams of hands reaching out and pointing to illustrate how transitions can work in writing. I like this image, and we used some of that vocabulary of course.

But in discussing how an argument can change direction in a transition moment, I found myself using the verb “hinge”: this hinges between what was talked about before, and what is being talked about after.

In the example we were looking at, this is a hinge transition:

Most contemporary physicists are concerned with technical, big-picture questions: Why do neutrinos have mass when the Standard Model says that they shouldn’t? Why are quantum field theory and general relativity irreconcilable even though both are empirically valid? Can nuclear fusion be used as an efficient power source? And so on. These questions are important but they aren’t really in line with the sort of everyday, practical problems that occupy the minds of the general public. For example, are cats liquids or solids?

From “Are Cats Liquid” by Panda the Red

The hinge here is between focusing on what physicists are concerned with and focusing on, instead, what the general public is concerned with. It’s a small hinge, but a hinge.

Here’s a diagram of how the hinge works:

A crudely drawn diagram showing how an argument changes direction when connected with a hinge transition.
Hinges change direction abruptly

Another example of a hinge is where Panda the Red writes:

Enough joking around.
While Fardin’s paper was obviously intended to be humorous, it does at least play at taking the question seriously and discusses the question using the language of modern rheology, the branch of mechanics that studies the motion of materials that have both fluid and solid characteristics. 

Panda the Red, “Are Cats Liquid”

“Enough joking around” is a stock phrase that, as far as I know, always functions as a hinge. It says to the reader “It’s ok if you were laughing before now, but please believe I actually have a real point here, and I’m about to get to it” or maybe “What came before was meant to be fun, but now I want to be (at least a little) serious.” And as if that weren’t clear enough, Panda the Red elaborates further with a hinge-like phrase (part of the same hinge, really) that amplifies “enough joking around” by saying “While Fardin’s paper was obviously intended to be humors, it does at least play at taking the question seriously.” That is, in essence, the same as saying “enough joking around” but specific to the topic.

Likewise, just before that, Panda the Red uses a section heading to change direction in the argument from literature review to definitions. Section headings are another kind of overt hinge.

But not all transitions represent a change in direction the way that this sentence (which is a hinge) does. Some simply flow together, like blending paint on a canvas, rather than turning. And as I illustrated a diagram similar to Graff and Birkenstein’s reaching arms, I noticed something: it was stitching.

Stitching pulls from both sides of a transition moment, pointing back and forward simultaneously, the way that stitches cross the boundary of both pieces of fabric and move back and forth, pulling disparate pieces together into one joined object. (in fact, repeating the word “stitching” between the previous paragraph and this paragraph is a kind of stitching)

Stitches require more than one moment of transition; they blend material together and blur the lines between the two portions of the argument, in the way that actual stitches can be used to blend two areas of embroidery together or to make two pieces of fabric interact with and conform to each other.

That is, stitching looks like this:

Here’s an example of stitching in Panda the Red’s post:

For example, are cats liquids or solids?
The earliest (c. 2014) researcher to have seriously investigated this question seems to be a person named Tom who submitted his findings to the Funny Animals section of the journal Bored Panda in an article entitled “15 Proofs That Cats are Liquids.”

Panda the Red, “Are Cats Liquid?”

Just as some stitches run back and some run forth, we have a question pointing the reader forward into the next paragraph, and then a relative article—”this question”—that points back, reminding the reader of the previous topic and attaching the new topic.

Stitches are accomplished with questions and answers, repeated phrases or concepts, relative pronouns, and other strategies that point back and forth over a boundary in a text. Basically anything that asks the reader to look backward or forward can be considered a stitch here.

The key difference is that stitches do not represent a major shift in direction in an argument, while hinges do. Hinges noticeably turn an argument. Stitches keep it going in a similar, but slightly different, direction, adding more material and gently shaping it the way seams in a garment might do.

Both hinges and stitches can add material, of course. A hinge adds a door to a frame. A stitch adds fabric to fabric, or perhaps it strengthens fabric where there are holes or merely embellishes it. While hinges are more noticeable and easier to highlight, stitches are a little more versatile.

Most writers, however, are using both fluidly and constantly. Words flow. Stitches and hinges are just a model for how ideas connect to each other through that flow of words.

So how can you use this in your own writing or teaching? (notice that this is a hinge)

Transitions are often a focus in revision. Visualizing and identifying transitions, and applying some kind of systematic vocabulary, can help writers figure out areas for extra attention when revising. It can also help writers map out their arguments (or in narrative writing, the flow of a scene).

There already exist, of course, plenty of metaphors for transition moments. But as I like to say, this is just another tool in your toolbox.

Report On Self-Assessment Grading

If you’ll recall, this semester for my New Semester’s Resolution, I was trying a more collaborative approach to grading that requires students to set goals by modifying my provided rubric and then evaluate their own work according to that rubric, so that they self-grade their assignments. At this point, students have submitted their first self-evaluation and I can give a preliminary report on how that’s going.

Long story short, it’s going great!

Oh, hey, the apples are back!

The slightly longer, more nuanced version of the story is still overwhelmingly positive, but acknowledges that there has been some confusion and, as expected, a somewhat increased workload.

First, students were confused by the goal-setting stage of the assignment. Students are so used to external authority evaluating them that the very idea of the goal-setting stage seemed strange and suspicious. As I had not used this method before, I didn’t have a good student example of the goal-setting assignment with its rubric, and as a result the initial documents were all over hte place, and many students failed to make clear rubric requirements for themselves. This resulted in confusion later when they had to use the rubric to grade themselves, since having an unclear rubric makes generating a grade harder. However, I think the later assignments will go much smoother having had this struggle once already.

I haven’t graded all of the self-assessments yet, but generally I’m finding that students are doing honest assessments. Some reported that they don’t love the grade they gave themselves, but that they felt it was the fair grade for the work they did. This kind of honest self-evaluation is partly facilitated by my assurance that the grade they give themselves isn’t necessarily their final grade on the project, but that I use it as guidance to assign that final grade. In most cases, I’m either using their suggested grade or bumping it up a little where I feel they’ve been too harsh on themselves.

That second layer of review seems to be important to building the trust necessary for this self-grading to work. I’m not saying I dn’t trust their assessments; I’m saying that I’m checking their work and advocating for them.

Likewise, the fact that they have to explain the grades they give themselves matters a lot. Although the depth of reflection of course varies, I have not seen a case where a student was unable to provide persuasive reasons for the grades they assigned themseslves. While most of the grades are B or A level grades, that’s not unusual for this course and workload, so I don’t think it’s producing any artificial inflation. Instead, it is making me more confident that the grade I assign will seem fair to the student, rather than arbitrary or punitive, since we have effectively negotiated it in advance. Indeed, I haven’t seen a single student assign a 100% grade to themselves yet.

This process has made grading collaborative. That’s a lot better for everyone involved, I think.

I’ve been able to keep the grading queue managable this semester, despite having far too many students this semester, and I think this strategy for grading is contributing to that success. A large part of the problem I’ve had with grading was a mental burden, a conditioned response that clicking a grade might produce outrage in a student because they don’t understand the grade the same way I do, no matter how much I explain and contextualize in comments or in class. But here I’m mostly rubber-stamping what the students have already said about their work and gently redirecting as needed.

In short, this has made the process of evaluating student work much less painful. If I continue to use this method in future semesters, there will be a lot of changes in how I scaffold it and present the tasks to the students, but overall the process is working. So what is the process?

  1. Students assess where they’re at in the course assignment sequence and add custom criteria to the rubric I provide that includes the basic criteria for the assignment
  2. I give some feedback on that document, recommending revisions to the rubric if necessary
  3. Students complete the project
  4. I give discursive feedback on the project, but do not grade it
  5. Students evaluate their own project by engaging with my feedback and then using the rubric to assign themselves a grade. They write a brief reflection justifying that grade
  6. I read their reflection and assign the whole project sequence a grade based on the grade they give themselves and my understanding of the rubric.

That last step is still a little vague to me and the whole thing is rather messy. I would love some revisions and suggestions to make it clearer, especially from a student perspective.

Still, despite the mess, it seems to be working, so I’m pretty pleased.

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