Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Head Author

Ok, I just posted my grades, I've turned in all my assignments, and I'm staring at a blank desktop with nothing to do. Maybe it's time to get back to this idea...

I've just done a literature review on how teaching composition has changed over the last several decades, and I've found some interesting stuff. It has reaffirmed in my mind that the idea of using a wiki to teach composition could be effective. But for now, I wanted to talk a bit about the role of the 'head author'. The head author is the one who initially starts the story, and ultimately decides what changes stay and what changes go.

One might argue, and rightly so, that if a group collaboratively writes a story, it doesn't necessarily mean that the 'head author' can actually write. It might be that he has really sharp classmates. For example, I write a story that has a weak voice, weak characters, and a weak plot. But since I have brilliant classmates, by the time they are done helping me with the re-write, it is a solid piece or literature. Can it be said that I'm a good writer? Can it be said that I'm learning how to write better?

I would argue yes.

The head author is not some passenger on a train that happens to get to where it is supposed to go. Rather a better example is a captain of a sailboat, who has to make the decisions, give the orders, and is ultimately responsible for the welfare of the crew. If I have 25 classmates helping me write a story, I would suspect that quite quickly it would become a mess of voices, plots and sub-plots, and directions. If the head author does not make critical decisions, the story will be a poor one indeed. A head author must be actively engaged in the creation of the story.

I think one of the benefits to writing in this medium would be that an author is subjected to expert modeling. They would observe, or have access to, writers with different, and possibly more polished skills than their own. For example. Let's say I start a story like this.

“This is a story about a guy who has never kissed before, but tonight, he gets his first kiss.”

Not exactly “Call me Ishmael”. This is a thesis statement, not a good first line to a story. But it's quite possible that a student with very little writing skill would think this is a great introduction, because it introduces the story to the reader.

So, in a wiki, the instructor, or even another student with better writing abilities, might insert a comment like this, “The first line really should capture the imagination of the reader, and the current line kind of reads like a textbook. Maybe the first line should read more like this...” And then the classmate or instructor might change the line to...

“This is a story of a young man. A young man, who has never been kissed.”

The 'head author', would then be able to look at both first lines, and would have to make the decision whether or not to keep the first line, keep the second line, or maybe modify the second line to reflect what she is aiming for. Maybe the student decides that she is going for a lighter 'fairly tale' voice, and changes the first line to:

“Once there was a boy who had never been kissed.”

But the crucial element is that the author started with a 'kernal' of a story, then saw a different approach, and had to decide for herself which one was better, and why. This is the same process that happens when students share their stories in paper form, and other students critique them. The main difference is that the critiquing students have more opportunity to directly rewrite the story. But if the head author is not doing his or her job of shaping and guiding the story, the end result will likely be a poorly written piece of work.

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