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Rhetoric, Process, and Materials – Part 2

Last time I wrote about Rhetoric, as it relates to writing instruction. This is post about Process, as laid out in the model arising from the Dartmouth Conference of 1956, shown here. This got quite long, because we covered so much.

If you watch Mad Men, you may remember a scene where Roger goes in to Don’s office, to find him lying on his sofa, smoking and staring at the ceiling. (There’s probably a glass of scotch nearby, too.) Roger stares at Don a moment, then says something like, “I have to remind myself that this is what it looks like when you’re working.”

Mid-Century-Office-FurnitureWhat Don is doing is as he lies there smoking and drinking is INVENTING. He’s thinking, generating ideas, and working out his rhetorical situation (about which, more later). And he has the right strategy, because INVENTION works best when you do it before you start to draft.

Invention is the part of Process that was not given much attention when I was in school. I generated ideas only until I found one to run with, to create output. I didn’t know (or I forgot) how much more there was to that part of things. There is no right or wrong way to do Inventing, except to stop before you’re done. (Er… guilty!)

I have done freewriting, but always hurriedly, as a stepping stone to actual writing. It’s never been something I’ve done for its own sake, for the freedom and ephemerality of it, because I’ve always been chasing the lasting result. Freewriting has been a way to find and start working on a story thread. I plan to explore the freedom and ephemerality of thorough freewriting soon.

I’ve brainstormed, of course, mostly in a work setting but a little with story. Most adults are familiar with that particular form of torture, the workplace equivalent of theatre improv games, where the only rules are that you must “go with it”; you cannot block or refuse, no matter how unrealistic or unworkable someone’s idea is. It’s enough to put you off doing it as part of writing. But brainstorming on your own, just banging out the ideas and making random mental connections between ideas, can be really helpful. The lack of a facilitator with a flip chart and coloured markers helps, I find, though I quite like mind mapping, circle diagrams, and stuff like that.

I hadn’t even really heard of heuristics until a couple of years ago, and I couldn’t have defined them for you. Turns out, for purposes of Invention, heuristics are lists of questions that writers ask themselves to get started on writing. You know the kind: who is my hero? what is his goal? what are his strengths? weaknesses? vulnerabilities? what about the antagonist? Goal? strengths? weaknesses? vulnerabilities? How does my fictional society work? What are the gods’ names? symbols? what kind of agriculture is there? what does the city look like?

Heuristics can be any question or set of questions, from the very general to the very specific, and the more of them you ask or consider, the more you invent and discover. It helps to write down the questions (or work from an existing list of your own creation or someone else’s), and to freewrite the answers.

All of this Invention work helps the writer develop the rhetorical situation for the current piece of writing. There are four elements of the rhetorical situation:

  1. ExigenceThe Big Why. The reason you’re writing it at all. (e.g., a death is the reason for writing a eulogy.) Exigence determines what will be written, either generally or specifically. Identify and analyse the exigence of your piece.
  2. AudienceWho is your reader? How do you write to communicate with that reader? (Consider language, sentence structure, etc). Identify and analyse your audience.
  3. Purpose – What are you trying to do with this piece of writing? Identify and analyse.
  4. OccasionWhat are you writing? Short story, poem, novel, etc. Identify and analyse.

Problems become apparent in the process of developing the rhetorical situation. Run at those problems and work on them until you have a workable solution. If there is a problem in the rhetorical solution, you will get blocked during the writing phase. Work out the solutions before you start to draft.

Example: For some writers, or some pieces, the question of audience can be problematic. An author may feel like nobody will be interested in what they have to say, or that their authority on the subject may be questioned, etc. Writers of autobiographical nonfiction involving intensely personal experience, great suffering, or revolutionary thinking can be stymied this way. So too can authors experimenting with a genre or form they don’t normally work in. (A novelist writing a poem, for instance, or a mystery novelist writing a sci-fi novel.) For purposes of the rhetorical situation, it’s helpful to determine a supportive audience. Those who caused your suffering may not receive kindly your tale of terrible suffering, but it may well be of help to others suffering similarly. A mystery writer’s mystery-novel fans may not react well to that writer switching up and writing a sci-fi novel or a book of poetry, but readers of sci-fi or poetry might well be intrigued. You needn’t have a specific audience in mind; a general, interested, and supportive audience will do.

Once you’ve worked out your rhetorical situation and solved all its problems, you are now ready to make an outline, if you want to. An outline made at this stage will be informed.

Thoroughness in the Invention stage makes the Drafting smoother.

Next phase: DRAFTING!

If you’ve done NaNoWriMo, you will recognize that organization’s ethos in this description of Drafting.

Interviewed writers (i.e., those interviewed and observed in the development of the process model shown above) didn’t do much revising in Drafting. They found that staying in text-generation mode made drafting smoother and easier than going into evaluation (revising) while drafting. (Nanowrimo strategy: send your inner editor/censor on holiday for the month of November!)

Interviewed writers did re-read the previous session’s work, but only to pick up the thread again. Re-read not to evaluate or revise what you’ve written, but to see where you are, and what you said. (Nanowrimo strategies include stopping writing for the day in the middle of a scene, or at a point where you can easily pick up the next day.)

The purpose of drafting is to produce a first draft.

Drafting takes a higher degree of focus and concentration than Inventing, so therefore it requires more energy, both physical and mental.

Counterproductive Drafting Strategies:

  1. Being a deadline writer. This starts from procrastination. It enables you to write, and you don’t do much evaluation (because you don’t have time), so there’s reduced critical interference. The downsides to this strategy? You never have time to write your best version. You can’t count on it -it’s risky. And it undermines your confidence.
  2. Write a little, stop, rewrite, get writing energy. Rinse, repeat. This strategy mixes generation and evaluation. It’s risky because it’s slow and the writer can run out of energy to continue.

More-productive Drafting Strategies:

  1. Find a focusing force within the rhetorical situation.
    • writing to an audience gives you energy, helps you focus and concentrate, and helps you pick up after interruptions
    • purpose also helps with focus, concentration and energy
    • occasion can be thrilling, too (esp. when working in a different form or genre)
  2. Focus on generation by listening to the creative voice within (auditory, visual, etc.)
    • Get the pictures to talk
    • Knowing how you write helps you write. Use that as a focusing force.

Turn off spell and grammar check and any wizard tools in your computer software! These intrusions distract you from generation, into evaluation, often without your knowledge.

Stay in Drafting until you have finished your entire first draft. (That will sound familiar to Nanowrimos, too!)

And finally, REVISION!

Experienced writers don’t just revise, they re-vision. Dylan Thomas once said that he revised every poem at least fifty times, and that was when they were well along.

Revision is building a manuscript from a first draft. Starting with the largest concerns:

  • content (have I said all I wanted to say?)
  • audience
  • purpose
  • occasion

And then the smaller concerns:

  • superstructure
  • structure (smaller units)
  • sentences
  • diction – word choice (thesaurus time)

Revision is fun and flexible. Get it out of Drafting and into a Revision process.

Revision can be additive, subtractive, or (most usually) a combination of the two.

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