The Four Most Important Writing Lessons
I can still remember (with a mixture of horror and amusement) the first time I tried to teach a classroom of kids how to write. Going in, I thought it would be easy. I had been a professional writer for years and I had tutored kids in writing from elementary school to college. How much trouble could I have with a group of 5th graders?
I started with topic selection. I modeled some of the topics I could write about, making some nice lists and thinking aloud as I went along. Then I asked the kids to give it a try. Nothing happened. So we made a shared list of possible topics anyone could choose. And then I asked them to pick their topics again. And again nothing happened; they wouldn't even take topics from the list we had just made together.
Having failed with my first two topic selection mini-lessons, I went to my third — I started to beg. I went from kid to kid, coaxing and cajoling them one by one, to please, please, please pick a topic. As the 50-minute period came to a close, most of the kids had chosen something and the few that hadn't were pretty close. I was exhausted and the kids were bored, but at least we had gotten this part taken care of and could really begin writing the next day.
The next day, I started class with "OK, now that we've all got our topics...". The kids stared back at me blankly. A third of them didn't like their topics any more, another third couldn't remember their topics from the day before, and the last third swore we hadn't even gone over topic selection. Plus, two kids showed up who had been absent. So I started over.
Little by little, and mostly by me running around breathlessly from desk to desk, I managed over the next few days to get them all started on their pieces. But every single day was like the day before: I'd suggest that we try something new, they'd balk, I'd beg. And it didn't matter what we were working on: adding details, writing leads, sentence combining, etc, no matter what I did or how I did it, the kids pretty much just sat there, laughed occasionally at my jokes or blunders, gave a half-hearted try once in a while, and then promptly forgot everything the very next day. At one point I suggested we take a day off from writing; finally, a mini-lesson everyone could enjoy and participate in successfully!
The next day I said we'd start new pieces. Now that we all knew what to expect, and had been over it together so many times, I figured we'd hit the ground running. But things weren't much better. And they didn't improve much either as the year went along. After working with this class for several months, and having pretty much the same experience in a few other classes I was working with that year, I realized that I was the one who had learned the most important lessons about writing:
Lesson #1: Writing is an "output" subject. Unlike most school subjects, which require primarily that kids take in new information, writing requires that kids put it out. In theory, each time a student writes a piece, we expect them to produce something new that they have never produced before. Even when we've given them some input like a prompt or a question or a theme, they won't be successful unless they come up with output that develops what we've given them in a significant and appropriate way.
Lesson #2: Writing requires a high degree of active participation from individual students. In most other subjects, there's a certain amount of "down time" for each student. While one kid is answering a question, the others can just listen; when they're working in small groups, the effort can shift from person to person; even when everyone is working on a worksheet or a chapter from a textbook, the kids all know that the teacher is going to go over the material with them as a group, so intense individual attention is not really needed. But in writing, there is no group work, there are no worksheets or textbook chapters (or at least there shouldn't be), and students can't just wait for the teacher to go over the material because the teacher is counting on them to produce it. When kids are writing, active participation is required of everyone.
Lesson #3: Writing requires original, individual expression. When we work on math problems, the idea is for every kid to come up with the same right answer. Social studies, science, and most other subjects work the same way. But in writing, if everyone comes up with same thing we call it copying or plagiarism. In most situations, don't even want students to repeat the writing of things they've written before.
Lesson #4: Writers face the same challenges over and over again with each new piece they attempt. In math, once I learn to add whole numbers reliably, I don't really have to worry much about it when I tackle new problems that require the same skill. In reading, once I learn to decode effectively, I don't have to learn to decode again each time I read a new book. But even if I am successful at writing a good lead or a good ending, I will face exactly the same problem on my very next piece — and there's no guarantee that it will be any easier the second time. Aside from spelling, even the very best writers never truly master much of anything.
OK, So Now What Do We Do?
Before I could develop solutions for successful writing instruction, I had to understand the problem. I had to learn the four most important writing lessons and understand their implications. After more than a few failures, it became obvious to me where kids would be having problems. So I started to make a list of those points in the writing process, and then for each problem I developed something they could do to deal with it. These "somethings" became my lessons and as the kids developed a larger list of things to do, and a better knowledge of when and how to do them, they became more effective and I became more efficient.
Writers, regardless of their age or level of experience, need reliable techniques they can use in specific situations to solve common problems. Every writer needs a bag of tricks or, as we like to all them in teaching, a set of strategies they can use to keep them going when they get stuck. The best strategies are those that can be used to solve the toughest problems that occur most frequently — like adding details, for example, or coming up with a good beginning.
The best writing lesson we can all learn is this: good strategies are the key to good writing. The best thing we can do for students is to help them develop a repertoire of effective techniques they can use to handle the most common problems they encounter in the kinds of writing they pursue.