I liked opening semesters, especially with high-achieving AP students, by asking, “Who enjoys writing?” Of the thirty-plus students, a few enthusiastically raised their hands; a few others, timidly. “Who doesn’t enjoy it?” Typically, many more would raise their hands with some suspicious students abstaining from a question about writing posed by an English teacher.
That’s the thing, though. They were being asked by an English teacher, and for many, their experiences with English teacher and writing had been marked by struggle, frustration, anguish, and disappointment. Many of my brightest students typically were straight-A, Honors and AP students across the board. That is, they had been in advanced classes throughout their academic careers—especially in science and math and history courses in which performance tended to be more easily quantifiable. They scored well on their achievement tests and were rightfully (in most cases) placed on the Honors/AP track. And yet, they hated writing. Plenty of them loved other academic subjects (i.e., they were not just there to earn good grades). Most enjoyed learning, period. And what is odd is that we learn the most through the writing process (more on this later). Why did they view writing as anathema?
The answer differs depending on the student. But there are two major categories of reluctant writers that I noticed. First, many students are motivated by either grades or “getting by.” They will learn what they want, and other subjects are just more interesting to them. Or no subjects are interesting, and their only motivation is to float through school with minimal effort and minimal hassle from teachers and parents. Second, many other students (and perhaps a good number in the first category) have been intimidated or shamed or bullied by teachers who had placed them into a cruel game: “Guess what I want you to write and write it to a standard close to that of a published author.” It’s usually a no-win game. I am grateful I only had a handful of teachers like that, none of whom were English teachers.
Before continuing, take a break. Four or five minutes. Find some lined paper and a pen. This is your first, and maybe best, exercise. We’re going to freewrite. That is, for the next four or five minutes, don’t let the pen stay off the paper for more than a second. Write what you are thinking. It can be about anything: what you ate for breakfast (or what you wish you had eaten), what you want to do next weekend, why your significant other is acting like a jerk, what you thought about the first three paragraphs of this chapter, etc. No grades are at stake. No one will read this but you. I will assume that a few minutes will have passed between these words and the next paragraph. Here’s a picture to look at if you have absolutely nothing else on your mind:
Freewriting is an exercise advocated by writing teacher and author Peter Elbow, whose ideas we shall explore from time to time. The point of the exercise is many-fold. First, there is the liberation of writing simply for your own eyes. No grades, no teachers looking over your shoulders. In freewriting, we can experiment with style and words and jump from one idea to another without worrying about being “right.” Second, we can use freewriting to discover what we really think about a topic. We write without censor and can read it again to examine what we thought and perhaps dig a little deeper. Third, it is a great exercise for students who will need to complete timed writing exams in any academic discipline. Think about it this way: students may have an exam that covers five hundred years of Russian history, and that student has forty-plus pages of notes from class lectures crammed into their heads; they’ve studied and studied and have a wealth of knowledge…in their heads; the professor needs to see it on paper, though. In freewriting, we get practice in taking what is in our heads and transferring it rapidly onto paper. This has non-academic utility, as well. Many people must write as part of their jobs, and these same people face both work deadlines and the need to budget time for themselves and their families. Yes, good writing requires time and revision, but there is nothing to revise without first placing words upon the page.
We will examine these first two reasons a little further (I’ve written enough about the third). First, writers need to feel free to make mistakes. If you aim for “perfection” with every word, you might paralyze yourself into writer’s block. Because you fear not finding the best words and the best ideas, you might prefer no words, no ideas. Writers, people who feed themselves by selling their work, do their best and receive input from others and revise and know that they might still fall short of the expectations of some readers. That’s being human. Shooting for perfection is futile and self-defeating.
Unfortunately, though, in school, we score everything. Someone makes 100% on the Algebra test. Someone chooses the correct answer in the 50-item, multiple choice Psychology test. But in English, in writing classes, what does 100% mean in terms of an essay or short story or research report? Teacher: “Yes, this is well-written, but I would have preferred that you used espoused instead of advocated. Also, there were ten sources with excellent information, but you only found eight of them. No way is this well-written, completely logical argument scoring 100%!” That’s rubbish. (And yes, I put scores on papers, but not without meaningful—I hope—comments and with much more forgiveness for ideas and choices divergent from my own).
Does this really happen? Yes. Quick anecdote: I was tutoring a student who was in my Speech class. I was helping her with an English paper in which she was given the choice to argue whether or not a literary character was a tragic hero according to the definition of “tragic hero” her teacher had attached to the assignment. She and I talked about the character’s development and place in society throughout the play. We concurred that he was NOT a tragic hero (a view shared by many other scholars and casual readers). She wrote a fine paper, not the most riveting—a bit formulaic—but solid. Her teacher came to me and asked about the
paper, having initially scored it as a low “F” because she had not agreed with the teacher’s interpretation of the character. I told the teacher what we had discussed. I asked why she gave the students the choice of arguing whether the character was a tragic hero if, in her eyes, they should have simply written about the qualities that made him a tragic hero. The grade was changed to an “A.” That is the type of pressure a teacher’s “expertise” can place on a student and cause the student to dread writing.
Elbow writes, “When you write for a teacher you are usually swimming against the stream of natural communication” (219). What does that mean? What is communication? At the most fundamental level, it is an exchange of ideas. I talk to a person and, I hope, give them information they did not already know. Suppose you hear a good joke and eagerly seek out your best friend to share the joke. You do. Your friend has a good laugh. Do you tell your friend the same joke the next day? Of course not (unless the friend just likes being told the same joke over and over, or the friend has a really, really poor memory). When we talk to people, we tend to try to keep them interested with new ideas, or to remind them of old ideas with new words.
But with teachers? Think about any high school English class you have taken. You most likely read poems, short stories, plays, novels, etc. There is a good chance that, at some point, you read Romeo and Juliet. Let’s suppose that your teacher asked you to write about irony in the play. You have read the play once (or maybe you read it a second time because you liked it so much) and maybe you watched a theatrical performance. How many times has the teacher read the play and seen it performed? What are the odds that you will convey new information to this teacher? Or remind her of old information, but with fresh and original language? This is what Elbow means by “swimming against the stream of natural communication.” Writing in school is usually too artificial. You are writing to an audience whose only job is to critique you. That sounds horrific.
With this in mind, good writing teachers will do one of two things and maybe both. One, let the writers construct an audience other than the audience of “expert in the field.” The non-expert (student) would seldom write informatively for the expert (teacher) in real life. Writing exists beyond the four walls of the classroom, and any teachers who do not understand this as part of their instruction needs to rethink their career goals (click here if you don’t believe me—or even if you).
Two, let writers choose their own topics (more on this in chapters to come). Now this is impractical in many disciplines. I mean, if you are studying biochemistry, you will need to show the teacher that you understand the concepts of that field—not that you can write a beautiful essay about the fragility of human life. In English, though, when students are learning to write, they need to see writing as it is—a thinking process that consists of many choices. This does not mean that I would applaud students for writing thirty-line poems on love when they were to write an argumentative essay. Think back to my opening questions about who enjoyed writing and who did not. Many who did not came to me with both the scarring of wrong-minded English teachers and passion for the hard sciences. When I asked them to choose topics, they were free to write about those passions. Best of all, for them, they had the challenge of helping someone understand a discipline they knew well, someone without as much knowledge about or proclivity for their topic—me.
That, in fact, was a tremendous boost to my doctoral dissertation. I wanted to test what research regarded as “best practices” in teaching writing and learn if they increased my students’ intrinsic motivation to write. For this, I had to teach myself more about motivation and psychology than I had learned in my previous 21 years of education. But since I was interested, it was not as much of a chore. And that’s the point of intrinsic motivation. If you are intrinsically motivated, then you do something because you enjoy doing it—not for an outside motive, like a grade. When we work for a material reward, we are engaged in extrinsic motivation. We have over six decades of research that tells us that working purely for rewards both makes the work less pleasurable and hampers the quality of our performance. In short, we don’t like doing it, and we don’t do it very well. Students from elementary school forward are typically motivated to attain good grades, or at least to not receive grades so bad that they are paired with unwelcome consequences (e.g., loss of privileges at home, ineligibility to play sports, etc.).
Remember the second benefit of freewriting—seeing our own thoughts on paper (or screen). Author E.M. Forster writes, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” (101). My best writing teacher, Mr. Bob Bires, will profess that “truer words were never spoken.” This should be
among a person’s most significant intrinsic motivators: learning about themselves and clarifying their thoughts. I have had several former students tell me that they still freewrite, that they find it therapeutic. Writing can become a personal pleasure. If it is a personal pleasure, we will want to do more of it. Couple practice guidance, and we will be stronger, more effective writers.
Now, some might think, “But I don’t have anything to say; I don’t have any great ideas.” You might have struggled to write for four or five minutes earlier because you thought this. Maybe I should have told you then that, if that’s what you’re thinking (“I don’t know what to write”), then that’s what you should start writing. You might be surprised not only how quickly you will tire of writing, “I don’t know what to write,” but also how quickly you will find something else to write. You do have ideas—you just have not discovered them. Writing helps you discover your good ideas. It helps you discover yourself.
“But I’m still just not very good at writing,” many might think and say. Here’s a secret: it’s not the writing, but the re-writing and revision that will make your work good. Good writing teachers will require students to peer edit. That is, they will ask them to trade rough drafts with classmates. The idea is for second (and third) readers to help students improve their work before they submit a final draft. Great writing teachers will teach their students what to look for as they peer edit. More accurately, they will call it “peer revision” or “peer review” (editing, after all, assumes that the ideas and structure are soundly in place, and that there are only minor wording and grammar issues to improve).
“Peer review” can lead to valuable rewriting and revision. In rewriting, we endeavor to make major overhauls of our original texts. We have noticed of some logical flaws or some missing elements, and maybe we have even slightly changed our stance on an issue now that writing has forced us to think about it more deeply. In revising, we look at technical elements that make our prose more clear, concise, and coherent (more on these concepts in future chapters). We look for the best words and phrases. We examine passages to ensure that each idea flows smoothly to the next—within and between paragraphs.
“Wait a minute,” you might think. “I just want to write the thing, be done with it, and send it on its way to a teacher or boss or potential employer. Can’t I learn to just sit down and write well without all the other stuff?” Maybe—after doing all the other stuff over and over and over again—you might reach that point (spoiler alert: this will take years and probably will not happen at all). I have seen very few students who could write extraordinary first drafts. I have taught a few who could manage viable first drafts, good enough to submit and earn an above average grade. I remember one, in particular, who infuriated her classmates. She enjoyed writing but could be a little lazy. As such, she sometimes hammered out final drafts in the hour leading up to my class. By sheer talent, she was able to earn better grades than students who had struggled for many hours and who were still developing their talent. In the long term, though, those who struggled were better for the experience and performed better in college and career writing as a result.
Consider the experience of a different student. He was accustomed to English classes that required memorization of a teacher’s ideas and formulaic (i.e., five-paragraph) essays. He earned a high “C” or a low “B” on his first writing assignment. He made time to sit with me and review his work. He took time to consider lessons on writing good sentences—not just stumbling upon great ideas. He learned to revise his work. This is a credit to him, not me. I presented ideas and skills; he concentrated and practiced. As an undergraduate, he studied engineering and wrote well enough to finish at the top of his class and to earn a scholarship to graduate school at Harvard. There earned a Ph.D. He took a “dream job” at Nike. He is an extremely talented person, and he did all the work necessary to improve in an area where he had been sub-par.
If you struggle with writing, know that you are not alone. Most struggle. It is in that struggle that we find our ideas and our identities. It is in that struggle that we improve. My goal is not that students just earn good grades, but that they build confidence to know that they can express their ideas boldly, effectively, and in a way that satisfies themselves. The goal is not to be able to sit at a computer and compose a masterpiece in an hour or two. The goal is to be able to submit or publish work that you know to be valuable and high-quality.
To do this, writers must start by understanding who they are, what they think, and how to convey that to their readers As author William Zinsser writes, “The problem is to find the real man or woman behind all the tension” (5). We start by taking the attitude that we will write without
fear, that we will write frequently, and that we will embrace the struggle.
My final thought for now is to share some words from Danish mathematician and writer Piet Hein:
Put up in a place
Where it’s easy to see,
The cryptic admonishment
When you feel how depressingly
Slowly you climb,
It’s well to remember that
Things Take Time. (5)
Elbow, Peter. Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. 1981. Oxford
University Press, 1998.
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. 1927. Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1985.
Hein, Piet. Grooks 1. Doubleday, 1969.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well. 5th ed., HarperCollins, 1994.