Reclaiming the Blank Page: Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s writing strategies

In the time since my virtual defense in April, I’ve been returning to research and literature on pedagogy, writing studies, and the combination of the two—a field of study that I’m returning to after a long hiatus. It’s been a pleasure to return to this work as I rethink my goals and values as a teacher, writer, and researcher.

While I’ve been focusing mainly on peer-reviewed WPA-oriented research, I was reminded today that writing advice doesn’t always need to come from Rhetoric and Composition journals.

For example, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, the author of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, wrote a recent blog post that is resonating with me as I rethink the freshmen writing-intensive seminar that I will be re-teaching in the spring 2021 semester.

What I find particularly striking is how Dr. Cottom discusses her writing strategies when faced with the difficult task of elucidating her thesis, scope, and aims of a major book project that was substantially different from her dissertation research.

After explaining the difficulty of building the “highway,” her individual book chapters:

Then at the top of the document I typed two questions:

What do I know?

How do I know it?

And then I started answering the questions.

Sentence after sentence I chose one thing that I knew and then I explained how I knew it. You can probably still see this in the structure of the overall book. It is: set up, description, explanation, integration with previous explanations. Over and over again.

— Cottom, How I Write

What Dr. Cottom describes here are two processes that are indispensable to writers who feel stuck in a feedback loop, and her description here of her process combines two important aspects of writing development:

1. Metacognitive reflection: What do I know and how do I know it?

2. Free writing: Answering the questions freely and without notes.

This integrated writing method is what I like to call “Reclaiming the Blank Page.”

Reclaiming the Blank Page

Having just finished writing a dissertation—my first major writing project that required both “on-ramp” and “highway” scaffolding, as Cottom describes—I am intimately familiar with the terror of the blank page. Part of finishing such a large document that necessitated a coherent story was reclaiming the blank page and rethinking my own approach to it.

This metacognitive reflection as I write my own work has shifted the way I teach writing practices to my students.

For one, I encourage my students and tutees to only approach the page if they know what they want to say. In the context of teaching a writing-intensive seminar, that preparation comes in the form of scaffolded, low-stakes assignments that gradually build into a coherent writing project. By the time students are writing the drafts for their research, they have completed a series of in-class and independent activities that help them organize their ideas and conceptualize what their argument might be. Something similar takes place in the tutoring arena: I have students make a list of their goals for the piece of writing they’re tasked to create.

In each instructional instance, the meta-cognitive reflection comes into play: what do I know and how do I know it. Oftentimes, students skip over this stage too quickly. I remind them that all prose consists of major takeaways (the argument/thesis >> the what do I know) and the substantiation of that argument (the evidence >> how do I know it).

This iterative activity allows students to take ownership of their ideas, while also bursting past the need to write fully formed, well argued prose. As I tell my students, “That’s a later problem.”

Elucidating for students the multiple iterations that writing projects take—planning, organizing, list-making, strategizing, etc.—alleviates the pressure of writing production. Once students have vocalized what they know and how they know it, they’re able to do the second step: freewriting.

I view freewriting as more than just words written sequentially on an analog page. While the traditional understanding of this activity is stream-of-consciousness journal-style writing, I’ve recently expanded it to include mapping. (In my own writing, I’ve found that because mapping feels less like “official” writing/drafting, I feel freer to make mistakes and make cross connections that would be difficult to visualize in the connections between two seemingly unrelated ideas.)

These techniques are useful to keep in mind as teachers and tutors, for it places emphasis on the writer not the instruction of writing. In doing so, instructors and tutors are able to center their students and/or tutees and transform their own positionality from the hierarchical system of authoritative voice to a position as informed facilitator and peer.

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