Edited By Susanne Göpferich and Imke Neumann
“Prepare an outline first and then just write spontaneously” – An analysis of students’ writing strategies and their attitudes towards professional writing
English: Students’ beliefs about writing and writing strategies may interfere with their acceptance of writing support. Therefore, it is helpful for writing instructors to be aware of these beliefs and attitudes. This article provides insights into students’ attitudes towards planning and spontaneous writing, both for short assignments in non-academic genres and longer texts in academic writing. For this purpose, statements from 163 students were analysed, which were posted during four courses of the BA programme “Transcultural Communication” at the Centre for Translation Studies of the University of Vienna. The courses were designed around writing in German as an L1 or L2. The results reveal numerous individual writing strategies and beliefs about writing. Students who take the ‘conscious craft’ position are keen to learn more about writing strategies, whereas students with the ‘kiss of the muse’ position doubt whether writing support might be helpful for them at all. Between these opposing poles, various forms of individual habits of writing and beliefs about writing (strategies) occur. Additionally, the didactic potential of online forum discussions about writing was analysed. These written discussions provide first insights into students’ conceptions about writing and can help them to re-consider their beliefs and attitudes through exchange with others. Discussions can then be further expanded in subsequent lessons to resolve misunderstandings, to foster students’ reflection of their individual writing approaches and to design and administer assignments geared to their specific needs.
German: Was Studierende über Schreiben und Schreibstrategien denken, kann ihre Aufgeschlossenheit gegenüber Schreibdidaktik und Schreibbegleitung beeinflussen. Dementsprechend wichtig ist es für Lehrende, die subjektiven Schreibtheorien Studierender und ihre darauf beruhenden Einstellungen zu kennen. Im vorliegenden Beitrag wird analysiert, wie sich Studierende selbst über ihr Schreiben äußern. Im Mittelpunkt des Interesses steht dabei das Spannungsfeld von Planen und Drauflosschreiben, einerseits im Kontext wissenschaftlichen Schreibens, andererseits bei ← 173 | 174 → der Produktion von kurzen Gebrauchstexten. Für den Beitrag wurden Statements von 163 Studierenden analysiert, die diese im Rahmen von vier Lehrveranstaltungen des Sprachbereichs Deutsch im Bachelor-Studiengang „Transkulturelle Kommunikation“ am Zentrum für Translationswissenschaft der Universität Wien auf Lernplattformen gepostet haben. Für einen Teil der Studierenden ist Deutsch die L2. Die Ergebnisse zeigen eine Vielfalt von individuellen Schreibstrategien und (ideologischen) Annahmen über das Schreiben. Studierende, die Schreiben als „Handwerk“ betrachten, sind sehr interessiert an Empfehlungen aus der Schreibdidaktik und setzen sich gerne mit ihrem Schreibprozess auseinander, während Studierende, die einer „Musenkuss-Position“ anhängen, nicht sicher sind, ob Schreibdidaktik für sie überhaupt hilfreich sein kann. Zwischen diesen Extrempositionen finden sich vielfältige Formen individueller Annahmen über das Schreiben und individueller Schreibgewohnheiten. Weiterhin soll das didaktische Potential solcher Forendiskussionen über Schreiben und Schreibstrategien beleuchtet werden. Der Austausch mit Peers in den Online-Foren kann einen Ansatzpunkt dafür bieten, dass die Studierenden ihre persönlichen Zugänge reflektieren. Die Diskussion kann – und sollte – im Präsenzunterricht fortgeführt werden, nicht zuletzt um Missverständnisse in Bezug auf das Schreiben und Zielsetzungen von Schreibdidaktik zu klären. Schreibdidaktische Konzepte, wie sie im letzten Kapitel des Beitrags diskutiert werden, können die Reflexion über Schreibstrategien noch fortführen und erweitern. Ziel ist, die Studierenden bei ihrer individuellen Professionalisierung zu unterstützen.
1 The context of the study: Writing instruction and its objectives at the Centre for Translation Studies of the University of Vienna
Professional writing in a minimum of three working languages is considered a key competence in the Bachelor’s programme “Transcultural Communication” at the Centre for Translation Studies of the University of Vienna.1 The students are expected to acquire and develop the necessary language, text and cultural competences. Particular emphasis is placed on writing for specific audiences and within intercultural contexts (Zentrum für Translationswissenschaft 2011). In accordance with Beaufort & Iñesta (2014: 146 ff.), the learning objectives involve “subject matter knowledge”, “rhetorical knowledge”, “genre knowledge”, “discourse community knowledge” and “writing process knowledge”. ← 174 | 175 →
At the Centre for Translation Studies, these objectives are addressed in several courses for text analysis and text production, which are offered at several levels and for a number of languages. While the courses are taught by different teachers, all of them address similar issues (albeit in different ways), and continuous exchange between instructors ensures comparability and a consistent quality of teaching. Most of the courses are taught in a blended-learning scenario.
The tasks students complete in these courses constitute “exercises of rhetorical problem solving” of the sort described by Göpferich (2015: 181). The students have to compose relatively short, non-academic, but nevertheless high-quality texts based on source material and specifications of the intended use of the texts and their target groups, thus simulating professional writing situations. The genres to be composed vary from task to task and comprise, among others, press releases, texts for company websites, parts of audio guides and journalistic texts (e.g., reports, portraits, reviews, and newspaper comments). Due to time constraints and the limited number of courses that constitute the curriculum, only a selection of genres can be addressed. The assignments, however, are embedded in students’ writing instruction in such a manner that students can acquire expertise on a meta-level, which allows them to transfer the knowledge acquired to writing situations they had not experienced before. To further this process, both product-oriented and process-oriented approaches are integrated into the courses. In order for the students to reflect the process of text improvement and to support their learning processes, drafts and revisions of the assignments are collected in portfolios. This form of reflection is, however, centred more on the text than on the writer. In order to “produce better writing through better writers” (Göpferich 2015: 197), an additional focus on writing strategies and writing habits is required. The tasks described in this article were designed to fulfil this desideratum.
In order to increase active engagement with and reflection of their writing and their writing processes, the students were invited to discuss their writing habits (what they usually do when writing) and their attitudes towards writing (what they think about their writing habits and certain strategies) during a self-study period on a Moodle platform. The combination of the above-mentioned approaches and means allows lecturers to further the development of academic literacy. ← 175 | 176 →
2 Research goals
Recent studies have shown that writing habits and strategies can differ significantly in both professional and academic writing (Chandler 1995; Wyllie 2000; Ortner 2000; Kellogg 2008: 10; Lange 2012). Various paths can lead to a text, and while not all of them might be equally smooth and efficient, each of them can prove successful in the end. Furthermore, writing habits often interact with individual beliefs about writing and writing strategies, which may be experience-driven or ideological, or both. Previous research (e.g., White/Bruning 2005 and Baaijen/Galbraith/de Glopper 2014) has shown that certain beliefs about writing can also influence the quality of the target text. Moreover, certain beliefs about writing and about writing instruction (which are often based on misunderstandings) can lead to attitudes towards writing which may interfere with writing support. University teachers, as well as everybody involved in writing support, such as writing instructors and tutors, should be aware of these attitudes towards writing and writing instruction in order to be able to support their students efficiently.
The present study hopes to add to this research by analysing students’ (n=163) comments on writing, their strategies and attitudes. It is based on data from Moodle discussions of students from three courses and one seminar taught at the Centre for Translation Studies of the University of Vienna. Two main research goals were pursued: 1. to analyse students’ attitudes towards what they consider good writing processes and, more specifically, towards planning and spontaneous writing, and 2. to evaluate the didactic usefulness of discussions on writing strategies inspired by impulse questions and/or an impulse text – in order to identify areas in which students need further support. The results can help writing supporters to “understand – and adapt to – student dispositions in classrooms” (Driscoll/Wells 2012). In this manner, the research results can be fed back into the classroom for didactic purposes.
3 Data collection and methods
3.1 Study context: the course concepts, Moodle discussions and impulse questions
The Moodle discussions that eventually provided the data for analysis originally solely served didactic purposes: First, in discussing their writing habits and attitudes with others, students were obliged to reflect upon their writing processes and attitudes towards writing in order to convey their thoughts to others in a comprehensible manner. Second, verbalizing individual habits (and problems) formed a basis for comparison with others’ individual habits (and problems). Third, students obtained comments from peers and sometimes also suggestions for improving their writing process.
The discussions in question took place during four classes taught at the Department of German of the Centre for Translation Studies of the University of Vienna between the winter semester 2012/13 and the summer semester 2014. A total of 163 students contributed to the Moodle discussions, which were scheduled during self-study phases in the middle of the semester and subsequently reflected upon in class.
The study setting consisted of three courses entitled “Text analysis and production”2, in which students produce short non-academic texts, such as newspaper articles, letters to the editor, and comments. In these courses, which consist of a lecture component and a more interactive tutorial, particular emphasis is placed on genre awareness, text types and text quality, as well as effective writing. Students are supposed to aim for high-quality texts that are in line with professional standards. These classes address both students whose L1 is German and those with German as an L2 and are offered separately for both groups. Here it should be noted that the terms L1 and L2 might not always correctly describe the language background of some students, since their language repertoires are more complex and multifaceted (see Dengscherz 2014).
The fourth class in which students contributed to the Moodle discussion was a seminar from the Bachelor programme that focused on text and discourse. Instead of several short texts, students write a term paper and are supported in their writing during the seminar, as well as during a tutorial held by peer tutors. ← 177 | 178 →
In the following, the four courses will be referred to as course L1_w12/13 and L2_w12/13 (meaning course offered for students for their L1 German or their L2 German respectively in the winter semester 2012/13), course L1_s14 (meaning course offered for students for their L1 German in the summer semester 2014) and seminar SE_s13 (meaning seminar “Text & Discourse” offered in the summer semester 2013).
In order to increase motivation and provide inspiration for the Moodle discussions, the students were presented with a number of prompts. These prompts differed between the groups, since the students had attended different classes and thus received slightly different input as well. Therefore, students were given either specific questions on their writing habits and strategies, more general questions on their attitudes concerning academic writing, or specific questions on a particular text they had read in class.
The students who attended the text production courses in the winter semester 2012/13 (course_L1_w12/13 and course_L2_w12/13) received the following impulse questions (in German):
• How would you describe yourself as a writer? How do you approach writing?
• How do you get into the right mood for writing?
• What are good writing times and writing places for you?
• How do you arrive at the best ideas? Primarily by planning your text in advance or rather by writing spontaneously?
• When do you develop a structure for your text: before writing, during writing or during revising?
• Do you write in a linear fashion, i.e., from the first to the last sentence, or do you jump between text parts?
• What else is important for you when it comes to writing?
• How satisfied are you with the organisation of your writing process? What works well, and where do problems occur?
• To which extent does your approach vary concerning different genres, writing tasks and languages?
The students who attended the seminar “Text & Discourse” in the summer semester 2013 (SE_s13) received impulse questions that focused on academic writing (as opposed to writing other short texts, such as newspaper articles): ← 178 | 179 →
• Do you already have experience in academic writing? If yes, what kind of experience?
• How do you motivate yourself to start writing?
• Do you know any helpful strategies for writing?
• Do you have any tips and advice for your peers?
The students who attended the text production course in the summer semester 2014 (course_L1_s14) had focused on a specific text on intuitive and professional writing (Trappen 2003: 171 ff.) prior to the self-study phase. In this text, Trappen presents writing as a complex and often underestimated activity and distinguishes between “intuitive” and “professional” writing. He claims that the reasons for problems in writing are often ascribed to a variety of causes – but seldom to a lack of writing expertise. Trappen furthermore maintains that writers have an oversimplified attitude towards writing and argues for another perspective, emphasizing that professional writing requires preparation, reflection, revisions and planning. In his view, professional writing equals proficient writing.
The impulse questions students received in this course were based on the text and specifically asked them to agree or disagree with Trappen’s view:
• On which aspects do you agree with the author? On which aspects do you disagree?
• What is your experience with writing so far?
• How professional do you perceive yourself when writing?
• How could successful text conceptualization work in professional writing? Which steps does it need? Which aspects should be taken into consideration?
All the students participating in the Moodle discussion were invited to not only post their own thoughts and ideas, but also to respond directly to postings of their peers and thus enter into a discussion. In order to increase motivation, the students were encouraged to decide on which questions they wanted to comment and either to focus on or neglect specific aspects of the questions. Thus, not all students provided information on every aspect. The statements are interwoven, and the topics connect inter-textually, forming a “discursive swarm” (“diskursives Gewimmel”; Jäger/Jäger 2007: 25). ← 179 | 180 →
Table 1: Overview of the groups and respective prompts3
|Course||No. of students||Prompt|
|L1_w12/13||57||Impulse questions focused on writing habits and writing experiences|
|SE_s13||22 (13 “new”)3||Impulse questions focused on academic writing|
|L1_s14||53||Impulse questions on a text: Trappen (2003)|
3.2 Data and research focus
Due to the special nature of the Moodle discussion, the corpus consists of relatively short texts. The statements on one topic are often scattered over several postings in one forum (and in the case of 9 students, in two forums). When analysing the postings, it has to be taken into account that the varied nature of the impulse questions and texts as well as the different course formats and the input provided by peers might have influenced the nature of the statements. Furthermore, the students were undoubtedly aware of the fact that their comments would also be read by their instructors, which may have had an impact on the way they expressed themselves. Nevertheless, these postings can be considered as a valuable source. At the time the forum discussions took place, it had not yet been decided that the postings would be used for analysis, and thus the students were not influenced by the knowledge that they were producing data for research. Only when the postings were examined prior to being discussed in class did it become apparent that they would lend themselves perfectly to analysis, and thus students were asked for permission for the further use of the data.
Due to the above-mentioned range of prompts being used and the difference in course content, the research focus was in each case adapted to fit the specific context. This allows the analysis of the most relevant issues for each group, as described in the following overview:
(a.1) The discussions in the groups course_L1_w12/13, course_L2_w12/13 and seminar SE_s13 revolved around writing activities (especially the ← 180 | 181 → activities of planning and spontaneous writing). Therefore, the analysis of these groups focused on writing and planning as activities.
(a.2) In course_L1_w12/13 and course_L2_w12/13, the students mainly referred to the production of short texts (as described in Section 1.1), whereas the students of the seminar group SE_s13 discussed academic writing (in German as L1 or L2). Thus, one chapter of the article will address planning and writing activities that were commented on in this latter group in the context of academic writing as a genre.
(b) Since all students commented on their attitudes towards planning and spontaneous writing, these attitudes were analysed for all four groups.
(c) The discussion in the group course_L1_s14 centred on criteria of and attitudes towards what constitutes good writing processes, and thus a special focus will be placed on these aspects for this group.
(d) A specific subgroup of 9 students who attended both a course on text analysis and text production (L1 or L2) first and then the seminar SE_s13 was analysed with regard to how they said they adapted their planning and spontaneous writing strategies to academic writing assignments as compared to non-academic texts.
Table 2: Research focus adapted to groups and prompts
|Research focus||Groups||No. of students|
|(a.1) Planning and spontaneous writing as activities of the writing process||course_L1_w12/13,|
|(a.2) (Additional) focus on academic writing||SE_s13||22|
|(b) Attitudes towards planning and spontaneous writing||course_L1_w12/13,|
|(c) Characteristics ascribed to good writing||course_L1_s14||53|
|(d) Differentiation between writing repertoires (from course_L1or L2_w12/13 to SE_s13)||subgroup of SE_s13||9|
In accordance with Grounded Theory, the data were submitted to a qualitative content analysis. In order to analyse the statements systematically, several cycles through the material were necessary, beginning with what Kruse (2015: 363) calls “cross-eyed hermeneutics” (“schielende Hermeneutik”). This was based, on the one hand, on prior knowledge and theory about writing, and, on the other hand, on reflective openness (Breuer 2010: 28 f.), remaining sensitive to the fine nuances of the data (Strauss/Corbin 1996: 25). Early run-through phases were devoted to explorative development of main and subcategories by “initial coding” (Charmaz 2006: 47 ff.) and further “focused coding” (ibid. 57 ff.). The subsequent text analysis focused on the main categories “planning” and “spontaneous writing.” For this analysis, all statements that cover planning and/or spontaneous writing were coded in MaxQDA11 by two raters in a consensual assessment procedure. Quantitative methods were only applied to main categories, in order to determine how often statements that fall into the respective category occurred.
The statements were coded by wording as well as by content: (a) wording: students mentioned “planning” or “spontaneous writing”4; (b) content: students referred to planning or spontaneous writing in other words. This includes reporting, for example, the outlining of a concept, taking notes and arranging them before writing or writing in an “organised” manner as well as the mentioning of inspiration, intuition, and the “journey” of writing which could “lead” in one direction or another. A certain degree of interpretation was required for this type of thematic coding (see also Bryman 2012: 297).
The statements were further classified according to their tendency towards a certain position (either planning or spontaneous writing) or divided into subgroups (in the case of professional writing criteria). Additionally, typical examples were selected and highlighted for the sake of illustrating particular discourse positions. ← 182 | 183 →
In the following sections, the results will be presented. Section 4.1 focuses on the characteristics that the students associated with professional writing in general, while Sections 4.2 and 4.3 are devoted to students’ reports on planning and spontaneous writing as specific activities and on their writing habits and attitudes towards planning and spontaneous writing. The subgroup of students who combined planning and spontaneous writing is addressed in Section 4.4, whereas Section 4.5 compares writing strategies for short non-academic assignments with those used for academic writing.
4.1 Characteristics ascribed to professional writing
With the inspiration of the impulse text (Trappen 2003), the 53 students of the group course_L1_s14 discussed professional writing in a general and abstract sense, mentioning criteria for proficient professional writing and collectively painting a multifaceted picture. An exhaustive list of the criteria that the students mentioned is provided in the following. The criteria have been divided into five larger categories. Within each of these categories, the criteria mentioned are arranged by frequency, with the figures in parentheses indicating how often they were mentioned.
Text requirements (product-oriented level): adequate use of vocabulary, including correct connotations (21), genre conventions (18), thread/central theme (11), structure (9), style (9), cohesion (5), adaptation to the audience (7), coherence (7), comprehensibility (5), orthography (4), requirements differ according to the situation (4), clarity (3), adequate coverage of the topic (3), adequate syntax (2), fluency (2), boiled down to an essence (2), text logic (1), layout conventions (1), adequate language register (1), adequate microstructure (1), adequate introduction (1), adequate ending (1).
Professional skills: experience (10), feeling for language (7), writing competence (3), competencies (without further explanation) (3), language and writing skills (2), basic knowledge of text production (1), awareness of own mistakes (1), ability to apply theoretical concepts in practice (1). ← 183 | 184 →
Personal skills and emotional, motivational, and mental background: spontaneity (18), reflection (9), creativity (5), talent (3), awareness of the process (3), variety of ideas (3), intuition (2), gut instinct (2), power of imagination (1), good mental state (1), self-confidence related to writing (1), satisfaction (1), self-appreciation (1), do the best you can (1), inspiration (1), joy and commitment (1), stamina and patience (1).
Requirements for the writing process (management): planning (31), revising (13), proofreading (12), preparation (11), task analysis (3), investigation (3), organisation (2), time management (1).
External parameters: institutional setting (3), other aspects or factors (without further explanation) (3), time (2).
The most varied criteria were mentioned for texts as products. Seven students questioned the possibility of rating text quality in an objective manner altogether. They consider this a matter of individual taste. One student regards professional texts as uncreative. Such views could also be found concerning the process level where professional writing was regarded as a craft using consciously applied techniques. Twelve students explicitly pointed out that intuitive writing on the one hand and professional writing on the other are not opposing poles but are compatible, and that professional writing requires intuition as well as experience, reflection and writing techniques. Four other students even considered “too much thinking” or “too much theory” as obstacles to be overcome.
Furthermore, 20 students discussed writing mood: Sixteen of them stated that all writing (including professional writing) depends on the right mood; one student added that professional writers are able to recognise the right mood for writing, and four students claimed that being ‘professional’ means that one is able to write in every mood.
In addition, 17 students reflected on the learnability and teachability of writing. Nine of them consider writing to be learnable and teachable, another three, as at least partially learnable and teachable; five students stated that a rich repertoire of strategies does not automatically lead to better texts.
Concerning the writing process, planning was discussed most frequently: 43 students mentioned planning, 31 of them listed it as a requirement of professional writing (see the list above). In the following section, it will be analysed how the students of the other three groups (course_L1_w12/13, ← 184 | 185 → course_L2_ w12/13, SE_s13) implement planning in their individual writing processes.
Finally, it is interesting to note that external parameters seem to play a minor role in this context as they were hardly addressed at all. The students seemed to focus on those aspects of writing which they can, should or want to control or at least influence. This might indicate that they interpret “professional writing” in accordance with Kellogg (2008: 7) and Trappen (2003: 171 f.) as having expert proficiency in writing, and were possibly also influenced by their previous reading of the latter text.
4.2 Reports on planning and organising activities
Since in the seminar a longer text had to be composed, it is not surprising that planning activities were reported on more frequently here than in the other courses. Most of the students in the seminar were aware of planning as an activity that should at least be considered for academic writing. 77.3% of the students in SE_s13 mentioned planning as a topic in their statements. In the courses L1_w12/13 and L2_w12/13, by contrast, only 50.9% and 57.5% of the students discussed planning. A reason for this might be that students are not always aware of the actual planning activities that are required for shorter non-academic texts, possibly because these activities are closely linked with other writing activities they undertake and are thus less obvious.
Surprisingly, however, the percentage of self-declared ‘non-planners’ is higher in SE_s13 than in the L2 writing group of course_L2_w12/13 (though lower than in course_L1 _w12/13). Three of the six ‘non-planners’ in SE_s13, however, stated that it would be better to plan. In contrast, the ‘non-planners’ in course_L2_w12/13 seem to be more convinced of their strategy: Only two out of eight stated that planning would be preferable, but five described planning as restrictive or hindering and were thus comfortable with their non-planned writing. Table 3 gives an overview of the reported planning activities in the three groups: ← 185 | 186 →
Table 3: Reported planning activities in the courses L1_w12/13 and L2_w12/13 and in the seminar SE_s13
Some students explained how the role of planning differs in various writing tasks and situations. One student, for example, does “preparatory work”, such as task analysis, mind-mapping or structure planning if his head “is empty” (student in course_L2_w12/13). Two students in course_L2_w12/13 write “creative texts” spontaneously and tend towards planning for texts that follow specific genre patterns, use planning for “less creative” texts (student in course_L1_w12/13), for situations when they have to investigate a topic (student in course_ L1_w12/13) and for argumentative texts (student in course_L1_w12/13). Three others reported that they write short assignments spontaneously and tend to plan longer academic texts at least roughly and at the macro level. One participant in course_L1_w12/13 tends towards more planning when the text has to be short. However, she also reported that she writes opinion-based texts spontaneously in order to find out what ideas on the topic may be “lying dormant” in her mind.
A remarkable position taken among the ‘planners’ is the so-called ‘conscious craft position’: For some students, it is entirely obvious that planning must be the superior strategy, even if they do not plan (enough) themselves: ← 186 | 187 →
“I often start spontaneously, by simply writing away, only to realize that this is going to end in chaos, so I then try to structure the text afterwards. It would of course be much easier if I wrote down some thoughts before the actual production of the text and structured them right away. I definitely want to do this in my future text production. :)” (student in course L1_s14).
The student is not entirely satisfied with her current strategy and reflects on alternative strategies. Her use of the phrase “of course” indicates that she is thoroughly convinced that outline planning is the preferable (and more proficient) strategy – for everybody. This belief or misconception is also indicated by recent research: Baaijen, Gabraith & de Glopper (2014) found that writers with extremely high transactional beliefs5 produce worse texts when they write an outline first, as compared to preparing for the task by writing down a simple sentence that sums up their opinion.
Some students admire others’ planning of writing procedures, especially because they do not plan themselves, and use more negatively connotated wording when referring to spontaneous writing, such as being “susceptible” to it (student in course_L1_s14). All in all, the students who take the ‘conscious craft position’ seem to consider spontaneous writing as a bad habit or a kind of unfavourable predisposition, which can only be a hindrance to proficient professional writing.
In the seminar group, the term planning was used to refer not only to conceptualization and structuring but also to time management. Seventeen students out of 22 mentioned planning: three of them addressed only text planning, three others only time management, and 11 students both. Four students expressed satisfaction with their time management; one student rated it as sufficient and six others stated that they tended towards procrastination. Two of them felt that they needed time pressure for writing; one claimed time pressure to be at least an extrinsic motivation. Five students explicitly declared that they consider it challenging to find a beginning for ← 187 | 188 → their texts. One claimed effective use of time for writing to be difficult if there is only one hour available.
Three students took the first steps towards establishing a writing group: One of the students who attended both the course L1_w12/13 and the seminar SE_s13 reported difficulties with academic writing in her posting, especially with starting to write and overcoming procrastination. She also mentioned strategies that worked for her: setting intermediate goals, writing a rough outline and then just getting started. Another student, who had also attended both course L1_w12/13 and the seminar SE_s13, liked those ideas and made the following suggestion in her answer: “We could set a date together by when we want to have achieved something, for example, the first 5 pages. In this manner, we would both have to sit down and start (and just simply write ;)).” Another seminar participant answered immediately: “I would like to join you, because I am never disciplined enough to reach a goal by a certain point of time if I am only responsible for it by myself”. These statements exemplify how the Moodle discussions helped students not only to become aware of their writing procedures but also to learn from each other.
4.3 Reports on spontaneous writing
When writers have the “optimal experience” of flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1988), idea generation and structuring take place seemingly effortlessly in a “black box” – beyond the realm of rationality – and the words seem to join together “somehow” and “as if by themselves” to form a coherent text. Writing becomes easy, and the writers are no longer aware of the complexity of text production. For many students, spontaneous writing is connected with this kind of flow in writing and thus regarded as something positive and desirable (see Table 4).
Nevertheless, the students also reported disadvantages of spontaneous writing: its susceptibility to the writers’ moods and external conditions; the random occurrence – or even non-occurrence – of ideas. One student in course L1_w12/13, for example, was quite satisfied with her writing “on good days”, but on other days, “when the words do not hit the paper automatically”, she would “give anything for an already drawn-up ← 188 | 189 → concept ;)”. Table 4 shows, though, that there is a predominately positive attitude towards spontaneous writing.
Table 4: Spontaneous writing reported by the students
As can be seen from Table 4, the flow of spontaneous writing seems to work better in the L1 than in the L2 and better for short assignments than for longer texts. One challenge for spontaneous writers is to get started. Difficulties can result from a lack of ideas as well as from an overload of ideas, an “embarras de richesse” (Ortner 2002: 237), causing a “knot in the head” (ibid.) that needs to be “untied” in order to resume writing.
Moreover, the students interpreted “beginning” in different ways: For some of them, it referred to the introduction or first sentence of a text, for others, to the initial moments of the writing process. Particularly when it comes to academic writing, the students also mentioned a kind of “fear”, which disappears when a plan for “dealing with the matter” becomes clearer (student in SE_s13) or when there is an idea of “where the journey may lead” (student in course_L2_w12/13_SE_s13).
The feeling of insecurity at the outset of a larger writing project can affect motivation and lead to procrastination, especially in academic writing. For example, some students tend to have difficulties with the transition from investigation to writing, as reported by Keseling (2004: 43 ff.). Interaction with others could be helpful at this point. Some students also suggested solutions for problems with the first sentence. Some of them do not start with the first sentence of the introduction but rather elsewhere in the text or they just write any beginning, being aware of the option to revise it later. For short assignments, however, two other students reported that they find ← 189 | 190 → it impossible to start anywhere else than with the introductory sentence. Further strategies that were reported for dealing with the beginning were to write a rough draft or to generate ideas by doing research or talking to others.
Other students, however, consciously refuse planning for their writing, and might be said to adhere to a so-called ‘kiss of the muse’ position. They argue that they generate ideas best while writing spontaneously; they enjoy the flow (see Table 4). Following a pre-devised plan is considered a limitation; they might even consider it boring to already know at the beginning where the writing could ultimately lead. Four students referred to the proverbial ‘kiss of the muse’ as an extremely positive experience, with one student even calling it “wonderful”, even in academic writing (student in SE_s13). The same student claimed to need “this ‘thrill’, which arises when there is absolutely nothing left to stand between me and the blank page (or the empty computer screen)”.
Some students seem to fear that professional writing could lead to a loss of what they perceive to be the adventurous aspects of writing, causing the act of writing in a flow to be replaced with more “technical” approaches. As a consequence, they may doubt the possibility of planning their writing:
“It may be a professional process, but isn’t it also partly creativity or even power of the imagination? Can creative talent and originality be called up at the flick of a switch? I don’t think so.” (student in course_L1_s14)
This scepticism can also refer to time management for writing: “I am a person who cannot plan writing and say today I will write for 1 hour and tomorrow maybe half an hour.” (student in course_L1_w12/13_SE_s13) Furthermore, the scepticism can refer to text analysis. One student in course L1_s14 stated, for example, that “too detailed planning and too much reflection” did not help her but led to writer’s block instead. Thus, many students who take the ‘kiss of the muse’ position tend to have a conception of professional writing that contains everything they dislike about writing: strict guidelines on the product level as well as “technical” approaches on the process level. Moreover, one student in course_L1_s14 added (commingling the process and product levels) that a novel was written spontaneously and only “professional texts” required planning and preparatory work. For students who subscribe to this position, it could be helpful to address ← 190 | 191 → this perceived inevitability of their own approach, especially if they are not satisfied with their writing process or its outcome.
4.4 Combining planning and spontaneous writing
Concerning planning and spontaneous writing, the data shows positions between two opposing poles, which point to some extent to the dichotomy between “structure followers” (“Strukturfolger”) and “structure creators” (“Strukturschaffer”) described by Bräuer & Schindler (2011).
However, the students who mentioned “spontaneous writing” did not always mean “creating structure while writing” (Bräuer/Schindler 2011) without any kind of planning activities in advance. Some students take at least some notes first, and the rest of the text just “happens somehow” (student in course_L1_w12/13). Other students plan the text structure prior to writing “spontaneously”: “When I have to write longer texts, I mostly consider in advance how I could arrange the relevant topics. After that, I just write spontaneously.” (student in course_L1_ w12/13)
Other students take it for granted that a writer needs to figure out a basic structure or a rough outline of the text before it becomes possible to “write spontaneously”:
“Of course, I need the main structure first, but then it is better if I write spontaneously, quickly taking up creative flashes of thoughts. These provide enough inspiration while reading my text for the second and third time; at that point I start to have a lot of additional good ideas.” (student in course_L2_w12/13)
The comments show that this kind of “spontaneous writing” is not a way of starting early without a plan as described by Keseling (2004: 55 f.), but a way of taking advantage of the momentum, which carries the writer from one thought to the next and which can also be carried out after planning activities. Thus, one of the students in course_L1_w12/13 referred to herself as a “planned spontaneous writer” (“geplante Draufloschreiberin”).
In this study, 29 students (a total of 24.4% of all students) described variations of “planned spontaneous writing”. It occurred mainly in the group of L1 writers who were producing short texts and less often in the seminar group or among L2 writers. Some of the students devise their first plan only in their minds; some change their plan during writing. Table 5 provides an overview of the distribution of these aspects. ← 191 | 192 →
Table 5: “Planned spontaneous writers” (subgroup of 29 students)
In this context, it is interesting to note at which stage of the writing process the students work out the macrostructures of their texts. A total of 72.3% of the students in the courses L1_w12/13 and L2_w12/13 and in the seminar SE_s13 provided information about their structuring activities (27.7% of students did not mention structuring at all). Table 6 provides an overview.
Table 6: Structuring activities at different stages of the writing process
The results show that both the “planned spontaneous writers” as well as the other students tend to structure texts in their minds or develop the structure while writing, especially when working on short texts in their L1. For writing in the L2 and for academic writing, written outlines become more important, but that does not necessarily mean that the outline has to be followed and that the macrostructure cannot be changed during the writing process. Structuring the text at the end or throughout the whole writing process was rarely mentioned, which indicated that most of the students seem to consider it more efficient to develop a structure before or during their writing.
4.5 Adapting writing strategies to academic writing
Nine of the students in seminar SE_s13 had already posted in another forum during the previous semester (8 students in course L1_w12/13; 1 student in course L2_w12/13). As already mentioned, course L1_w12/13 and course L2_w12/13 focused on short non-academic assignments, whereas the seminar required academic writing. Therefore, it is interesting to compare the statements of those students who contributed to both forums. Two of the students applied planning even to short texts, five characterised themselves as spontaneous writers and two combined planning and spontaneous writing. Their reports on adapting their strategies for academic writing differ individually. Nevertheless, certain trends could be observed:
(1) Flexible planning for academic texts: One student in course L1_w12/13 described making a plan for short texts and maintaining it while writing. She claimed to also need such an outline for academic writing, though acknowledged that she changed some items or newly arranged them while writing. This indicated that she uses her writing strategies more flexibly for academic writing than for short assignments. Another student in course L2_w12/13 reported a broad spectrum of writing strategies for short non-academic texts. For academic writing, he tries to plan a macrostructure for at least one chapter. However, this structure is subject to numerous changes, since he also tries to remain flexible in his thinking and writing.
(2) Spontaneous writers discuss planning: Three of the five spontaneous writers express a wish to outline their term papers “to avoid getting totally lost” in writing and then “just” write, staying aware of the possibility to ← 193 | 194 → change everything at any time. One student who took both course_L1_w12/13 and SE_s13 was not entirely satisfied with spontaneous writing – even for short texts – and stated that she should devote more time and energy to planning and revising. For term papers, she considers “mind mapping and other techniques not helpful for her personally” but develops a macrostructure by noting important thoughts in the form of headlines. She and another student, who also attended both a writing course and the seminar, consider time management for academic writing particularly challenging.
For the other two spontaneous writers, however, planning is not a satisfactory solution. One student does not even intend to create an outline for her term paper. Her writing procedures have become habitual over the years, and, therefore, she does not want to change anything. Another student, however, would also like to apply spontaneous writing when working on her term paper, but her strategy has only proven successful for short texts. She considers this a great pity because she likes writing most when carried out spontaneously. She enjoyed free-form writing, which she attempted for the first time in a previous lecture, and is happy to have learned about this strategy. For both students, writing in a flow is very important.
(3) “Planned spontaneous writers” refine their repertoire: Two students value the freedom of spontaneous writing. An outline, however, serves as a helpful guideline. One of them, a student in course_L1_w12/13, prefers to plan mentally: she has “quite definite ideas” before starting to write, but changes them, nevertheless, during her writing. She intends to plan her term paper mentally as well and is “less than thrilled by mind mapping or clustering”, because she can usually imagine the structure in advance, and writing it down would be a “waste of paper”. Nevertheless, she is open to other suggestions. For instance, as one of her fellow students reported on talking to friends and peers about her research topic and thereby gathering ideas, she picked up this hint and stated she would try this as well. Another student also attempts to enhance her strategies: during the seminar, she mentioned a writing guide (Kruse 2010) that she had already read for course L1_w12/13, noting that it contained some valuable advice for beginners.
The results show that the two planners try to organise their writing process more flexibly for the purpose of academic writing than for short non-academic assignments. The two students who combine planning and ← 194 | 195 → spontaneous writing seem to be quite satisfied with their writing strategies, but nevertheless try to enhance and refine them. The spontaneous writers, on the other hand, first consider planning activities when it comes to academic writing. Four out of five of the spontaneous writers try to plan more. Three of them consider this helpful, but for the fourth, spontaneous writing is so important that planning leads to a loss of motivation. For her, a “loop writing”-method (Elbow 1981: 59 ff.), “sit there method” or “many pages method” leading to a zero draft, which may be the starting point for a first and subsequent drafts (Bolker 1998: 44 ff.), might work better than writing an outline in advance.
5 Discussion and pedagogical implications
In order to become professional writers, students need to gain expertise on the product level as well as on the process level. In terms of genre requirements, writing a posting for a Moodle discussion is an easy task for the students. On the content level, however, the exercise is complex and requires self-analysis. A student in course_L2_w12/13 stated: “I consider this task as very useful, because I have never analysed my own writing process before. Now I understand what I have to work on in order to write more efficiently.”
Our data confirm that discussing individual writing procedures with others can be, as Lehnen, Schüler & Steinseifer (2014: 227) have argued, “a starting point for reflecting upon and improving one’s own approach. In the light of alternative methods for developing a text, one’s own approach loses its inevitability.” This was mirrored by one of the students in the seminar SE_s13: “What is terrific about this exchange of experience is that one can learn very much from others and see how others deal with writing.”
The students seized the opportunity to discuss individual writing strategies and to give and receive advice, for example, for using mind maps or letting the first draft of a text sit before revision. Not all of the strategies mentioned in the forums are very sophisticated and not all of them will work for everybody in every situation. In any case, discussions on writing strategies support the interaction between “knowing how and knowing that” (Ryle 1949) and thus establish first steps in promoting reflexive professionalization (Knappik/Dirim/Döll 2014: 82 ff.). ← 195 | 196 →
For writing teachers and coaches, it is important to understand how students adopt terms and concepts from writing research and instruction and instil these with their own meaning (such as with “spontaneous writing” in our data, which may be carried out after an initially developed macrostructure). Encouraging students to discuss their writing habits and writing procedures can reveal their understanding of certain terms and make their attitudes towards writing accessible for the purposes of writing support.
In order to deepen the reflection, the discussion should not be limited to the forum but be continued and further evaluated in the following lessons. This provides the additional opportunity of resolving misunderstandings about the dos and don’ts of writing, which enables instructors to support students in a way that is compatible with their individual positions. For example, if students refuse professionalization because they consider it incompatible with their ‘kiss of the muse’ position, it could be helpful to convince them that they do not have to convert to a sort of ‘Taylorism of writing’ and that spontaneous writing and intuition can be part of proficient professional writing – especially when integrated into a process that includes extensive revision phases. This insight may also provide relief for the students who are convinced that academic writing is impossible without previous planning activities, but who nevertheless lose their enjoyment of writing when they feel forced to plan.
Students might also learn that planning does not necessarily mean giving up flexibility. An outline may prove to have been helpful in the end, even in the case that the final draft has, at least seemingly, nothing more to do with this early text plan. It is not clear to all students that they are not forced to adhere to a certain initially developed macrostructure.
Discussions centring on writing strategies also provide insight into beliefs about writing, as the students do not only share information about their writing procedures, but often additionally reveal whether they like or dislike a certain strategy or habit, sometimes stating reasons for their affinities for and aversions to specific writing techniques as well. Learning more about their attitudes and reservations is important for writing teachers and coaches, as it enables writing support to address the students’ current states of development and thus coach them more individually and efficiently.
Additionally, the discussions about strategies may prepare the students for further didactic approaches, which will help them to discover suitable ← 196 | 197 → writing strategies. For this purpose, Girgensohn (2007), for example, provides useful online material (in German) with exercises that are supposed to help students to find out which writing strategies are useful for them. The material is organised in 10 learning stations based on the writing strategies described by Ortner (2000). Each assignment calls for the use of one of these strategies. Planning is addressed among others in Station 7, which focuses on writing a text in several steps “following the logic of production” and resembling the stages in antique rhetoric (Ortner 2000: 484 ff.), and in Station 5, in which the students are supposed to write a fairy tale following a strict plan (Girgensohn 2007). As this exercise uncouples strategy from genre (fairy tales are not typically associated with planned writing), the task might lead to a deeper understanding of the function of writing strategies – and of individual strategic preferences. Similar tasks for letting the students experience the independence of genre from the writing process could be to plan a poem in detail or to write the first draft of a newspaper dispatch spontaneously.
For planning in academic writing, the suggestions of Gruber, Huemer & Rheindorf (2009: 24 f.) for structuring the working process might be helpful. The authors distinguish between orientation, research, the structuring of material, text planning, phrasing and revising and also give (mainly product-oriented) advice for structuring the text (Gruber/Huemer/Rheindorf 2009: 89–134). For more process-oriented exercises in the context of academic writing, Grieshammer et al. (2012) suggest a broad spectrum of tasks, which were successfully implemented in the Writing Centre of the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder (Germany). Originally, these tasks were developed for writing consultations, but they can easily be implemented into writing courses as well. Their practical guide gives an overview of various exercises to be used at different stages of the writing process of a term paper. Planning exercises include the so-called “limitation table” (Eingrenzungstabelle), which can be used to narrow down a topic and structure the paper at the beginning of the writing process (Grieshammer et al. 2012: 176 f.). The “planning pentagon” (Planungsfünfeck) can prove useful during the process of getting an overview of research question(s), working hypotheses, theories and terminology, research method(s) and material for the paper (Grieshammer et al. 2012: 200 f.). ← 197 | 198 →
For those writers who gravitate towards extended planning and have difficulties to start writing, a stronger focus on techniques based on spontaneous writing might be helpful. Besides the often recommended freewriting exercises (Elbow 1973), the suggestions of Bolker (1998) and Elbow (1981) may be fruitful in this context. Both provide exercises aiming to (temporarily) sedate the (exaggerated) inner control of text quality, which leads to the procrastination of writing (Keseling 2004: 108 f.). These exercises include the “sit there method” (sit down for a “fixed amount of time […] every day”) and the “many pages method” (“pick a reasonable number of pages and write the same number every day”) (Bolker 1988: 44 f.). Both methods focus on the regularity of writing and postpone the quality management of the text to a later point in time. Since the suggestions of Bolker (1998) aim at dissertations, it might be useful to reduce the allotted time and workload for shorter assignments. When it comes to term papers, one page per day might already be considered a good achievement.
For students who need more specific suggestions on how to start writing, the “loop writing” suggested by Elbow (1981) can offer adequate starting points: to note down first thoughts, prejudices, lies, errors or an instant version in a spontaneous way can be useful. Other possible strategies are to write stories, scenes, portraits or dialogues or to try narrative thinking or vary the audience or time (Elbow 1981: 77). These writing procedures are possibilities for a “voyage out”, allowing writers to gain new insights in allowing themselves to “lose sight” of the topic. The loop is going to be completed by a “voyage home”, which is the “process of bending the curve back toward the original goal” (Elbow 1981: 75). The “voyage out” is the place for spontaneous writing, whereas the “voyage home” is dedicated to conscious problem-solving strategies. The “loop writing” method might be an appropriate strategy for those students who feel a loss of motivation if they are forced to plan a text, because “the voyage out” consciously implements various kinds of spontaneous writing.
Particularly when dealing with students’ beliefs and attitudes towards writing, we would argue for a holistic approach that includes a combination of guided discussions of writing strategies and exercises that help students explore various writing strategies. Creating an awareness of the many possibilities they have in writing and of the fact that there is not one best way will help them to develop their individual ways of writing. This allows stu ← 198 | 199 → dents to experience that planning and spontaneous writing, struggling for order and creative methods for gaining new insights are in fact not opposite poles but complement each other. Gaining more knowledge of alternative approaches to writing as well as adding to their writing experience will enable students to refine their writing strategies and thus constitutes an important step in the process of individual professionalization.
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1 For the entire curriculum, see Zentrum für Translationswissenschaft (2011).
2 All course titles have been translated from German into English by the authors.
3 Eight students had already attended course_L1_w12/13 and one student course_L2_w12/13.
4 Students commented in German. Their statements have been translated into English by the authors.
5 Baaijen, Gabraith & de Glopper (2014: 82) distinguish between transactional and transmissional beliefs. According to the authors “the transactional beliefs scale represents the belief that writing is an emotional experience which involves the development of understanding as the text is built“ while „the transmissional beliefs scale represents a belief that writing involves the transmission of information from authoritative sources to the reader“.