[All of my classes write self-commentaries, a reflective exercise that tries to encourage students to become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses as writers. I modify them slightly depending on the level of the course; this one was written for a freshman class.]

Successful writers do not simply produce texts out of thin air as if by magic; they go through a more or less specific process, moving step by step towards a finished document. Sometimes this is linear, like following a recipe, but most often not: we double back to redo a step, or skip a step and come back to it later. Still, each step must be completed, one way or another.

In college, the writing process involves moving from your initial reading of the writing assignment or task to a series of drafts, some of which you may well share with collaborators. (You will understand the value of collaboration very clearly if you take advantage of the E.I.U. Writing Center , where you can rely on skilled consultants as your collaborators.) Understanding your own process and figuring out where you can improve is one key to strong writing.

Once the assignment is completed and the text delivered in the appropriate way, in other words, successful writers spend at least some time reflecting on their writing, and on articulating what they feel are their accomplishments and their problems. Successful writers rely on these reflections to formulate their goals for the next writing task. My hope is that you will learn to do this kind of reflection habitually, as a regular aspect of your writing process.

In order to gain practice at thinking about your writing process, I will ask you to produce three informal, 500-word texts called “self-commentaries” over the course of the semester. In writing each of your self-commentaries carefully consider your audience and what you feel are the most important issues for you as a writer. What do you want to emphasize? How can you help readers understand the things that you feel are important without avoiding important issues or embarrassing yourself?

Do you want to include only positive comments, that is, things that do not need to be fixed, or should you also note some things that you need to work on in future? Last, when thinking about organizing your self-commentary remember that you must show us movement too; that is, readers will want to understand what you are learning over the course of the semester, and what you feel are the most important lessons you are learning about yourself as a writer and a thinker and about writing in general.

Introduction to the Writer, Mid-Term, and Final Self-Commentaries

Before your first paper you will write what we will call here an Introduction to the Writer. See your syllabus for due dates. Unlike the second and third self-commentaries, your Introduction can be fairly open ended.

Among the questions you can consider answering in this Introduction:

  • Who are you as a writer? Are you more like a journalist, a poet, an editorialist, a cartoonist, or something else?
  • Are you a high-tech writer (using only digital copies, doing research on the internet, and so on) or a low-tech writer (using pen or pencil and paper, visiting the library in person) or do you combine high and low tech? What are the advantages of your strategy? What are the weaknesses?
  • What sorts of writing have you done in the past, and what sorts of writing do you do on a regular basis? Do you write in as well as out of school? What are the differences?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses? Are you a strong thinker but no so good at the follow-through? Are you best at the big picture or the details?
  • Are you strong on grammar but short on ideas? Are you a last-minute writer or do you plan things out and stick to the plan?
  • What is your ordinary process as a writer? How do you usually go from blank page to finished copy? (You can use the last thing you wrote as an example.)
  • What do you expect will be the relationship between the writing you will do in your courses and the writing you will do on your own?
  • Do you have a sense of the writing you will be expected to do in college? What sorts of writing do you expect to do in college? Do you feel prepared? If not, what do you think would be the best way to prepare yourself?

The task here is to introduce yourself to your audience as a writer, and to begin to refine your self-reflective skills. Remember, you want to introduce yourself as a person, but more importantly, you want to illustrate to us your own history, experiences, and skills as a writer.

You are welcome to tell us what you feel, but please be sure to tell us what you think as well. Make sure to focus on specific, concrete details rather than broad generalizations.

The second and third self-commentary assignments will add to your self-portrait as a writer a detailed discussion of the writing you do in this class and in your other college courses. Sometime around mid-semester I will ask you to return to your introductory self-commentary and your ideas about yourself as a writer and evaluate how well you feel things are going.

Among the questions you can ask in your Mid-Term Self-Commentary:

  • Do you feel your original self-assessment about your skills and your writing process was correct, or was it off in some way? In what ways was it correct and in what was it not?
  • Now that you have completed some college writing, does it match your expectations? What do you think your main goals should be as writer, given what you have experienced so far?
  • Is your writing changing?
  • Have you changed the way you use technology in your writing? If so, what are you doing differently and why?
  • What writing tasks have you been asked to complete thus far, and what, in your view, were their main aims? (Not just in your English course!) What were the most important challenges you faced in these assignments?
  • How do you “begin” an assignment? Do you start relatively early in the time frame given for completing a writing task, or relatively late? Do you go through several early drafts, or do you simply work on your text once and then turn it in?
  • What kinds of editing exercises do you practice (checking for wordiness, spelling, organization, or other things)? Which editing tasks seems to work best for you, and which do you feel are the most difficult?
  • Do your routinely seek help in coming up with ideas, in editing, or in proofreading? If so, can you explain why? If not, can you explain why?

Finally, at the end of the semester you will write your last or Concluding Self-Commentary in which you sum up your work and talk about your future goals as a writer. Again, please check your syllabus for due dates. The final self-commentary is meant to be a cumulative exercise, taking account of your insight and learning over the entire semester.

In a sense, the last self-commentary has one central theme or question, which can be phrased in several different ways:

  • Which of your specific purposes and goals do you feel you have accomplished this semester?
  • In what specific ways do you feel your writing has improved?
  • What do you plan to do in order to meet these goals in future?

Again, remember that this process is cumulative, which means that while you must mention all major assignments, you will necessarily focus on those that you feel were most important to your development as a writer. Use examples that will clearly illustrate your points to readers, showing by example the insight you have gained. Perhaps the best way to start this final self-commentary is to go back to your Introduction and Mid-Term Self Commentary and review what you said. What has changed, and what have you learned?