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Honing your writing craft: An interview with Dannelle Stevens, Ph.D.

Dannelle Stevens
Dannelle Stevens

Dannelle D. Stevens is a Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Portland State University. She is a coauthor of several books including: Introduction To Rubrics: An Assessment Tool To Save Grading Time, Convey Effective Feedback and Promote Student Learning; Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Learning, Teaching, Professional Insight and Positive Change; and Tenure in the sacred grove: Issues and strategies for women and minorities.

Here Stevens talks to TAA about honing her writing craft:

TAA: How do you dedicate time to writing?

Dannelle Stevens: “I write every workday and most weekends for at least 30 minutes on paper or on the computer. When I write something every day, the ideas feel like they are fresh and alive. And that allows me to get ideas at other times as well; they just pop into my head. My subconscious is working on the ideas. When I don’t write regularly even for a short time, each time I go back to my writing it is an uphill battle and takes a while to figure out what I am doing and what I want to say.

Dannelle Stevens RubricsOf course, after the 30 minutes of writing, I search for references, organize my files, contact co-authors, plan length of chapters, keep charts on numbers of words written, etc. This may take a minimum of another 30 minutes. “

TAA: Is goal setting part of your writing process?

DS: “Setting goals motivates me. I have different kinds of goals. First, I list and post what I want to accomplish during that week. I see the weekly goal every time I sit down at my desk. At the end of the week I check in to see if I accomplished it. I write down on a chart what I want to do that day as a goal as well and check whether I did it or not. I also chart words written each day on a graph. I chart pages edited on a chart when I am not writing but merely editing.

I learned about the power of goals and strategies when I left Michigan State ABD (all but dissertation). I had my data and my proposal and that was all. I was starting a new tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college. I had to find a strategy that would let me succeed in my first faculty position and complete my dissertation.

Danelle Stevens JournalDuring that first year in this new tenure-track job, I went to the college every morning at 6:00 a.m. and wrote and worked on the dissertation for one hour only. I still had this new job to contend with. Writing one hour allowed me to not feel guilty that I was not working on my dissertation. After that, I could pay full attention to this new job the rest of the day. To the surprise of my advisors (and me), I defended my dissertation in June at the end of my first year in this new job.“

TAA: What do you do to speed up the process from writing to publication?

DS: “Keeping a handwritten journal in my professional life has expedited my publishing process. The way I set up my journal allows me to track my activities, organize my notes and keep all my reflections on my work in one place. I create a table of contents and use a two-column entry system. When my journal is full, I create a table of contents in the front with the date, title of entry and page number. When filling in the table of contents, I review my notes from conferences, my reflections following teaching, and my notes from meetings I have attended. The two-column method on each page allows me to reflect and keep an ongoing to do list in the smaller column.

I am always asking myself: what do I need to do next? What have I accomplished in these six months? I will photocopy pages with good ideas and use them to start an article. Unlike a computer journal, the lovely thing about a handwritten journal is that I can draw, make diagrams and visuals to clarify my thinking. I can even put in sticky notes with ideas. All of these uses of my professional journal help me stay organized and give me time to do what I want to do… write.”

TAA: Can you give an example of a learning experience that helped shape your writing process or approach to publishing?

DS: “No writer would continue writing if she weren’t surprised! From the work of Peter Elbow (1978), I learned the value of surprise in writing. Many of the journal keeping techniques I teach and practice are invitations to surprise! Have a dialogue with perfectionism. Create a metaphor for a grant I am writing. It is affirming and inspiring to use these techniques to get fresh ideas flowing and to find the surprises in my thinking.

An ‘aha’ moment! Writing IS thinking, not what happens after thinking. In the past I learned that what I put down on paper had better be pretty good the first time I wrote it. That was a terrible constraint, squashed my creativity and led to tortured text. Now I start with what I know and don’t know and wish I knew and do not worry about whether it even makes sense. Then, I go back and cull out the good ideas and begin to see the shape it can take.”

TAA: What are your favorite TAA benefits?

DS: “TAA is the first organization I have belonged to that recognizes that textbook and academic writing is more than just producing text. Writing a textbook is also about book contracts. It is also about finding good mentors. It is also about being organized and planning. Writing is even about finding and selecting clip art, a topic at the recent TAA conference.

In the world of academic conferences, TAA’s was a breath of fresh air. It was not about competition. It was not about strutting our stuff. There is a time and place for that elsewhere. It was about mentoring and sharing and learning from one another.”