National Writing Project

Mozartians, Beethovians, and the Teaching of Writing

By: Diane Christian Boehm
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 2
Date: Spring 1993

Summary: In this essay from 1993, Diane Christian Boehm directly confronts the myth of the sequential writing process, finding that writers create as "Mozartians" or "Beethovians," or sometimes a little of both. Agreeing with Donald Murray, she claims that "Our job... is not to teach students how to write, but to teach how to teach themselves to write." That is, we need to help each of our students find a writing process that works for her.


Teaching about the writing process can be dangerous. We who are writing teachers and writers tend to assume that other people—students—will write like we do, or like the textbooks say they should. We perpetuate a myth.

The writing process has an element of mystery. Poets resort to mystical measures in pursuit of their elusive "muse." But recent research into the intricate workings of the brain, coupled with the disdain of both teachers and students for the mediocre writing often produced by "formulas," have provided some exciting insights for the teaching of writing, among them the fact that the writing process is highly individualistic. It is also recursive, not linear. The teacher who prescribes a careful sequence of steps fails to recognize that while those steps may be successful for students who think in linear, step-by-step ways, they will create only frustration for those whose thinking processes are different.

Research also shows that image and metaphor play a greater role in writing than usually credited. Many of our most fascinating ideas come not as a result of careful, logical reasoning, but from a flash of insight, a brief image, a poignant memory. Imagination cannot be willed, or controlled by logic—yet it is the essence of each writer's uniqueness, of writing which impacts our minds and hearts.

So where does a writing teacher begin? John, a conscientious, orally expressive student, appears in my office, frustrated and totally blocked. "I guess I'm just not a writer. I know what I plan to say when I get into my essay," he tells me, "but I just can't seem to find a way to write the introduction, to get the writing started."

"So why don't you write the parts you already have in mind and see if that will suggest an introduction?" I offer.

His jaw drops. "Can you do that?" he asks. Somewhere over the years the idea became ingrained in his thinking that the only "right" way to write was from introduction through to conclusion. When that didn't work, he concluded that he could not write.

Our job, suggests Donald Murray in Write to Learn, is not to teach students how to write, but to teach them how to teach themselves to write. Our goal, then, is to help our students develop successful rituals in their writing processes. As we demystify the writing process, we also reduce students' anxiety about writing, for they discover that there is no one "right" or "wrong" way to write, that learning to write is a process of discovering what will help them be successful. The more strategies for writing that students develop, the less likely they are to block, the more they will be able to discover what works for them and for a variety of writing assignments.

Individual differences provide a place to begin. Writing about his fellow poets, Stephen Spender concluded that they came in two types: Beethovians and Mozartians. Research suggests a third kind of writer—Combinations.

Beethovians are discoverers; they discover what they want to say during the process of writing; in other words, they write to generate ideas, compose to find out what they have to say. Their writing is "non-directed," reflexive, characterized by multiple (messy) drafts. They are right-brain processors, visual thinkers, high imagers, allowing image and metaphor to structure their first drafts.

Mozartians, on the other hand, are planners; they plan extensively, either mentally or on paper or both, and then execute. Their careful outlining results in fewer drafts; they write from the ideas they have already generated; their writing is "directed." They exert more conscious control over their texts and work in linear, conscious ways, focusing on what comes next. They use image to recall information or to keep organization in mind.

The Combinations do not rely on a particular method or strategy to write, varying their writing process according to the assignment and the ideas they wish to communicate. Interestingly, this is the group which uses word processing most successfully; some may use it for all phases of writing, from generating ideas to final editing, others for second and final drafts and editing.

Rationalist Assumptions

Writing, especially academic writing, has often been taught as a logical, step-by-step process, as if all students were Mozartians. In fact, American education as a whole focuses on the left brain, on the processes of reason and logic and linear thinking, down-playing imaginative, intuitive, nonlinear right brain processing. Rationalist assumptions have governed educations at all levels, ignoring intuitive, imagistic ways of knowing, with little or no attention given to "whole-brain" thinking until recently.

Likewise in composition we have created a false dichotomy between "academic" and "creative" writing, assuming that academic writing relied upon logic, creative writing upon imagination. Yet when we read biographies of some of our greatest academic writers—inventors and scientists and philosophers—we discover that their breakthrough ideas often came as flashes of insight, moments of intuitive knowing, not as the result of careful, linear, step-by-step thinking.

Brain research on lateralization and specialization of the brain hemispheres has changed our understanding of learning. The left hemisphere of the brain functions with sequences, logic, parts to whole. The right hemisphere functions with holistic, nonlinear, intuitive processing, whole to part. What is writing but a dialogue between whole and parts, between global ideas and specific details, between concepts and form?

The writer needs to integrate the functioning of the whole brain to be successful. In fact, we reach our highest potential as human beings when both hemispheres work to their capacity, when information from both is integrated into the whole. Choosing a bank? Reason and logic will surely guide your choice as you compare pros and cons of each bank's services. Choosing a lover?

Unless you are highly unusual, logic and lists are unlikely to be called upon! Intuitions and emotions are what count.

Emotion and Patterning

Attitudes and outlook play an important role in writing. The search for meaning in the mind occurs through patterning; the brain's natural tendency is to integrate information to create meaning. Emotions are critical to patterning; for learning to "take," a student must be involved and free from threat. Students who feel they do not "fit," who are unhappy or anxious, cannot learn effectively, nor can they write well.

When teachers of writing tell their stories about writing and share their own writing, we model the multiplicity of writing strategies. Several years ago I was writing a children's story, rapidly approaching deadline. I couldn't "find" the ending. Finally in desperation I ran out into the yard where my son and neighborhood kids were playing, clutching my unfinished piece. I read my story as far as it went and offered a dollar to the kid who could help me find an ending. They laughed and went on playing. The next morning as I was eating breakfast, the boy across the street rang my bell; he had developed five potential endings for my story!

Writers and Rituals

Stories about the rituals of professional writers further illuminate the writing process. When John Updike first began writing, he used lead pencils and legal pads. Every morning to begin his writing ritual, he would carefully sharpen one box of No. 2 lead pencils and lay out his legal pads. Like many writers, he has long since converted to composing at the keyboard. Yet every morning as he prepares to write, he meticulously sharpens one box of No. 2 pencils. His writing methods have completely changed, yet he relies on familiar rituals to trigger his writing process.

One of my most valuable writing tools is my vacuum cleaner. On many occasions when I have been tangled in a piece of writing and taken a break to attack the cleaning, no sooner have I begun the rhythmic roar than I have started to hear sentences in my mind, my personal signal that I am ready to write. Quickly I switch off the vacuum cleaner and rush to the keyboard, lest the ideas be lost. Some days my house never does get cleaned! There are many stories about writing we can share, from our own experiences or from such sources as Writers at Work, in which writers tell about their own incredibly varied writing processes.

If we wish to become effective teachers of writing, we need to teach the whole person; we need to allow both the Beethovians and the Mozartians to be who they are when they write. We need to explore both logical and imaginative ways of thinking and writing, accepting the validity of both. The more our students integrate the functions of both hemispheres of the brain, the more connections are actually built within the brain. The actual wiring of the brain is affected by school and life experiences, researchers have discovered. Students who are never encouraged to develop nonlinear, imaginative ways of thinking will grow up to be adults with fewer connections between the two hemispheres of their brain, less capable of whole-brain thinking.

Image and metaphor, given free rein, help us to discover ideas and uncover memories we didn't realize we possessed. They take us into our subconscious mind, a place full of surprise and discovery. Figurative, imaginative processes create richness in writing. Even order and structure in writing often come through insight, rather than through laborious revisions and plotting of strategy. Successful writers use both directed and random thought as they write. All types of writers (to a greater and lesser degree) rely on metaphor and image in all phases of the writing process, from generating ideas to structuring.

Am I suggesting that logic and conventions and grammar and careful organizations are unimportant? Not at all. But the successful writer knows when and where to use them.

Every writer is both creator and critic. The creator within us generates notions, catches fire with an idea, wanders off on tangents, revives long-forgotten images and memories. The critic, in contrast, is the judge. The critic questions whether that idea is really any good; whether the parts fit together; whether that word is spelled correctly and all the commas are in the right place. If we permit it, our critic may silence our creator.

The successful writer must balance the creator and the critic. I tell my students to shut their critic in the closet when their creator is at work, to let the ideas pour out freely without being judged or evaluated or checked in a dictionary for correct spelling. The trouble spot for most weak writers is not editing but composing. Then, when the creator has finished the job, the critic may be invited in to scrutinize the organization, insert transitions, eliminate unnecessary words, check punctuation and grammar.

When we write, we share more than words. When we write well, we establish intimate human connection. Dr. Ruth, the "sex doctor," cautions against "spectatoring" during sex; in the process of observing ourselves, she says, we prevent total involvement, become self-conscious, and cause dysfunction. Spectatoring when writing is equally hazardous. When a writer constantly observes himself or herself, allowing the critic to judge everything the creator is generating, that writer becomes dysfunctional, saying less than he or she intended to say or blocking entirely. "You have to find ways to detach yourself from the world and go to that place where you can hear the writing," says Donald Murray. Imaging and awakening of subconscious ideas occur when we are "not at home" in our conscious mind, when the creator is totally involved—and the critic on hold. Then a piece of writing may take on a life of its own, finding words and ideas the writer did not know he or she had to say.

Now my vacuum cleaner begins to make sense. Rhythmic activities, meditations, day-dreaming, the relaxed state right before sleep—all of these stimulate imagistic thinking, freeing us to rummage in the crannies of our subconscious mind. My computer also makes sense, for with it, I write so fast that my creator can outrun my critic. As students discover their own processes and develop their own successful writing rituals, they gain the confidence that motivates them to keep writing.

Our students need a repertoire of strategies to vary with the situation. We need to teach strategies, not rules. Writers can shift strategies only if they know other strategies. One method may not work for all students, for there is no universal writing process. Guided imagery may turn on the right-brain thinker, the Mozartian may do better with lists or brainstorming. To generate ideas, writers may experiment with mapping/clustering/journaling/guided imagery/brainstorming/freewriting/even computer-assisted programs. Planning may consist of a formal outline—or a list or diagram or flow chart or . . . .

As our students develop a repertoire of writing tools and strategies and assignments, they learn about their own writing processes. Beethovians discover that their way of working is acceptable; Mozartians find that their approach can be equally successful. Every student can experience the thrill of discovering something to say, and the glorious satisfaction of learning to say it well.


Bridwell-Bowles, L., P. Johnson, and S. Brehe.1987. "Composing and Computers: Case Studies of Experienced Writers." In Writing in Real Time, edited by A. Matsuhashi. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Caine, R. N., and G. Caine. 1990. "Understanding a Brain-Based Approach to Learning and Teaching." Educational Leadership 48 (2), 66–70.

Dembo, L. S., and C. M. Pondrom. 1972. The Contemporary Writer: Interviews with Sixteen Novelists and Poets. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Gebhardt, R. C. 1982. "Initial Plans and Spontaneous Composition: Toward a Comprehension Theory of the Writing Process." College English 44 (6), 620–627.

Murray, D. 1990. Write to Learn. Chicago: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Rose, M. 1984. Writer's Block: The Cognitive Dimension. Carbondale: University of Southern Illinois Press.

Rose, M., ed. 1985. When a Writer Can't Write. New York: The Guilford Press.

Writers at Work. (various dates). New York: Viking. Eight volumes, stretching from 1958 to the present, each containing The Paris Review interviews with 14–16 writers. (The most recent edition, 1988, contains a complete listing of all the writers included.) Volumes are edited by various authors.

Originally published in Volume 15, Number 2.

About the Author DIANE CHRISTIAN BOEHM wrote this article while serving as a member of the Minnesota Writing Project and teaching composition at the University of Michigan, Flint, and at Saginaw Valley State University. She is now director of the Saginaw Bay Writing Project and continues to teach at Saginaw Valley State where, in 1995, she established the University Writing Center. For the past three years, her focus has been on educating students for globalization. To develop global perspectives her students each semester conduct an online collaborative project with students from Poznan University of Technology, Poland. Her chapter "Seven Principles of Good Practice for Virtual International Collaboration," written with her Polish colleague Dr. Lilianna Aniola-Jedrzejek and published in Teaching and Learning with Virtual Teams, details strategies for cross-cultural collaboration.

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