3 Essential Principles for Effective Writing Instruction
We all know how important writing skills are, and we know that the average young American struggles to write well. But what’s the solution? You can’t mail order writing skills. They don’t magically appear out of textbooks or DVDs. One day we might be able to wirelessly upload a writing talent program directly into our brain, but what do we do in the meantime? I’m convinced the answer is simple, though, naturally, not easy–simple in theory but not in practice. If you want to improve your writing, you need to understand and apply these three key principles:
1. Practice. Writing is more like learning a musical instrument like the violin (or the bassoon) than learning a subject like biology (or alchemy). Writers, like musicians, are born with varying degrees of natural ability. Some are born with a gift for words, just like some are born with perfect pitch and a sense of rhythm. But no matter how innately talented, every writer can improve through practice.The average American high school graduate writes poorly because he hasn’t written enough. No one expects to become a bassoon virtuoso after a handful of lessons and a practice or two. The same goes for writers.
Students in WriteAtHome courses are typically asked to submit one draft of a paper per week. We think that’s a good starting place for the average student–sort of the bare minimum. It’s our hope that most students are doing more writing than that in the course of their daily studies. It’s just common sense: the more practice you get putting words on a page, the greater facility you will develop.
2. Response. There’s obvious value in putting in the practice, but for students to really get the most out of their writing experiences, they need helpful feedback from someone who knows their stuff. Students who fill notebooks of diaries but never allow critical eyes to read them tend to just reinforce bad habits. But students with capable and inspiring teachers who read and respond to their writing see the best results.
The music analogy works here too. If you wanted to teach a child to play the bassoon, you wouldn’t just sit him down in his room with the instrument and tell him to practice until it starts to sound good. You’d find a music teacher. Someone with skills. Someone who loves both music and kids. And your child would play for his teacher every week. The teacher would watch and listen, correct, encourage, and instruct.
That’s how WriteAtHome writing coaches work too.They love writing and they love kids, and they have developed strategies for correcting, encouraging, and instructing students by responding weekly to their writing assignments. Nothing else explains the success of our program. We have fantastic people working with young writers.
3. The Process. The idea of emphasizing writing as a process has been around for decades. It’s one of those things young writers tend to struggle with, but the truth is that good writing rarely pops right out of the brain on demand. Even the best professional writers know that a first draft is just a beginning. Getting it right means preparing yourself, cranking out a rough draft, then working and reworking it until it’s just right. Writing well normally takes time.
I remember turning in papers to English teachers in high school. A week or two later I’d get it back with a grade in the corner and lots of red ink notes in the margins. And like most students, I’d look at the grade, ignore the comments, and shove it in some forgotten corner of my locker. That frustrates teachers of course, who invest time into those comments. But if there’s no opportunity to respond to the comments–to fix the errors and improve the paper–then those comments do nothing more than remind me of my failure. This one-draft evaluation model doesn’t teach writing so much as critique writing. And it discourages writers more than it develops writers.
WriteAtHome projects are normally completed in three drafts. That means students get two opportunities to make changes to their work using the comments from their writing coaches. It’s during this collaboration that the real learning takes place. The instruction students get is relevant and meaningful because it can be immediately applied. And as students watch their papers improve from week to week, their confidence grows.
Practice, response, and process. This is not a magic a formula or some educational shortcut. It’s just common sense. Writing skills develop with effort over time, and practicing the process with the help of a talented writing coach is how you get them.
Excellent thoughts, Robin! I too see vast improvements from paper to paper with the three-draft process.
So true! As both a writer and a writing coach I’ve seen this at work. For my own writing, I have a wonderful critique group who comment on everything from syntax to plot/character arc — and without their added insights, my writing would stagnate and fall short repeatedly. When I coach, I try to cram as many how-to and ‘building’ comments into each assignment that I can…and there’s no doubt that the opportunity for students to turn in three assignments per paper greatly benefits them! Plus, it allows the coaches time to focus on only a few aspects of the paper for each assignment, which gives room for greater depth in the comments.
As for the practice, all I can say is YES! 🙂