Writing manifesto: Teach writing like it’s swim practice

When I was in high school, swimming was everything.  Practice eight times a week, meets on weekends, pictures of Summer Sanders and Pablo Morales taped to the back of my door.  My best friends–and every single date I had in high school–were all people I met swimming. I wasn’t Olympic material, but I gave swimming everything I had day after day after day.  

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The value of in-class editing

Here’s my favorite report card comment:  Devote more time to editing; learn to be a brutal editor!  

I’ve learned, though, that that comment is not enough; I must actively teach students how to edit.  For students “editing” can be an amorphous word (Am I proofreading? Am I checking my commas?) and they often don’t know what to do.

When students edit in class, I can both teach specific techniques and answer any questions that arise. Students often can hear the sentences that don’t work, but they don’t yet know how to fix them.  

I’ve had success with all of these strategies:

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The Seemingly Impossible Challenge

Sometimes small tasks feel insurmountable.  Finish this essay, read 20 pages, prepare for this test.  As an adult, I know this feeling.  (Do I have to fold the laundry?)  Although these small tasks are incredibly doable, we can lack the motivation to tackle them.

Enter the Seemingly Impossible Challenge, something that seems so big, so daunting, so seemingly impossible that students think, Wait, what?  How can I ever do that?

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The Great Writing Truths

One of my best teachers in high school was my calculus teacher.  With his other role as director of school musicals, Mr. Sankey brought theatrics to math class.  One minus the sine squared, he would say in a booming stage voice.  We knew our cue.  Cosine squared, we would all boom back.  And although my knowledge of calculus 26 years later is shaky, I know that if someone stopped me in the street, I could easily, confidently–and loudly–proclaim that sine squared plus cosine squared equals one.

What we say, and what we repeat, sticks.   

So I developed the Great Writing Truths. 

The Great Writing Truths are principles of good writing that apply across teachers, genres, disciplines and levels of expertise.  And as I tell students repeatedly, whether they’re writing a lab report, history essay,  novel or email, these Truths work.  While each discipline (and teacher) inevitably has its own small distinctions, good writing is good writing is good writing.  

Here are The Great Writing Truths:

The First Great Writing Truth:  The best writing is specific

The Second Great Writing Truth:  The best writing leans toward clarity, concision and snappiness

The Third Great Writing Truth:  The best writing comes when the writer is genuinely interested in her topic

I refer to them in class, I type them at the top of class assignments, I mention them in feedback.  Tattoo it on your arm, I say.  Write it in your planner, I say.   So much of analytical writing is hard and amorphous, especially for beginning writers.  Be more argumentative!  Explain significance!  Connect to the bigger picture!  In contrast, The Great Writing Truths are easy anchors.

And they are basic writing principles that I want to stick.  May they reverberate for at least 26 years.

 

Teaching analytical writing: Getting students to care

In my teaching career, I’ve learned so much about teaching writing—but little of that knowledge came from an educational book. Most of what I’ve learned has been through hard-won experience, through assignments and techniques that bombed and then through tweaking and tweaking until I finally created something successful.

And so much of what I’ve learned about writing has boiled down to this:  students must care deeply about what they’re writing.

Caring deeply is relatively easy with a creative piece or poetry or memoir.  But with analytical writing, it’s harder.  When I started teaching analytical writing, I chose assignments that allowed students to use a highly-structured five-paragraph essay format with prompts like, “Write about three significant symbols in Lord of the Flies” or “Analyze the three most important film elements that the director uses in Of Mice and Men.”  Yes, these essays were well-organized, but students rarely cared deeply about them.
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