"Aha." We've all probably experienced the aha moment. You've walked away from a frustrating task or question with no answer, and then later—maybe minutes, maybe years—the answer pops in your head while you're taking a walk, washing dishes or maybe just sorting screws.
Former Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser, once told me he goes to his office everyday to write. If nothing comes, he stays in his office for a set amount of time and does something—anything. His favorite way to kill the time is sorting jars of miscellaneous screws purchased at thrift stores. He takes the assortment of screws from someone else's forgotten shop and just begins sorting them by size and type.
Kooser would certainly rather be writing. But if he can't, he knows that he needs to be in this space and ready. He's waiting for the words and, judging from the volume of work Kooser has produced, it's a good strategy.
When considering the writing process in academia over the course of a semester, I found very little about incubation—about providing the time for an idea to germinate. It's all about direct activity: prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing are the common steps given for the process. And the end goal is always quality writing. We expect students to produce quality writing for discourse communities they are unfamiliar with, yet we ignore one part of the process that provides so much fruit for practicing members of that same professional community: incubation.
From anecdote to evidence
One simple reason that incubation has been largely ignored by composition scholars is because it is most commonly considered an entirely subconscious process (Dively, "Preludes" 22, Dively, "Incubating" 92, Gates 60-61, Wells 407). Opinions differ on the degree that incubation is subconscious, but—even if it is entirely subconscious—that shouldn’t prohibit the consideration of incubation in the writing process. Psychologists and philosophers certainly haven’t limited their considerations or study of the thought process buried in the subconscious—nor should we—considering the possible benefits to students of writing.
As noted, there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence of the benefits of incubation in the writing process. However, if you would rather not accept the testimony of writers like Cather, Hemingway, King and Kipling, researchers are just beginning to explore incubation (Dively 47-48, Emig 6-8).
First on anyone’s list to read if they are considering researching incubation, should be Dr. Ronda Leathers Dively’s book, Preludes to Insight: Creativity, Incubation, and Expository Writing. Dively’s text provides the best synthesis and summary of the history and scholarship concerning incubation and the writing process, and she takes that work a step further with case studies: chapter five considers undergraduate students, and chapter six focuses on graduate students.
After what must be close to a First-Year Composition universal, Dively spent several frustrating semesters having students write six essays on six different topics. Far from approaching expertise, the students were more often skimming the surface and summarizing basic concepts. Dively knew her students needed a change, and the goal from the onset was not necessarily to directly consider the effects of incubation. Her goal, like so many other FYC professors, was to teach students to be better writers.
Dively didn’t reduce the amount of writing. Instead, she allowed the students to write six papers on the same subject, honing their understanding of the topic and their familiarity with the nuances of the discourse community. During this time, there was time to incubate, and there was activity. The work entailed research, talking about your ideas with others (in class and experts), and writing a draft. Incubation is not about procrastination—a worry that that was initially expressed by Dively's students (158).
The result? Not only significant improvements in the writing, but an increase in confidence in the students, and, Dively hints at—an increase in transfer to other writing situations (174).
And Dively isn't alone as she looks to the study of incubation to delve further into the creative process. Other scholars are also implementing studies to determine the benefits of incubation (Coskun 471-474, Wells 407-408). Both of these scholars are concentrating on what might be called forced incubation. Coskun's emphasis is on small group research and brainstorming whereas Wells' work is directly focused on writing in the academic community.
The interesting point of Wells' study is that the professors who implemented some type of active incubation strategy were more creatively productive (measured as the number of published articles in refereed journals) than those who did not (408). Specifically, Wells indicated that the professors, "who intentionally set manuscripts aside for a period of time to allow for the incubation process tended to be the most productive" (408). The same result occurred in Coskun's research—albeit in small groups. The groups that used forced incubation were able to brainstorm more ideas in a controlled setting (474).
In both of these studies, there is emphasis on the structure of the incubation. The amount of structure varies widely (from a matter of minutes, to simply implementing some type of formal break) but the results are both positive—more production of what is essentially considered creative work.
Other scholars are beginning to look at the science behind the process of incubation. Although I did no direct research into this aspect, Dively touches on the some of the predominant efforts under way in considering physical explanations for the benefits of incubation, including neurobiological studies measuring cortical arousal, the effect of neurotransmitting hormones such as adrenocorticotropic hormone (ATCTH), and even some exploration into what some have thought to be more traditional chemical facilitators of incubation (such as alcohol) (Dively 27-28).
Block and Transfer
Two of the points uncovered that show the most promise if incubation is implemented into writing courses include overcoming writer's block and the enhancement of transfer of writing tasks from one class (or writing situation) to another.
Transfer was briefly mentioned previously in regards to Dively's work, but she was not the only scholar to highlight this possible benefit of utilizing incubation in the writing process. Incubation, in effect, feeds on related material and experience (Gates 64). Thus, providing the opportunity for incubation can assist the student in—not only drawing on items of content that will assist their writing, but—developing on previous methods and composition strategies that have worked for them in the past. In a way, this aspect of incubation as a facilitator of transfer knowledge is also similar and useful in tackling the current concept—and practice—of writing to learn that is becoming more popular in writing programs.
Janet Emig first raised the idea of using incubation as a method important to writing to learn in 1964 (6-11). Although she never directly used the term incubation, there is little doubt what she is talking about as she quotes a passage by Amy Lowell, "An idea will come into my head for no apparent reason; 'The Bronze Horses,' for instance. I registered the horses as a good subject matter and … consciously thought no more about the matter … what I had really done was to drop my subject into the subconscious, much as one drops a letter into the mail box" (10). What Emig seems to be getting at in her article is that artists have historically used incubation to create, to learn their own craft—and that this process is more likely to provide rich results for our students than the attempt to force them into a rigid structure of completing multiple essays on unrelated topics where the student has no time to sit with the idea and develop their own thoughts.
And developing thoughts when it comes down to completing the final task—actually writing the product—introduces us to the final concept that was raised in this research on incubation in the writing process: the use of incubation to overcome writer's block.
The two reasearchers that both addressed block directly where Krashen and Coskun. Coskun, again, was studying the impact of incubation techniques in a small group brainstorming session. Krashen, on the other hand, was looking the writing process.
Specifically, Krashen notes that our current instruction methods serve to trivialize the importance of incubation—in-class writing assignments, timed essays, and sit-down written tests (11). Alternatively, incubation should be seen as a critical part of the process and should be considered an "essential component of revision" (11). He notes that the failure to include incubation in the writing process can actually be a cause of the block—causing apprehension and fear whereas taking the break and providing the time to incubate "may help the subconscious solve the problem" (11).
The investigation of incubation in the writing process is clearly in its infancy. Dively offers the most thoughtful work on it thus far, but her work isn't flawless. Future case studies by Dively, or other scholars, would benefit from more active measurement—more evaluators of the student work—if nothing else. Dively's personal testimony of the improvement of her students is one piece of evidence, but opening the data to a larger pool of composition experts would give her work greater weight.
One might envision a combination of the case study with additional focus provided by creativity scholars like Coskun—who tend towards a methodology more rooted in the traditional, scientific approach to study and measurement.
In effect, such a combined effort could serve to legitimize what so many professional writers have anecdotally already told us—that incubation benefits the writing process. The problem with this is that few institutions, let alone programs, are going to be swayed by anecdotal evidence.
However, if the goal of writing programs is to produce better writers—to produce students that can write effectively across the curriculum—we should be exploring all ways to achieve this. Incorporating incubation into the writing process doesn't seem like such a stretch when we consider how many programs have implemented other techniques that, at the time they were initially implemented, were also seen as alternative—such as freewriting to help students unlock their thoughts and practice writing. Exploring the alternatives to a structure that is currently broken seems like a legitimate approach.
For works cited, see annotated bib.