Thursday, July 9, 2015

Project Workshops: Feedback for Writing Research

As writers, we can only truly succeed if we are able to revise our writing to meet the needs and expectations of our readers.  The workshop provides three important experiences to help you do this better:

  1. Reading the work by your peers will help you better understand how different works of writing connect with audiences (such as yourself.)
  2. Providing Feedback for your classmates helps you better articulate the writing process.
  3. Receiving Feedback from your peers will provide new perspectives to help you revise your current project.

Reading Writing Research
Writing research provides a different kind of writing than you're likely accustomed to from prior writing classes.  As we've progressed through this semester, you've become familiar with the CHAT terms and genre conventions, and this helps you understand how social and physical factors affect the ways in which we write.  As you read work by your classmates, you'll come to see how others are interpreting these terms.  Do your ideas match with what you're reading?  Has the author "missed" something that you find critically important?  What questions do you have about the writer's topic?

Providing Feedback
In the writing research workshops for this course, we take a slightly different focus than you might be accustomed to.  In other courses, you've maybe given feedback along the lines of "I like this part of your paper because..." or "This sentence needs to be reworded to..." or "I agree/disagree with what you're saying here because..."  For English 101 and 145 at Illinois State, we instead focus on the following:
  1. Describing the Genre: does the paper talk about writing?  A paper that talks about the job market is an example of content research - instead, we want papers that talk about the ways people write resumes in order to succeed on the job market, or we might consider how interviewers phrase their questions in order to comply with federal employment regulations.
  2. Describing CHAT: does the paper describe how people use, produce, and perceive writing?  Does it talk about how the social aspects of writing relate to its conventions?  For example, we might say that tweets feature many abbreviations (a genre convention) due to the 140-character limit (Ecology from CHAT).
  3. Support with Research: does the paper provide helpful examples from multiple sources?  Yes, some examples can come from personal experience, but you also need examples that can be verified through citation.  So I might provide examples I might include a few tweets that feature #trayvon to address the Trayvon Martin case (primary source), or a list of texting acronyms provided by Netlingo.com (secondary source), a summary of Kwak et al. as they answer "What is Twitter, a Social Network or a News Media?" (scholarly source).
  4. Specific Examples: does the paper provide detailed examples to illustrate the relationships between CHAT and genre?  For example, I could say that resumes are limited to a single page, and that this limits the amount of information that's included - it's better, however, to show an example of a bullet point from my own resume: "Case Western Reserve University - BA English and German - 2002."  From there, I might explain how some jobs require a GPA to be listed, or how other jobs don't care about the graduation date.
  5. Appropriate Citation: All research requires citation.  As writers, we need to show where our are information comes from.  Sometimes, this means an MLA citation to a scholarly article - other times, it means a quick note indicating that I'm describing my own personal experiences.  In general, a blanket statement like "all Facebook posts are short" is not helpful because we don't know who said or why.  I could say "All my own Facebook posts are shorter than the stories I write, but sometimes I use four or five paragraphs for a status update," or I might include this quote from Annette Bondarenko on PRDaily.com: "People scan Facebook; they don’t read it. The longer the post, the less engaging fans find it."
Some Things We Don't Focus On

  • Don't Harp on Grammar: it's not our focus for the workshops.  If you see an issue, you can mention it in your feedback, but don't spend more than a sentence on it.  We need to address the main things first: does the paper do some writing research?  How can the author revise to include more thorough research?
  • Accept Differing Personal Styles: Writing "style" evolves over time.  You can point out "hey, I see some sentences that are too long for me to follow," but don't spend so much time on this that you're copy editing or even rewriting a classmate's work.

Receiving (and Responding to) Feedback
The most important response to feedback is good revision.  Your goal is to understand what your classmates are saying, figure out how they are seeing your work, and then decide how to revise your work in order to help your classmates better understand what you want them to see.

Note that I didn't say you need to follow every piece of advice you receive.  Often - especially in the rough draft stage - our goals won't be entirely clear to our readers.  Sometimes, a reader will give advice that's good advice, but it doesn't apply to what you're trying to do.  And that's okay.  This isn't about matching your audience's expectations - it's about addressing your audience, about describing your research findings to others.  And that means having to pick and choose the feedback that's relevant to your project.  Often, we learn the most from that feedback which doesn't seem applicable to what we're doing.

To give one example, I was working on a science fiction novel during my MFA, and I often submitted parts of chapters for workshops.  My novel was about a group of people who had left Earth and colonized Mars - later, their descendants returned to Earth.  During workshops, I had once classmate who continually said that my Martian aliens seemed "too human."  He thought that if it was going to be successful in the genre of science fiction, that I really needed to get to what makes an alien into something different from a human being.  Now, his advice was "wrong" in the sense that I was writing about people - there weren't any aliens anywhere in my story.  But his advice was necessary because it pointed out a major problem in my work: I had never made it clear that the "Martians" of my story were human beings.  I'd been working on the story for so long that I just kind of took this fact for granted, and it took an outside observer to help me see that the story wasn't clear to everyone.

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