The Writing Corner: How to Teach the Writing Process to Students
September 13, 2016
Good writers know that writing is a process. It takes many steps to create a good final draft.
What is the writing process?
I find it helpful to see writing an essay or story or poem like creating a sculpture out of clay.
The first step, which might take the form of brainstorming, free writing, making lists or diagrams, is often called prewriting; it is the best way to avoid writer’s block from the start. Think of this step as the artist simply finding enough clay to work with.
The draft is often defined as the time to just get it all on paper— to make a rough slab of clay that can then be sculpted. It might be a mess at this point, but there is enough clay to be molded into something better.
Revision means not just changing a few commas, but making major adjustments—maybe cutting a paragraph or adding multiple sentences or changing the focus of the piece all together. Think of this as the artist cutting away major pieces of the clay, or perhaps adding entire sections.
Input from others is also key—it might be in the form of peer conferences or teacher conferences, but as writers, we write for an audience, and so it is important to know if our message is getting across to an audience.
The final step in the writing process, editing, is when the piece is polished, just as that clay sculpture might get a final shine. This is the time to worry about the placement of a single word or comma.
It takes a lot to finish a piece: brainstorming, drafts, revision, revision, more revision, input from others, more revision, and editing.
Yet students often have the idea that they should be able to sit down, start writing an essay, and when they get to the last word they are done.
Teaching the writing process is not easy. There aren’t any right answers, and it takes time for students to fully appreciate the value of each step. But you can teach students to understand the how-to as well as the importance of the writing process by following these steps.
Model each step of the process and show them multiple examples.
If you haven’t had a chance to collect student samples of drafts or revision or peer conferences, you’re going to have to create your own. Write a terrible first draft of a poem or an essay or a paragraph, and then revise it. Show students how awful and vague and underwritten your draft was. And then show them all of the work that you put into making it better. Sit down with a student in front of the class and model a peer conference. Give them examples of the kinds of sentences you’d like them to have in their essays. Don’t just describe the step—for each step of the process, show them multiple examples of how it’s done.
Give them class time to work on each step rather than assigning it for homework.
By assigning the steps in class, you will give students the message that the process is important. It will take time, especially when they are first learning how to do it, but if you do dedicate class time to showing them the importance of this valuable skill, the benefits will last.
Check in with them constantly and push them to do more.
Students will often do the bare minimum that they think will be accepted, and when it is something uncomfortable and new and strange, like going back and really reflecting on work that they have done, they will be even more likely to try to get by with less. So check in with students, either by reading over their shoulders or by having them share a googledoc with you so that you can check on their progress or by observing their peer conferences. And then push them to do more.
Give them a grade for the process, and make it count for something.
After all this work teaching them the importance of process, make sure that they understand that you really value this work. For better or for worse, the way that we often show students that we value something is by assigning it a grade. So until grades are done away with completely, this too should get a grade. The way that I have done this in the past is to make a list of what is expected of students, usually brainstorm, draft, two revisions, two peer conferences, an edit, and a final draft. I start with 100 and then take off points for whatever is missing. Big surprise: students who receive a 100 on process usually have an A on their final draft.
Do it all more than once.
If you have one little unit at the beginning of the year when students are graded for their writing process, they will realize that it is not something that you truly value. Come back to these steps over and over throughout the year. You might have a student who has to look at seven examples of revision, but finally understands what you want—in late May.
It’s simpler and easier to solely grade students on their final product. Teaching process can be messy and vague and hard to pin down, but the effort is so worth it.
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.