Outlines have a time and place; a personal essay isn’t one of them.

One of my students is learning that “Discovery is the thing.”

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This book contains nuggets of writing wisdom that make great mini-lessons in my Writer’s Workshop sessions. Another one to be discussed in another post: the importance of being specific.

Last week, I wrote about Writer’s Workshop and how I am really enjoying it this fall in my middle school language arts classes. I have a few books that I pull ideas from to use for mini-lessons before the kids transition to working on their writing projects.

One of those books is Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories. It’s a book I ordered a year or so ago for ideas on memoir and biographical writing. I have found several eye-opening sections in the book that I have shared with my students. One of these points we’ve discussed is the value of digression in writing. To digress, Roorbach recommends writing without a plan, of allowing your writing to reveal your thinking on a topic.

In class, we read this excerpt:

“Part of what’s in your head is going to be stories, and when you start telling stories from your life, your life itself becomes evidence. The personal essayist examines the evidence until it’s plain to both reader and writer just what’s evident. Abandon the outline, all ye who enter here! Discovery is the thing. Too firm a plan, and you miss the digression that takes you where you didn’t know you wanted to go.”

Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach with Kristen Keckler, PhD; Ch. 1

Kids usually breathe a sigh of relief when they find out they don’t have to use an outline. And when we read this in class, I clarify that there are indeed times when an outline will help them. For example, outlines are useful when their writing is an assemblage of pertinent facts and details that need organizing or when they’re having trouble getting started.

However, for some types of writing, outlines may actually hinder the thought process that writing spurs. That’s what Roorbach is getting at. Following an outline may constrain a writer’s thinking and inadvertently cause her to shut down her analysis of a life situation or recollection of a life event.

One of the projects on our Writer’s Workshop assignment list is a memoir or personal narrative essay. I have one student in particular (I’ll call her Camille) who I can tell is learning how the act of writing is helping her to define and refine her thinking and stance on a very controversial topic.

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To observe Camille intentionally and willingly struggle through her draft means she is growing as a writer, thinker, and learner.

She’s been working on her essay for a few days now, and I can tell as she works alone at a table in the back of the room, she is muddling through her ideas. She is starting and stopping, backing up again, and then restarting a sputtering paragraph to finally blaze through it as she clarifies and discovers how she feels on her topic.

She told me on Friday at the end of class, “It’s so hard to write about this because I have to think about every possible perspective and there are so many ways to look at it.” It’s obvious that Camille is learning that “writing is thinking.”

For me, this is one of the most difficult things about writing: giving myself the time to discover my own thinking. Most of the time, I want to get the piece done. I don’t want to spend the time lost in thought and unsure of how I feel. I want to say what I know and move on.

Those hours of mental wandering used to feel like torture to me (and still do, at times), but I’m learning to accept that this is writing. I must allow myself to not know where a piece is going and to just write, knowing that clarity in some measure will result… eventually.

Seeing Camille learn this writing truth and find that “discovery is the thing” is a huge personal accomplishment for me as a writing teacher. To observe Camille intentionally and willingly struggle through her draft means she is growing as a writer, thinker, and learner. Understanding that “writing is thinking” will serve her well as she continues into high school and beyond.


Thanks for reading! There are other similar viewpoints to Roorbach’s on outlines and other forms of prewriting. I’ll discuss another teacher/author’s ideas on this topic in an upcoming post. Click like if you found this interesting and follow me to get that upcoming post. 

Author: marilynyung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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