Thursday, October 6, 2011

On Teaching Writing, Not!

A People Do Not Forget their Geniuses (Reilly, 2009)
Last weekend Maureen Devlin (@lookforsun) asked me if I had written or would write a post about teaching writing. I found one post, actually taken from part of a chapter from a book I wrote. But other than that, I have been pretty quiet about teaching writing and I think there are some reasons for that silence.

I'm not sure teaching teachers about writing is helpful to them or their students, especially if the instruction is in place of teachers actually learning to teach writing by being authors and studying their own processes.  I almost want to suggest that on the many books and posts about teaching writing that there needs to be a sign that reads: Don't try this without actually having written and thought a bit about how you write!

Wild Nights! Wild Nights! (Reilly, 2009)
Now to be clear, the challenge isn't that there are lots of text about teaching writing, some that have informed my own work.  The issue, rather, is that such information will not and cannot take the place of being a writer.  Being a writer allows me to understand what actually happens while writing, thinking about writing, avoiding writing, etc.  From within the context of doing and thinking, texts about writing may be helpful.  I am wondering though how many teachers think they can read about teaching writing and then apply those lessons to their classrooms, in lieu of actually being a writer.  I want to say here, that such practices may well  result in lessons that lack accuracy, depth, and appropriate or meaningful response.  The reasons for this are three-fold:
  1. Without actually writing it is impossible to understand that what you recommend or insist learners do which may appear logical , may in fact be problematic or simply, wrong. You may be telling students to do things that will limit their expression, cause them to doubt their capacity to write, confuse them, or cause them to dislike writing.
  2. Not everyone who authors books about teaching writing, actually has experience teaching. Whereas the recommendations made may make sense to the author and perhaps other adults, some of the practices may not translate well or be appropriate for children. 
  3. Not all recommended practices work well with youngsters depending on their age, their histories, their idiosyncratic practices as writers.
Some writing advice/directions or writing instruction I have heard told to students that would not help me as a writer, well at least not always:
A Pocket Full of Stones (Reilly, 2009)
  1. You must begin your composition with a topic sentence. Underline it.
  2. Never use first person in your essay.
  3. You must keep a writer's notebook. I will show you the format you will use.
  4. Each paragraph must have a topic sentence, supporting details, and clincher sentence. The paragraphs must contain between 5 and 8 sentences and you must include at least five paragraphs.
  5. Correcting verb tense on a first draft. (I am almost always shifting tense as I am unsure of where I am situating the text).
  6. Make an outline of your story before you begin writing.
  7. Once you decide your topic, you must stick to it throughout the writing. It cannot be changed.
  8. Begin your writing by making a web of ideas.
  9. Shh. You're writing, not talking.
  10. Add adjectives to spruce up your work.
  11. Put away those books, you're writing.
  12. You must write the first draft and then can use the computer for the final copy.
  13. Finish every piece.
  14. You have five days to write....
  15. Show, don't tell.
  16. Only write with complete sentences.
  17. You  must write in x number of different genres each year.
  18. This is a non-fiction piece. There should be no fiction in it.
  19. You must prewrite and it should be attached to your final draft.
  20. Invert the question into a statement and use that as your opening. 
  21. Make a list of topics you want to write about this year and put them in the front of your notebook.
  22. You must write everyday for at least 15 minutes.
  23. Draw a picture before you write.
  24. Use metaphors in your writing.
  25. Never mimic other people's writing. This is stealing.
  26. Do not use "you" anywhere in your work.
  27. Talk about what you want to write with your neighbor before you write.
  28. Don't edit until the end.
  29. You will lose 10 points for each day your writing is late.
  30. I can't give you a topic. You must find one for yourself.
  31. Don't use slang.
  32. Write only in Standard English.
So what teaching writing advice I would offer?
  • Write.
  • See what you learn about writing from your own writing, writing habits, and dispositions across time.
  • Join or don't join a writing group. Truly this is a personal decision.
  • Read often.
  • Forget my advice and invent it for yourself.

Nausicaa (Reilly, 2009)
On a lighter note, here's some feedback for James Joyce upon submission of Ulysses to his creative writing workshop. 


    1. Thanks so much for posting this piece, Mary Ann. I agree that to teach writing, one must write. I also agree that there cannot be dictums and too-tight rules about writing. We must develop student voice in natural and positive ways. Many of the rules or practices above do work to foster student's writing organization, ease and skill, but students must be aware that those are possible strategies, not the only way to write. - Maureen

    2. Agree Maureen. All of thepractices I suspect could work or not. That's the point. The teacher needs to be knowledgeable from an insider point of view. Thanks for commenting:)

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. There ya go. For years my students arrived in my classes with all sorts of completely inaccurate and often worse than useless notions about writing that had been foisted on them by well-meaning teachers who actually don't do any writing of their own.

      Here's my current favorite quote from my current favorite book (Art and Fear by Bayles and Orland). They're writing about artmaking, but I think it applies equally well to writing:

      "What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece. The place to learn about your materials is in the last use of your materials. The place to learn about your execution is in your execution. The best information about what you love is in your last contact with what you love. Put simply, your work is your guide: a complete, comprehensive, limitless reference book on your work. There is no other such book, and it is yours alone. It functions this way for no one else. Your fingerprints are all over your work, and you alone know how they got there. Your work tells you about your working methods, your discipline, your strengths and weaknesses, your habitual gestures, your willingness to embrace."

      Thanks for this post, and for so many others that have been an inspiration and an example.

    5. Bruce, one of my very favorite books.
      How do we invite more teachers to write?

      Thanks for your comments!


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