English 521:
Composition Theory and Pedagogy

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Personal Essay

by Alisa Scapatici

There I was, poised with the first draft of my masters thesis, ready to jack it under the rear wheels of my car so that I could vent my anger and frustration. Never had I felt this kind of undiluted rage in dealing with a piece of writing. As far as I was concerned, the first draft was complete and therefore the entire piece was finished; however, my thesis advisor didnít quite agree with me. A less deranged friend of mine talked me out of repeatedly backing over my thesis, and convinced me that it didnít really matter if I did leave tire marks on it because I had multiple drafts on my disk. But still, I knew that it would just feel so good to leave some tire tread on the paper.

I had not written a thesis as an undergrad, and I was looking forward to this process. It took some time for me to find a professor willing to work with me, but after a number of false starts, I finally came to Peter Heineggís door. My thesis was based on the disparate work of Nathaniel Hawthorne and radical feminist theologian Mary Daly. Each week that I left Peterís office, I found myself laden with at least five books that he deemed absolutely crucial to my writing and thinking process. At one point, I needed an English translation of a German text, and when I finally secured it, I opened the cover to find that the work had been translated by Peter. It was somewhat humbling to work with him because he was so intelligent; however, he was an absolutely amazing teacher and I credit him with helping me to fully understand the impact that revision has on the writing process.

At times, during the writing of our theses, my roommate and I were reduced to performing stupid hair tricks in the wee hours of the morning to entertain ourselves and to create some levity during this, at times, tedious task. I did actually enjoy writing parts of the thesis, yet at other times, the task seemed overwhelming. So, when I came to the end of the first draft of my thesis, I was convinced I had produced a solid piece of writing and that I was finally, and thankfully, done with it. At the point at which I was ready to jack the thesis under my rear tires, I knew I had worked hard on this piece, harder than I had ever worked on a piece of writing in my life. It was certainly the longest piece of writing that I had ever produced; yet I had erroneously equated length with good quality. I had done no revising to this piece, nor had I achieved any distance from it in order set it aside to come back to it at a later time.

In the past, I had not written drafts of my papers; I had been told since high school that I was a reasonably decent writer. I was a comparative literature major in college, and again, I had earned solid grades on my writing assignments, and I had worked hard, but I had not slaved over draft after draft. I tended to write well under pressure (or so I thought), but I left no time for revisions. Usually, I was finishing up the paper within hours of the class in which it was due. Up until working with Peter, I had thought that this process worked fine for me; in fact I thought that it had worked better than fine. However, Peter Heinegg changed all of that for me.

Peter agreed with me that I was done with the thesis, but he thought I was merely done with the FIRST draft of the piece. He told me my work was good but there was much more to be done. I ranted and raved (not in his presence of course), and I put the thesis away for a bit. When I came back to it days later, much more calm and ready to work, I found that there were a number of large gaps in my thinking and writing. I saw that the paper would truly be enhanced by at least one more draft and possibly two.

Here I was, in a graduate program steeped in the theory of how to teach the writing process and I had just uncovered the power of the actual process. I was a reticent learner, but when the final draft of my thesis was finally done (two more drafts than I had originally thought necessary), and I had earned a grade that I was proud of, I knew that I had stumbled upon something. If I wrote only one draft of a piece, I could produce something that was reasonably good, but if I worked on multiple drafts, I could produce stronger writing. Grad school essays, professional pieces that I write for my job, and letters of recommendation all have to undergo a number of drafts. Throughout the thesis writing, I also realized that I need good editors as well. I now have two people who are quite honest with me about my writing, and I seek their advice when I am writing a piece that is important to me. The process of writing my thesis was one of immense realization. It took me until my first year of graduate school to really understand that producing more than one draft results in the creation of stronger pieces.

This epiphany bears direct relation to my teaching practice as well. In Ayn Randís The Fountainhead, there is a line that says, ďno one can teach you anything, not at the core, at the source of itĒ (77). I always get to this quote in the book and wait expectantly for my students to get the full impact of this statement. I wait for them to realize that if they do believe this powerful statement, then my job is expendable, my grades and comments hollow, and my overall presence superfluous. Each time that I come to this statement in the book, I also think of my own learning process about writing. Despite the fact that a number of teachers had tried to teach me that my writing could be improved through producing multiple drafts, I turned a deaf ear until I was working with Peter and ready to drive over my thesis. Despite my earnest urgings, I wonder how true this is for my students as well. I require my students to produce multiple drafts of their writing; we peer edit, and I edit their papers and then give them a chance to revise yet again. I hope to help them to learn the power of process writing earlier than I did, but then again, I think back to my own process and I wonder if I can teach them before they are ready to learn this. I am the eternal optimist, however, so we continue to work on the revision process.

Being back in grad school has been an amazing experience because it has put me back in touch with my own process of writing; I am conscious of how I write in comparison to the way in which I expect my students to write. I find myself using the information that I share with them, although at times I feel the pressure that I must earn all Aís on my papers because if I havenít mastered the process of writing, then I must be a bit of a fraud to be teaching it. But then I have to remember what I have learned about my own process, and what I continue to learn about my own writing process. I keep in mind the epiphany I experienced in graduate school, and I seek to share this information, for current or later use, with my students in the classroom.

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