For a recent assignment, students were to examine an advertisement. Questions led them to look at the visuals: subject of emphasis, originality of image, the placement of objects, type of people pictured. Then, they examined techniques such as use of band wagon appeal, or slogans Finally, they were directed to evaluate the intended audience, and validity of claims in the text. In the end students had to take all the answers and compile them into a composition.
However, their writing basically read like a list of answered questions. Taking something in one form and changing it into another form that appears organic is the art of transforming word phrases into writing. Like the metamorphosis of the butterfly it seems magical. Exactly how do you get students (or yourself) to take a fragmented stew of ideas and facts, and transform it into something intriguing?
The first piece of wisdom is not to rush the process. Jot down ideas over a period of time, and read about a range of subject matter before research begins full swing. This helps to consider different viewpoints and select what is interesting. Meditating on an idea is the step most often omitted under the pressure to complete something–anything–to turn in for a grade, or to a prospective publisher.
Often things we do to simplify writing end up detrimental to the final product. Let students figure out what questions to ask themselves, and they will have a deeper understanding. This allows them to delve into the subject, and retrieve relevant details that can be tied together. If they have no idea of what to look for first, have them choose a subject (topic or idea) and one to two others that parallel their chosen subject. Then compare these to see what differs, and describe the attributes that differs. Do this yourself for clues on how to narrow research.
Writing should continue on a regular basis. This allows practice in capturing the right words and phrases to show the essence of the subject. Lessons learned about transforming idea into writing in for one subject can be applied to others. It is a good idea to have scheduled chunks of class devoted to writing. Warn students to come prepared to work intensely for thirty minutes without interruption. Then stop, take a break, and do a completely different activity.
Review work frequently for progress. Look at the amount done and ask each student how far he or she can get by the next review. Do the same for yourself, if you have a hard time producing the ideas on paper. According to J.P. Guilford, transformation is processing information in a way that shows comprehension of changes . So, slow down and enjoy the process of turning caterpillar ideas into butterfly prose.
 Guilford, J. P. (1983) Transformation abilities or functions. Journal of Creative Behavior, 17(2),75-83.
Photo by S.L. Listman