As we launched a new semester in our writing center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this past week, I loved listening to the lively buzz in our center emanating from conversations about writing projects. And as I eavesdropped, I was reminded of how much I value slow, detailed, substantial conversations about writing in progress.
Our writing center burst back into conversation last week, despite the arctic conditions of January in Wisconsin—through the first four days of the semester, 170 students already came in for consultations or scheduled ones. These student-writers were, as writing center students always are, wonderfully varied: sophomores writing personal statements to meet a February 1st deadline for applying to our school of nursing, seniors sprinting to finish applications to some graduate schools that have later deadlines, grad students and senior-thesis students resuming regular weekly sessions as they work through long writing projects, students with incompletes from last semester anxiously trying to finish a project they wish they had finished already.
Even though the pace of that talk was usually brisk, these kinds of conversations actually slow down the writing process, right? Not only for the obvious reason that meeting with a writing center tutor takes time, but also because during those conversations about their writing, writers are not always discovering simple, efficient solutions or following pre-programmed GPS directions. They have to explain a lot of context to a new reader, go over ground they’ve already traversed, discover sometimes that they’ve lost their way, realize they have to do more research or read more carefully, clarify their goals, sharpen their claims, learn more about the genre in which they’re writing, play with alternative structures, revise, and revise again. They have to slow down to think or to grope their way toward an answer to a difficult question. Or they begin to see a connection between two different ideas or a productive tension or contradiction within their drafts, ones that will take a while to figure out and to clarify for readers. And they have to pause to have a good laugh, to kvetch, to build a relationship with their interlocutor, to sip coffee or another favorite beverage, to trade advice about favorite writing spaces and equipment. All of this conversation and these detours slow writing down . . . in often wonderful and productive ways.
To help us all appreciate this slow, nuanced, and valuable talk about writing, I’ve decided that I want to start a new movement—a slow-writing movement—akin to the international slow-food movement. Do you know about slow food? It’s a powerful mix of agriculture, culinary arts, environmentalism, community, regionalism, politics, policy, and sensuousness. Instead of seeking out the fastest available means to satisfy our hunger, we should, according to the slow-food movement, slow down to think about the sources of our food and enjoy the process of obtaining, preparing, and savoring food with others. I don’t want to truss writing too tightly with cooking (extended metaphors and analogies are, I’ve concluded, usually better if they’re not extended). But I believe there is something here.
We need to conceptualize the writing process—and writing instruction—so that a key goal is, in fact, to slow writing down. Stretching out, savoring, and valuing the writing process have, of course, been central to the process model in composition research and practice for the past 30 years. From experience, I know that every piece of my own writing is better—way better—when I slow down to think, talk, draft, reread, and really revise.
Some of the criticisms of the slow-food movement— the ways it may be unrealistic given its costs and given the pace of our lives—apply to slowing writing down, so that the process becomes a luxury. Of course we can’t afford to slow down every writing project, but we can and should pace ourselves differently with some projects.
And we should view talking with readers—genuinely smart, interested readers who truly care, ones who ask hard questions, ones who make us think, ones who challenge us to do our best—as a delightful component of a slower, and better, process of writing. Writing center consultants are eager to help you slow down.
What do you think—Want to join this new movement? Explore some of the implications? Or push back on the idea? Please comment on this post. I’d love to hear your thoughts. More later,
director, writing center
director, writing across the curriculum