By Teachers, For Teachers
When I was a student, no matter much time I had to complete a writing assignment, I would wait until the night before. Then I would pace around my computer, typing and deleting what I typed repeatedly. At some point when the clock reached a late hour, I would commit to “Just get something down.” Eventually when I could hardly keep my eyes open, I would press “Print” and collapse. I never bothered even reading what I wrote.
Can anyone relate?
I tell students about my former habits, and unfortunately many of them can relate. I realize that part of the responsibility falls on students’ shoulders to responsibly manage their workload. But part of the responsibility falls on teachers’ shoulders as well, as we often demand a final product without helping students appreciate the teaching strategies and process along the way.
My original writing process went like this:
Step 1 – Write.
Step 2 – Turn it in.
That’s it. It didn’t matter what I wrote so long as it corresponded to the assignment. The point wasn’t to write well. The point was just to have something to give to the teacher on the dreaded due date.
So here are the four steps I try to teach students to follow when it comes to writing.
Step 1 – Brainstorm
Step 2 – Outline
Step 3 – Draft
Step 4 – Edit
There are more nuances we could add to these steps, but this represents the general process a writer might take – and the process applies to much more beyond writing as well. Let’s look at each of these steps in detail, and then how we can implement them in our classrooms.
Before anyone can write, they need to know what they’re going to write about. Sometimes students misunderstand the writing process and believe that Step One is to write the first sentence of their paper. No wonder they have a hard time getting started! Writing doesn’t start with writing – it starts with thinking.
So before getting students to write, let’s figure out how we can get them to just imagine. If they can think through what it is they’d like to say, then it’s a little easier to get it down on paper when it’s time to say it.
Brainstorming comes in many shapes and sizes. The term “Storm,” after all, refers to a messy bombardment. Sometimes we just need to gives students both time and space for thinking through their writing task. This might involve giving them blank paper to scratch out ideas, a graphic organizer, some group discussion, or some examples of previous student work.
Students do not have to have a crystal-clear idea of what they want to complete. The rest of the process will help with that. For now, it’s important that students at least take time to consider what it is they want to say and the basic components that will go into saying it.
When I was required to turn in an outline as a student, I usually wrote the outline after writing my paper. What good did that do? It has taken me a long time to appreciate the value of outlining, and I now I recognize these are a quintessential part of the writing process.
Outlines aren’t just some fastidious task imposed by teachers; outlines are really about organizing ideas. Our minds don’t think in straight lines, and we need to somehow transform our messy series of ideas from the brainstorm into a comprehensible piece of composition. So before students draft, it’s essential that they take time to organize what it is they’d like to say.
I have my students ask themselves two key questions:
Thinking about their ideas and structure prior to composing helps to streamline the composition process. To help students answer these questions, I don’t give them a rigidly formatted outline requirement. Instead, at least at first, I give them a piece of grocery list paper. This long, narrow scratch paper liberates students to casually “List” their ideas and rearrange them into a manner that they believe is fitting for their purposes. Once they have their key skeleton figured out, they’re ready to develop their outline further.
The exact requirements for outlines are up to you, but the more developed the outline is, the easier the actual composition becomes. I use a variety of techniques that encourage students to develop the details of each section of their composition, including any support or descriptions essential to that section.
And like the brainstorm, the outline does not need to be a finalized, crystal-clear document. Writing is a process, and now students are one step closing to solidifying their ideas.
Often the “Draft” is the only thing students complete from the whole writing process. But now that they have spent time brainstorming and outlining, they’re ready to compose a dynamite draft. What’s important to emphasize with students is that a draft is an opportunity to just get their thoughts down. Their sentences don’t have to be eloquent, dazzling, or perfect. They just need to write.
There’s something about the writing process that helps writers to discover what they already know. But if students feel like everything they compose needs to be perfect, then those words will trickle instead of flow to the page.
So with the guidance of their brainstorm and outline, give students permission to “Make a mess” with their writing in their draft. They can always go back and revise their writing later. Encourage students to write the entirety of their composition without feeling the pressure of evaluation.
This is the part I always skipped. And when I started editing, I usually thought that meant to “Revise the grammar errors.” Now I encourage my students to take as much time editing as they do in drafting.
If the draft is their “Messy draft,” then editing is their chance to clean up the mess, so to speak. They’ve gotten their ideas out onto the page, and now it’s time to make those ideas clear and powerful for their audience.
Usually I ask students to approach this in one of a few ways. First, they often get feedback from me through their process; they’re encouraged to use this feedback to polish their final copy. Second, I want students to become effective self-editors as well, so I walk them through methods of evaluating and modifying their own writing. Only once students examine the strength of their descriptions, explanations, supports, structure, and so on and make adjustments accordingly, are they are ready to turn it in.
So often we breeze through written assignments, passing out the prompt and asking for it to simple be “Turned in by the due date.” It’s important, especially at the beginning of the year, that we focus on process as much as on product. And that process is more likely to successfully occur when we allot time in class to teach and engage in it.
So as you’re thinking through how you’re helping your students write, make sure that in addition to the other elements of great instruction you include, there’s a focus on the writing process as well.
What other details about the writing process would you include? How do you help students own this process? Share your thoughts with our community in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.