Writing is Assessment (A Practice of Selection and Omission)

Before I begin my post this week, let me emphasize a change to this blog. It is no longer associated with the University of Washington Tacoma or its writing program. This blog was intended to be my personal academic blog, so I've tried to make clear on it now that it and all its opinions are mine as a private academic citizen, and do not necessarily reflect my administrative position as the director of the writing program at UWT. 

John McPhee
Now to what I've been thinking about . . .

Recently, I've found John McPhee's wonderful series of New Yorker articles on writing, called "The Writing Life." The latest is called, "Omission: Choosing what to Leave Out." I'm ashamed to say I just found this series, in which he's already written seven articles dating back to 2011. I'd like to respond to it, as it I think it offers writing teachers of all stripes something worth considering. The essay, as its title suggests, is about -- well, I'll let McPhee explain, since he says it better. From the heart of the essay, he says: 
Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. Forget market research. Never market-research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.
And further down, taking another swipe at the “theory of omission,” which he attributes to Hemingway:
Or, in the words of the literary critic Harold Bloom, writing on Shakespeare: “Increasingly in his work, what he leaves out becomes much more important than what he puts in, and so he takes literature beyond its limits.”
It is the ideas of selection and omission that I find useful here. In portfolio theory, selection provides students with an authentic moment of reflection on their drafts, writing processes, and/or practices that are demonstrated in the portfolio. Without the opportunity to select pieces to go into the portfolio from the semester's work, a student doesn't have a rich opportunity to reflect on and self-assess her own work, or make any real decisions about what's good or bad in her writing and why. It's the selecting of some writing over others, the leaving out of things, the omission of some work and inclusion of other work, that allows reflection as a writing practice itself to be useful to students when learning to write, or learning about themselves as readers and writers, which is part of learning read and write. 

But this bit of portfolio theory isn't what I find worth writing teachers' time from McPhee's essay. What is worthwhile here is how he equates writing (and the reading of one's own writing as one writes) with self-assessment, with judgment and reflection. He doesn't say this exactly, but I read it in his words, in the way he describes selection, and in the idea of omission as a theory that guides writers. In order to select words and ideas, sentences and paragraphs, one must define the practice of writing as a constant flow of assessment, the assessment of words as they come, the assessment of ideas as they get laid out on the page or computer screen. While he doesn't offer any theory or practice for how to conduct such a flow of constant assessment as one writes, as teachers we might consider how to get students to first recognize their own constant flow of assessment as writing, then work with it, play with it, and use it to understand their own drafts and themselves as writers. 

For example, I can envision a typical writing assignment that asks students to do some reading and writing, then they stop and read their drafts again, maybe in class. In this reading, they are recalling what judgments they were making about each sentence or paragraph, each word or decision, perhaps the smallest unit of meaning they can recall making decisions on. So a writer might pause after the first paragraph of a draft and ask: 

  • What did I select these details or sentences for the first paragraph? What did I include in the first paragraph? 
  • Why did I select these things for the first paragraph? Why did I think they went first? 
  • What did I purposefully or unknowingly omit? What didn't I include? 
  • Why did I omit or ignore this other stuff? Why did I think it didn't belong there? 
These questions surely would be tough for some writers, but I think doing this kind of reflective assignment on drafts and then discussing what students found with each other, would be helpful. And doing it regularly might get many students to become more mindful, more conscious of their writerly decisions when they are drafting and revising.

And it's the mindfulness that I am after in this activity, since it's really a reflective activity that can help students become more mindful of their selections and omissions, of their constant flow of assessment as writing. If they can be more mindful as they draft, as they write, then they'll have more flexible tools for addressing a wider variety of rhetorical situations. And perhaps what I personally find helpful about asking students to pay attention to what they select and omit is that it reveals very clearly to students how their writing as a practice can also be understood as an assessment practice. Writing is assessment.