As a writer and a writing teacher, I study how people learn to write. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion on this subject. Classroom dynamics, cramped schedules, and misunderstandings can make it hard to imagine teaching writing as one would teach math or science — with a real expectation of seeing results. Following my recent podcast on the subject, I’ve reviewed five things we’re doing wrong with writing instruction, and I’ve offered five preferred strategies. Check out my webinar for a lot more detail along these lines, and to see the method I use in my classroom.
Conflate Writing with Mechanics
Writing is a craft. Writers encounter truth, beauty, or goodness, and feel the need to convey it in words, or else they’re simply practical people who have to succinctly communicate facts. Grammar is one of my favorite subjects, but grammar largely has to do with the underlying logic of sentences. It’s a bit like human anatomy. Writing is the art of conveying information in the optimal way. It presupposes, but goes far beyond grammar. If grammar is human anatomy, then writing is gymnastics. You’re talking about the difference between a doctor identifying bones, and an athlete sticking a difficult landing. Although most English teachers know this, the way the subjects are taught often blurs this distinction, perhaps because teachers think that writing itself cannot be taught, or that there isn’t enough time for it.
Teach Writing Apart from Mental Habits
Writing means thinking like a writer. Habits of observation, reading for enjoyment, and a general fascination with reality are a writer’s three abiding characteristics. These are not mere “personality characteristics,” like being a sanguine or a melancholic, or an INTP, or whatever; they’re cultivated habits. Of course, some people have them more naturally, just as some athletes have more fast-twitch muscle fibers, but anyone can develop his writing “muscles” and become significantly better. There is a mental process, a set of learnable skills, that helps writers generate a lot of content, and that should be part of teaching writing.
Assume Quality Follows Volume
Teachers who recognize that writing is a habit may give their students writing journals, requiring that they make regular entries. This is a very good practice! Professional writers insist that growth in writing comes from writing every day. Still, a little instruction goes a long way. Coaches and parents know that their players or their children will turn poorly executed techniques into ingrained habits by repeating them over and over again. Some amount of growth happens naturally, but it takes much longer without regular feedback. Once again, that feedback has to be writing-specific.
Be So Hasty
A proficient writer integrates many different techniques in a single work. As a result, the work has polish. Some of this just takes time, and reading, and lots and lots of writing. Much of it is the result of methodically practicing technique, which in turn requires a high level of interest in writing well. If you want to see good writing in your classroom, work to form motivated writers. Students need practice in a whole range of skills and techniques in order to understand writing from the bottom up. You can form these skills through short, focussed, and regularly-graded assignments that zero-in on particular skill sets. By giving students quick, individual feedback and clear goals, you are forming self-critical wordsmiths who see the value and the achievability of good writing, and who therefore want to get better. This is a long game; it’s far more involved than simply teaching a few standard essay rubrics (and then huffing at the kids who can’t write their way out of cardboard box).
Believe that Writing Can’t Be Taught
Sometimes it seems that writers are born, not made. The natural spread of ability is very notable. One student may struggle to write grammatical sentences, while another is constructing six page stories with multiple viewpoint shifts. Even if one believes that writing can be taught, it might seem that there isn’t enough time to do it in a classroom setting. But whatever natural differences exist, it simply isn’t true that writing can’t be taught. It is true that no single teacher can, in a single year, download “complete writing ability” into each of his student’s brains, but he can, realistically, teach each student how to improve in a stepwise fashion, and he can teach many individual skills.
Carve Out Time to Teach Writing as Writing
Take ownership of your student’s writing ability. Yes, I know you have a crammed schedule, but time spent teaching writing is like the time we take to plan the week, or to budget money. Students need regular writing assignments with clear goals. These should be small enough to be graded quickly, and they should be distinct from other written assignments. It’s not enough to give random prompts once in a while. Give a short, focussed lesson that demonstrates a particular skill, and then follow up with an assignment with the same focus. Have the students read theirs aloud, and restrict yourself to one or two positive and negative comments. You are not being more thorough by listing ten things Tommy did wrong on the one writing assignment you gave that month. You are guaranteeing that none of the problems will be fixed by the next paper. Instead, give a clear, specific goal, and then save the other problems for other times. Of course, as previously noted, there must written assignments (papers, reports, etc.) that are graded in the standard way. Apart from these, there must also be times when your classroom stops being a standard classroom, and becomes a writing workshop.
Use Models to Teach Habits of Observation
Your students already have “models” in the form of the (hopefully) good literature you’ve assigned them. Excellent writing can awaken the writer’s faculties of wonder and reflectiveness, which turn the whole world into a subject for observation. One other thing you can do is bring in subjects for observation. Use anything interesting you find lying about, or hanging on the wall, or collecting dust in school closet. I use paintings, clocks, sculptures, parts of nature (when we go outside), and the room itself as writing fodder. One of the most important things to get across is that the world is orderly; everything has a built-in order. Multiple layers of order, actually. There may be an infinite number of ways to look at a thing, yet some of those ways make sense, and are therefore easy to receive, engage, and remember. That’s what writers do: reveal order.
Monitor Individual Progress
Writing, whether good or bad, is all about habits. Each student has a set of habits, some good and some bad, which need to be augmented or corrected. If you teach three writing classes a week, you’ll likely notice patterns of behavior in your students’ writing. Keep a record of these habits, by making quick notes to yourself when your students read their work out loud in class. This can greatly improve the quality of feedback you give over time. Don’t assume you’ll remember, because you already have too many things to remember.
Take the Time to Teach the Little Things
It’s surprising how much a student’s prose and overall work will improve when you focus on the basics. Sentence types, rhetorical devices and concepts, paragraph logic, and observation skills can all be improved if you simply budget the time to teach them over the course of a school year. The five-paragraph essay, and other, longer essays and reports, (most of which are built around the same structural logic), are really a piece of cake if you’ve already learned how to make the component ingredients. Conversely, teaching the essay only from the top down, and skipping over all of the literary elements of which it is composed, is far less practical in the long run. In my opinion, this is how you get robotic writing that doesn’t flow, expression more fit for well-dressed worker-drones than for well-rounded persons. Such hasitiness explains the tendency for classroom writing advice to be expressed in terms of negatives: “Don’t use the passive voice,” or “Eliminate unnecessary words.” It’s as if there were nothing more to writing than filling a mold with words, and then slicing off the dried, crumbly extras.
Believe You Can Teach Writing
The craft of writing involves a difficult struggle toward an ever-receding horizon. The best writers endure moments of quiet agony, and a piece that seems good today may, tomorrow, reveal its shoddy colors. If the goal is representing reality, than we must always fall short of it, because words are less than beings. Still, we can get better. Classroom experience proves that every student can achieve small, specific goals. Most people can see that writing well is inherently desirable. Like drawing or playing an instrument, almost everybody would like to be able to write. Combine those two things, a good plan and a workshop environment that nurtures student interest, and you’ll see real progress. An incremental approach, like the one I describe in my webinar, makes writing improvement achievable in a classroom setting. Finally, all of this assumes regular focussed assignments, a cumulative curriculum, and a long-term approach.