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Teaching Strategies: The Ten Rules of Writing

Jordan Catapano

When I meet student writers, I discover that they have as much baggage with them as overpacked world travelers. After encountering year after year of writing instruction, the rules of writing seem so embedded in their minds that to extract or rewire their method of writing is nothing short of brain surgery. Unfortunately, their histories with writing are often complicated, painful, and highly formative.

Like my younger self, many students find themselves pacing their homes the night before a piece of writing is due. They write and erase, then write and erase, expecting each line to come out perfectly – only to ultimately hate what they’ve written. They have been drilled throughout their formative years on what the perfect composition is supposed to look like, and it seems like no matter how many times they try, they just can’t take those brilliant thoughts they have and make them come out like they’re “Supposed to.”

Or, even when students can make their thoughts come out well, they find their skills vastly underdeveloped for the post-secondary or adult worlds of writing. As it turns out, very few opportunities outside of school require the strict academic structure of writing found inside of school. While the academic setting definitely provides a foundation for talking about and understanding the essentials of composition, schools must also help students expand how they think about approaching and creating their pieces of written articulation.

To help facilitate this in my classroom, I have developed a series of “rules,” or teaching strategies, that show students how they can take the basics they know about composition and expand on them, preparing them for the adult world of communication. Of course by “rule,” what we really mean is “mindset,” and try to open up a new world of consideration for students who have been drilled and killed with one particular form of composition. Each rule, when introduced in a course, is accompanied with examples, instructions, and exercises.

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Here are the 10 rules, stolen from peers, gleaned from experts, and groomed over years of developing student composition.

Teaching Strategies Rule #1: Make a Mess

The first thing I tell students is that part of the process – in fact, an essential part of the process – is to make a mess with their writing first. Often what holds writers back is that they expect every sentence they write must come out perfectly, every word as beautifully laid down like a brick in a king’s palace. Of course, their final draft should be edited and polished. In the words of professor and author Bruce Ballenger, “They can worry later about fixing awkward sentences. First they need to make a mess.” Giving students permission to make a mess will help them discover what it is they have to say and relieve them of the fear of the imperfect.

Rule #2: Two Words: Don’t Be Boring!

Yes, you read that rule correctly. Two words. Don’t be boring. There’s something not boring about that rule … something that catches your eye and makes it worth thinking about, even for a moment. I tell students that it’s illegal to write something boring. If they’re bored when writing it, how do they think someone else would feel while reading it? We talk about the tools and techniques – many of which are on this list – related to interesting writing. We examine sample compositions and talk about what makes them interesting or not. We reflect on our own writing and question authentically whether or not we have created a work that shares a worthwhile idea in an interesting way.

Rule #3: Use the Tools

In addition to the broad techniques of writing like the process (rule #4) and the structure (#8), there are little, bite-sized ingredients that add flavor to otherwise bland writing. I encourage students to study and practice using these tools, which include an array of figurative language and syntax techniques, as well as simple tricks or organizational methods. Just like eating an unseasoned piece of meat will provide nourishment without flavor, so too will writing without savvy techniques furnish a reader with uninteresting and immediately forgettable ideas.

Rule #4: Follow the Process

Students are often aware that writing is a process, but they just as often ignore that process in the name of procrastination and ignorance. The writing process I teach is simple, though there are many versions:

  • Brainstorm
  • Outline
  • Draft (Make a Mess)
  • Edit

To whatever extent possible, we spend time in class on each of these portions of the process. I often find that students spend the most time on the rough draft (or the messy draft, as I call it), though this means they devote little attention to thinking, planning, organizing, or finalizing their composition. When they see their best work comes as a result of a sequence of symbiotic steps, they devote themselves more conscientiously to following the process.

Rule #5: Write for a Purpose

I tell my students that if they write only for a grade, their writing will always be bad. Why? Because they have a limited understanding of what they could accomplish with their composition. Before engaging with most writing tasks, I have them imagine what it is they’re really trying to accomplish. Sure, it’s likely that not many individuals will see their work, but the more they imagine that have an authentic purpose that goes beyond “Getting the grade” then the better their efforts turn out to be. 

Rule #6: Write for an Audience

Like rule #5, I remind my students that if they write only for a teacher, their writing will always be bad. In many cases it’s not their teacher whom they’re trying to influence. Yes, their teacher will read and assess their writing, but most of the time students’ ideas are meant for a different audience. The better they can picture and describe their “ideal” reader, the better they can craft their words to target the understandings, preferences, and sensibilities of that intended audience.

Rule #7: Back It Up

Anyone can make a claim, but it takes a smart, talented thinker to back up that claim with relevant evidence. Communicating ideas means more than making abstract generalizations; it requires proof to be convincing. Part of our course examines ways students can validly support their ideas using statistics and facts, examples, and expert opinions. The difference between an effective assertion and an ineffective one could be as simple as the right support at the right time.

Rule #8: Organize It

Students learn how to structure their compositions from early ages – but often those structures are narrow and formulaic. These are OK to begin with, as they teach the basics of organization. But as a student’s writing skills progress, so too do the range and comfort with various structures need to progress.

Using samples of personal and professional writing, I show students how writers can use 1) Different organization strategies and 2) Different modes of rhetoric to help them achieve their goal. Once we examine various structures and modes, student planning involves consideration of what kinds of approaches work best to accomplish their purpose towards their audience.

Rule #9: They Say, I Say

“They Say, I Say” is a phrase popularized by professors Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, representing how complex ways of framing arguments can be broken down into easily imitated templates, or “moves,” as they say. “They Say, I Say” simply means that expositors can first state what someone else (usually the opposition) perceives, then state what they (the writer) perceive. This side-by-side comparison of ideas is a tried-and-true technique for showing the context and superiority of one’s argument. Using “They Say, I Say” phrases as well as other easy-to-follow templates has proven an essential tool for improving student sentence and paragraph structure.

Rule #10: Your Voice Matters

Ultimately, I emphasize to students that they are human, just like every other human who has every lived. And their humanity is no less important than anyone else’s. Their ideas matter. Their perspectives matter. Their experiences matter. And along with those ideas, perspectives, and experiences is their voice, which is used to share their thoughts with others. Although much of our writing instruction focuses on how to get those ideas out in a way that can move others, no writing instruction is complete without students embracing the notion that what they think is worth writing about in the first place.

I don’t share all of these writing rules all at once and expect students to understand and apply them immediately. Rather, when working on writing skills, it’s often best to introduce these rules one at a time, progressively throughout a semester or year. The order may change or the way they’re shared may alter, but these rules have proven essential in helping students transform from juvenile writers to I’m-so-confident-and-ready-to-take-on-the-world writers.

To reinforce them as we go, I put these on a bookmark, hang them around the room, informally quiz students, and ask them to progressively apply these rules throughout the year. After spending a year writing with me, I want them to have a richer understanding of what truly goes into composition beyond the traditional, academic formula. I want them to know these rules and to have the confidence to apply them in ways they see fit in their education and beyond.

What do you think of this list? What “rules of writing” would you add or subtract from here? Share your ideas 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.