The Writing Corner: Just Get Them Writing

Plenty of students hate writing. What’s my solution to this problem?

Get them writing more.

I know that good writing takes revision, editing, and peer conferences. It takes model texts and discussion and analysis. It needs grammar instruction and more grammar review and grammar practice. It needs creative writing exercises and discussion on author’s technique.

But it also takes lots and lots practice.

Even the most polished and professional and meticulous writers have journals or diaries where they can just let loose. And if good writing is good thinking, then students also need plenty of practice thinking on paper.

In order for students to write fluidly, they have to write often. Writing has to be something that isn’t a big deal at all.

When people talk about having writer’s block, in my experience, what they are talking about is a paralyzing perfectionism. If you start off writing worrying about what your thesis should be or how to get a second piece of evidence in your third paragraph or if you are spelling that word right, then you’re done before you ever get started.

Even the student who you would never describe as an overachiever usually doesn’t want to write because he is afraid of looking dumb or getting it wrong or because the whole experience is just too uncomfortable.

There are ways to push through that panic—though some might be more counterintuitive than others.

Make them write every day. My students know that they will be writing a freewrite almost every day in class. Most days, I start out the class with a prompt on a essential idea or question; sometimes the prompt is about their own experiences. And most days, they end the class by writing on the text we are studying. But they can expect to write something just about every day. It’s quick, it’s going to happen whether they like it or not, and chances are it’s going to happen again tomorrow (and the day after tomorrow).

Don’t expect much at first—or ever sometimes. One of my favorite prompts instructs students to describe a recent dream. Every year when I use this prompt, I have at least one student who doesn’t remember any dreams. My solution is simple, just start writing: “I never remember my dreams.” If she ends up writing a half page about how she doesn’t remember her dreams, that’s fine. She’s still thinking—maybe even analyzing why she doesn’t remember her dreams—but in the very least, she is writing. And then, the next time that I ask her to write in class, it will be slightly less of a big deal than it was that first time.

Give them structure but also make it free. I never tell my students to just write about something creative or interesting. They always get a prompt—about themselves or an idea or a text. For students who have a really hard time with the blank page, I’ll even break up what should be a page of writing into a series of questions. In the end, it’s not the same as free writing, but they also write a full page. But at the same time, I tell them that I couldn’t care less about spelling or grammar. They won’t be graded, judged, or scrutinized for the perfection of their sentence structure. In fact, unless they want me to, I probably won’t even read what they are writing.

Make it specific. Everyone knows that you need evidence and examples and specific details in good writing. That’s what makes it better for the reader, but it is also what makes it much much easier for the writer. Students will always have an easier time describing their favorite meal than they will have writing about why people value traditional food. This is also the best way to get them writing more.

Make it fun. High school students don’t get much opportunity to play anymore. Everything is about college or work or those standardized tests—it’s all so directly practical. I’m sure that there are many people who believe that their time would be better used by learning to write cover letters and resumes. But I always dedicate class time to creative writing. My absolute favorite creative writing exercise I call “Fun With the Dictionary.” Students open up to random pages in the dictionary, they find words with funny meanings or definitions, and then they write poems inspired by those words. It’s silly and easy and, most importantly, low pressure. But sometimes they create some of their best work this way. Later, when I want them to write something that is serious, they hate writing a little less than they did before.

Spot grade. There are many teachers who at this point have started to run the numbers… if you have 115 students and they write a page every day in class then that’s 2875 pages at the end of the week. This is why I don’t read everything that they write, and I definitely don’t collect loose pieces of paper at the end of the day. I usually stamp work when it’s due—at the end of class or the end of those five minutes or the next day so they can finish it for homework if they need to—and students keep it in a notebook. And then I just read a small fraction of what they write. My general method is a you-choose-one-I-choose one. So if students write six pages, I might have them choose their favorite for me to grade and then I choose another random piece. Of course, telling students that they will be graded on free writes might be a little counterproductive, but I am usually just grading for effort. There are definitely no grammar or spelling marks, nothing written on their writing except maybe a quick comment on the content. Most often, it’s just a check.

I think that many teachers are so overwhelmed by teaching writing that they just ignore it altogether—present a powerpoint on a topic, assign an essay, slog through the misery of grading them, and then call it a day.

But when writing is a part of every day, it can be much for fun for the students and easier for the teacher.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.