On Linearity and the Syllabus: Notes Against the Idea of a Writing Process

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When Ann and I started writing Habits of the Creative Mind, we were motivated by a desire to represent writing as creative engagement with the world. There’s no best place to start and there’s no predetermined end point when it comes to making sense of the world; you just dive in. But, it’s in the nature of textbooks to impose linear order on their contents: any subject is made to appear to have a beginning, middle, and an end. This isn’t a problem when the subject at hand is best taught in a linear fashion. But the thing about creativity is that it’s not the result of a linear process. There’s no equation A+B+C that, when followed in order, produces creative output.


When we say creativity is a habit of mind, we mean that it only comes about through regular, deliberate practice. And that practice has many different forms, such as paying attention, exploring, connecting, revising, and so on. One doesn’t practice paying attention exclusively; nor does paying attention always precede exploring, despite what the layout of our Table of Contents suggests. Even beginning doesn’t necessarily come first! All the habits wrap around one another; they refer to one another recursively; each one pulls, dialectically, towards a sense of a coherent whole, on the one hand, and a focus on the smallest of details, on the other.


Imagine, instead, a circular book where you could enter at any point.




You start somewhere. You keep moving. You return and start again. You practice and practice, but you are never done. (Ann has written at length about how she started one course using Habits. That essay starts on page 4 of a pdf that may be found here.)


A course syllabus reproduces the linear distortion of what creative engagement with the world (i.e., writing) entails.  Before our students are even seated, before we have any idea who they are, university policy requires that we have a document for them with deadlines and peer review days, a document that makes it look like all that lies ahead for them is the drafting and revising of papers.


But a syllabus, like a pre-draft outline, is best understood as a provisional itinerary.


SO, if a course is a journey, what do we put on our syllabi?


In our classes, attendance is required. You can’t practice if you’re not there.

You have to bring the book and the required readings to class with you. Every class.


You have to check the class website and your email regularly: plans change, assignments get revised, alternate routes emerge. Class meets twice a week, but your education takes place 24/7.


We have our students hand in their papers in digital form in folders that are shared with all the other members of the class. (You can do this pretty easily with Dropbox or Google Docs.)


Grading Policy

Our essay, “On Evaluating Student Writing,” is devoted to the discussing how to assess the work students produce in response to assignments drawn from Habits. We recommend making the grading criteria explicit on the syllabus. We tell our students that we are looking for work that:

  • asks genuine questions or poses genuine problems;
  • works with thought-provoking sources;
  • shows the writer’s mind at work making compelling connections and developing ideas, arguments, or thoughts that are new to the writer;
  • explores complications (perhaps by using words like: “but,” “and,” “or”);
  • is presented and organized to engage bright, attentive readers;
  • and makes each word count.


Grading Percentages

We think that it’s important to have the syllabus convey the fact that the achievement of intellectual creativity requires steady, sustained practice and that progress in this realm is not necessarily uniform or linear.


So, we take into account:

  • Attendance and participation in class discussion;
  • Timely submission of drafts and revisions.


And, for each student, we weigh these with:

  • The best work each student has submitted.


This means that all assignments are recorded and that the final grade for the course represents an assessment of each student’s sustained level of achievement.


Paper Assignments

You’re likely to have these prescribed by your program or department. So, you can say that there will be X number of papers required and produce a calendar with dates. But we recommend describing this work in relation to the overarching goal of Habits: by the end of the semester, we want our students to have produced their best writing to date and for them to leave the class with evidence that they can ask a real question and that they can follow that question wherever it leads.



We think that the idea of plagiarism is best handled as an object of inquiry so, in our syllabi, we direct our students to our essay, “On Working with the Words of Others,” which considers citation and creativity together.


And then, as the semester unfolds, we spend our time together exploring what is entailed in using writing as a technology for thinking new thoughts.

About the Author
Richard E. Miller has been teaching writing for over 25 years. He has blogged extensively about digital technology, the end of privacy, and the future of higher education on his website www.text2cloud.com. He’s served on the executive committee of CCCC and of the ADE; he’s been on the editorial board of CCC, Studies in Writing and Rhetoric, and Pedagogy (ongoing). He’s an essayist, social media fanatic, sometimes poet, photographer, multimedia composer, graphic novelist (he writes about the misadventures of his alter-ego, Professor Pawn) and memoirist.