Writers’ Moves (and how they move writers)
When I started teaching I really struggled to help students understand that writers use certain words, phrases or structure in their writing either to be aesthetically significant or purposeful in meeting a writer’s purpose. When studying literature this usually means discussing the “literary devices” in the text, and when studying other forms it might mean analyzing the rhetorical strategies. Essentially, however, we are looking at a writer’s craft: how does a writer convey and idea or message? How does a writer both subtly and not-so-subtly choose evidence that make their point more persuasive? What I found to be the, initially, most challenging part of teaching students to identify and analyze writers’ craft was getting students to understand that writers were often making deliberate choices about how to use language to convey meaning or meet a purpose. It truly seemed that no matter how much students went through their own writing process of pre-writing, drafting, revising and editing, they still thought that the texts we read came out of some magical place where perfect truth are printed on the page fully formed. They weren’t seeing how the language writers used in the texts we read were a form of craft, rather than simply formula. While I have attempted to make several shifts to address this, one of the most powerful has been changing the language
I use to talk about these literary and rhetorical devices. I frame them as “writers’ moves.” At the beginning of every year I do a short mini-lesson in which I compare basketball moves to writer’s moves. The hoop is the “purpose” or “theme” and you can use a variety of moves to get to that hoop: head-fake, crossover, etc. While this one lesson doesn’t magically transform student analysis of text, it does lay the groundwork for how they understand the literary devices and rhetoric. Once we have established there are many writers’ moves, such as metaphor, hyperbole, using evidence in various forms, alliteration, etc. students start to see how a writer develops a text and uses these devices towards some larger goal. One students see the relationship between the “writer’s move” and the larger goal of the text (be it theme, claim, characterization, etc.) that is where their analysis starts to improve. The simple language switch from “literary device” to “writer’s move” has made a huge difference for my students, in large part because it helped me understand analysis differently. Rather than seeing analysis of text as something I do to other writers, it became a way for me, and my students, to learn moves from other writers and apply them to our own writing. Now when we analyze a text we are mining it for “writer’s moves” and thinking about what “moves” we will use in our own writing. And that is where the magic really happens.