Creating a Positive Writing Mindset
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.
©Hunter M. Brimi, 2020
This is my working draft for a preface to a text-in-progress on writing instruction. In the primary manuscript, I will relate stories about working with students and teachers to illustrate lessons for becoming more capable writing teachers. In this preface, I seek to illustrate how a boss’s or a teacher’s disposition can either inspire or demoralize a worker or a writer.
Way back in the twentieth century, before I began teaching, I worked as a hotel desk clerk. In the course of eight months, I had two bosses. I started working the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift at a regional hotel chain in June 1998 and was told by one of the day desk clerks that I’d never have a better boss than “Brock.” She was absolutely correct. I enjoyed nearly every moment working at that hotel. An impulsive young man, though, in December I sought what I thought would be a brighter future at a national chain. No one told me at the time of my hire, but I was about to spend the next few months working for one of the worst bosses, “Derek.” By April 1999, I had decided to return to school to become an English teacher, and unbeknownst to me, I had already lived experienced a lesson for writing instruction through my employment under Brock and Derek.
Brock was the general manager at my first hotel job, and Sherry (his assistant general manager/front desk manager) was my primary on-the-job trainer. She showed me how to negotiate the reservation system, how to check in guests, how to rent rooms to “walk-ins”—the expected duties—and all the behind-the-scenes stuff that desk clerks do when no eager guests are queued up, eager to unload their bags, freshen up, and make dinner plans. Brock quietly observed as he passed by between his office and the front desk.
I recall one time when Brock wanted me to do something differently than what he witnessed. I was selling a room to a potential guest, and after stating the nightly rate, I listed three amenities that the hotel offered. The guest agreed to the rate; I checked him into the hotel. Afterwards, Brock quietly asked for a moment to talk. He told me I was doing well (he had just seen me rent a room to a “walk-in,” after all). Then he asked me to make a small change, to list the amenities before giving the rate. He explained the reasoning behind this protocol, and we both went about our business. He didn’t stand over me. He never asked me if I was doing as he had requested (I suspect Sherry kept him updated on my performance). He allowed me to do the job. In fact, before long, he was comfortable leaving me and another new desk clerk alone after he and Sherry had departed for home at 5 and 8 p.m., respectively.
Within a few months, the assist general manager had resigned, and another new clerk had replaced the one with whom I trained. As a result, I was usually in charge and the face of the hotel from 5 until 11, Brock trusting my best judgment. I grew quickly to that level of responsibility because my superiors had allowed me to do so. And before concluding that Brock was permissive, consider that he was considered a model general manager by his superiors (and was promoted to regional manager) and could capably and humanely discipline inappropriate behavior. A previous employee had performed a brazen, almost unthinkable act that was caught on security cameras. Brock told the employee, “We can’t have that,” and ended his employment—no yelling, no intimidation, no threats. He set common sense rules, and one of them was to use your best judgment. So I felt comfortable talking with guests, sharing light-hearted banter, and, as the company wanted all employees to do, making the travelers feel at home (even if it meant allowing walk-ins to negotiate slightly better rates). And if I had any questions about policies or problems in the course of my work, I could ask for Brock’s guidance, knowing he would not make me feel small or incompetent for asking for advice.
Then I made the error of going to another hotel, thinking that I would have just as much freedom to do my job. Derek, however, was a constant nuisance. He stood directly behind me as I worked, even after proving I could handle the job. His interactions were always negative, condescending, abrasive, or a combination of the three. My co-workers treated each other and me with suspicion, even interrupting conversations between guests and front desk workers for unrelated and petty reasons. The environment was abhorrent, and I loathed every moment of my job. My exchanges with guests were curt and unenthusiastic. There were no rate negotiations, no playful give-and-take, no jocularity. If a potential guest wanted to walk away, the big national hotel chain did not mind—someone else would walk through the door within fifteen minutes and accept impersonal service and an inflated rate. When I had started at this job, I envisioned working my way to a proud career in the hotel industry. I departed after four months and began substitute teaching.
So what do Brock and Derek have to do with the role of writing instructor? After all, students are not paid employees responsible for turning a profit for the school. They’re kids trying to learn a skill, and a difficult one to master. Considering the stories of the hotel general managers, think about my motivation and the work environment. In the first job, I worked harder and sold more rooms for less pay. I knew the regular guests, and they appreciated my humor. This only occurred because Brock trusted me and gave friendly instruction. While I never saw myself as working to make him look like a great boss (he didn’t need me to do that anyway), I thrived because I understood what was expected and knew he supported my attempts to meet, and exceed, expectations.
A simple fact of motivation/human nature: We like doing things that we are good at. When we like doing something, we do it more willingly and with greater efficacy. Brock let me know I was doing well, provided timely and friendly tips to improve, and let me enjoy the experience. Derek only acknowledged short-comings (which were more frequent because I struggled to work as he lurked and intruded), did not encourage me to be personable with guests (if anything, he wanted automatons at the front desk), and created an environment where creating positive solutions was far less valued than avoiding breaking a rigid protocol. I did not like what I was doing, found reasons to let others greet guests and answer phones, and watched the clock, craving my shift’s end.
Students and writers are subject to the same principles of motivation. Yes, they need monitored training, but they will engage in it less enthusiastically if the teacher creates pressure of a teacher who lacks patience, who stifles their voices, and who looks only to punish mistakes. Under this pressure, writing is less enjoyable AND the students feel less capable of satisfying expectations—a double whammy that causes students to avoid exerting themselves for the sake of a well-written essay or narrative or even a simple paragraph.
This is not to suggest that students can universally excel with a completely Brock-like system of training and evaluation. They need more instruction along the way as a recent WriteLab blog espouses. But teachers should remember how the good boss Brock gave the instruction: he allowed for freedom to make a mistake by a.) keeping instruction simple; b.)maintaining a respectful rapport with his employees; and perhaps most importantly c.) telling his employee what was done well.
I have worked with teachers who would be excellent students at the Derek School of Management. They assign writing, absent adequate training. They litter the students’ work with animadversions regarding their voice (seriously, the kids aren’t writing briefs for the U.S. Supreme Court: give them assignments that allow them to appropriately show their personalities and write something engaging). They “ding” students by taking points from their grades for each minute error whether it is a simple typo or a misunderstanding of a convention that persists throughout an entire paper. It’s a behaviorist approach that is demeaning and ineffective. These teachers claim that the students will learn by making essay “corrections,” the implication being that there is one correct way to fulfill an assignment. If they would just use the term “revisions,” these teachers would be more effective since the word connotes a vital part of the writing process and acknowledges (rightfully so) that the “final drafts” can still be improved. Of course, if the feedback is mainly a litany of ways the writer offended the gatekeepers of the English language, the student will neither want to revise and rewrite nor know HOW to do so.
Lest I emulate the discouraging teacher and simply condemn what fails, here are a few Brock-like tips on how to keep students enthusiastic about writing and how to ensure that they improve as they continue to practice:
- Show them what is expected, piece-by-piece.
When teachers give assignments, they should check that they can and have tended to two crucial tasks. First, teachers need to be capable of completing their own writing assignments at mastery levels. Show the students what can be done with the assignment (but remind them that they are novices and may not have the sense of decorum as a college graduate). Second, the teacher needs to give students practice in mastering the small components of the assignment. Writing a strong introduction, a solid thesis, and a conclusion that provides closure are basics, along with creating sound transitions and unified body paragraphs. Go further and prepare them for the writing mode. For example, if the paper is meant to be an argument, give the students practice with using evidence, informally during discussion or in smaller (one paragraph) written situations. Provide professional examples, too.
- Allow students the freedom to pick their own topics (at least half the time) or take appropriate different approaches to your topic.
When students pick their own topics, they are likely to pick something that they care about, know a lot about, and/or are curious to know about. This passion spills into their work. It also keeps them from violating a principle of communication: We write or speak to share what we know that our audience does not. If the students only writes about what the teacher already knows (I’m looking at you literature teachers who exclusively assign literary analysis), it makes no sense as an exercise in communication. Worse, instead of writing their own thoughts, students guess at what thoughts the teacher wants to read. I once tutored a student who was writing an argument based on this question: “Is John Proctor (The Crucible) a tragic hero?” Together, we looked at her teacher’s definition of “tragic hero.” I asked her questions about John Proctor’s status and actions in the play. She concluded he was not and wrote a pretty decent paper arguing as such. The teacher initially gave her a failing grade because the student’s thesis disagreed with her own view. The teacher consulted me, I explained, and the grade was changed. Some teachers struggle when students actually show solid critical thinking.
- Allow the students to use time in class to draft and share.
Monitor, but don’t hover. Accept requests to read introductions or thesis statements or any part of the paper, but train the students to ask specific questions, not merely, “Is this good?” Remind them of their goals in each part of their writing.
- Ask questions about their topics.
Avoid simply correcting; ask them questions that will lead them to provide oral answers that may provide decent verbiage to be included in an initial draft. You want to learn what they know. When they say think about your question and provide an answer, show the student how to communicate that answer in writing.
- Acknowledge their expertise and abilities.
This can be effective during the drafting phase, especially after they have answered one of your questions orally and then crafted the answer into writing. Too many students are strong thinkers, but believe they cannot write—even though the two processes are so closely connected. By asking good questions about the students’ writing goals and topic, the teachers not only give the students a chance for success, but also teach them a metacognitive skill: how to ask good questions about their own thinking when they are writing without a teacher sitting next to them.
- Train each student to revise and talk to peers about their writing.
Most teachers designate days for peer revision prior to the due dates of major papers. Unfortunately, I have seen students who either lacked the ability to help their classmates’ writing or who did not care enough to do so. Consequently, these sessions can devolve into students giving cursory reads of their partners’ work, saying, “Looks good to me,” and rubber-stamping work that will fall short of its potential and my expectations. So emphasize revising—beyond simple grammar—on a daily basis. Help the students diagnose and rewrite unclear verbiage and recognize disorganized paragraphs and suggest strategies for improving them. On peer revision days, provide reminders of key concepts in revision and ask students to put their partners’ writing through a battery of inspections. Ask them to mark unclear sentences and suggest solutions; place check-marks next to paragraphs that stray from their topic sentences; label parts of the paper according to their purpose (e.g., stating a thesis, introducing new evidence or examples, analyzing these examples, reaching conclusions, etc.). This helps them as active readers and teaches them how to thoroughly inspect their own papers before submitting final drafts. Again, the ultimate goal is to help them mold their thoughts into effective writing without a teacher standing over them or correcting them sentence-by-sentence.
These steps not only help the students become better, more confident, more motivated writers, but also they reduce the amount of that teachers write on the students’ papers. They should be able to present a few quality comments or ask questions that use a common language shared by the class. They should be able to reduce the number of hours spent grading.
After returning graded papers teachers can ensure that students read and benefit from their comments and continue to see writing as an ongoing process. For this purpose, I have a last tip: allow the students some time (at least a week) to respond to the comments through the submission of one more draft with revisions and rewrites marked or highlighted. Encourage the students to ask about any remarks that are unclear or to ask for help in rewriting. When they have finished these final revisions, require them to turn in both works so that, as a teacher who has read and evaluated scores of papers, you can more easily appreciate the students’ improvements (and grammar corrections). I like to give grade points back to papers based on the the quality and extent of rewrites/revisions. I’ll add fewer points for simply correcting the grammar errors that I’ve marked and reward more points for the ability of the students to respond to my suggestions and questions.
In the end, our goal should be able to create students who can write independently. Eventually, they should feel confident that, through the drafting process, they can craft strong theses, construct effective sentences, develop coherent paragraphs, and reach reasonable conclusions. Like Brock’s hotel workers, they should feel free to do their jobs, but know that they are supported and have a knowledgeable resource available to help them as needed.