Image of a woman holding a package out in front of her

By Jessie Hayden ( – GSU Perimeter College.

French poet Paul Valėry once famously said, “A poem’s never finished, only abandoned.” One assumes that Valėry persisted and continued to probe the depths of his craft, ever striving to master his chosen form of artistic expression.

In stark contrast to this, I fear the same cannot be said of many students in freshman composition courses. That is, I believe that novice academic writers often approach writing as a wearisome chore. For many students, the goal is to complete a writing project as expeditiously as possible, so that they can then abandon their work as soon as they have been awarded the grade they think they deserve for their efforts.

I have certainly been dismayed by instances of my own students’ apparent lack of connection and commitment to their writing, including their inability to perceive writing as a vital form of expression as well as their general disinterest in the work they produce in my classes. I have observed their failure to see the intrinsic rewards that lie within the writing process itself. It has perplexed me to see their joyless expressions when they seize upon a pitch perfect word or phrase that artfully expresses the inner workings of their own thoughts and perceptions. Aren’t those moments to be celebrated?

It is, frankly, rather unnerving to witness my students genuine lack of interest in their own writing and their lack of insight into themselves as emerging writers. How sad for them, and how sad for me.

Consequently, to rectify this situation, I have begun experimenting with ways to direct more of my students’ attention and energy to their writing. My hope is that maybe, just maybe, I can convert my students into craft conscious writers — writers who not only value the process of producing a written work, but writers who also find merit in the written works that result from the culmination of their efforts.

To achieve those ends, I have created an in-class activity to teach my students to unpack and deconstruct their writing. I call it the “Let’s Unpack That: An Essay Deconstruction Activity.” (You will find a link to this activity at the end of the article).

The purpose of this activity is to guide students through a close analysis of an advanced draft of  an essay. In sum, students review their essay to check for the presence (or absence)  of key structural elements and rhetorical devices in their writing. They are then prompted to address any omissions and to make needed revisions. The activity concludes with a small group discussion activity that encourages students to evaluate and reflect upon their experience in producing their essay, to discuss their final revision plans, and to identify the most memorable passage from their essay.

This activity is still evolving. In the past, I have used a scaled down version of this activity with second language writers. I am now tweaking the activity for use with primarily first language writers.

For the most part, my students have responded quite well to this activity. In particular, some students have been surprised by their own discoveries about themselves as writers, perhaps because so few of my students have ever been asked to do any sort of deep analysis or meta-reflection on their own writing. 

My ultimate goal is to design an additional activity that students can use to analyze and reflect upon a semester’s worth of writing (i.e. work produced for a writing portfolio). My fervent hope is that the activity will enable my students to gather meaningful insights about themselves as writers and achieve a deeper appreciation for the act (and art) of writing itself. It’s a modest proposal, but it’s a start.

View and download the activity here