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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Let 'em Write

Read more. Write more. Learn more.

August 17, 2018

One of my biggest regrets as a teacher of writing is that for many years, I didn’t make students write enough.

The problem was the way I was structuring the semester as units, each unit focused around a major assignment which would be subject to a grade.

In a composition course, I might have six units of varying lengths, including a researched essay that may take a month or more, meaning for that month students would essentially be working through the scaffolding assignments – proposal, annotated bibliography, draft, peer response, revision – which were necessary to produce an artifact which would hopefully pass muster.

Even the first unit, a summary of and response to a short argument would take two weeks from initiation to completion. All that for a piece of writing which would top out at 500-600 words, or about half the ultimate length of this blog post that I will conceive, draft, and publish in a matter of hours – a single day at the most.

I’m a believer in students experiencing the full range of the writing process, particularly revision, which I find they have very limited experience with. The units were a way to model the full writing process each time, and to introduce them to what it means to try to move a piece of writing from “good enough,” to “can’t make it better.”

If you include drafting and revision in the page counts, students were indeed producing a fair number of pages, but as I became more focused on “writing as thinking” as the central part of my pedagogy, I became concerned about the limited number of times I was asking students to practice this thinking, as well as the limits on the kind of thinking I was asking them to do.

Over time, I began introducing many more so-called “low stakes” assignments, where students would get credit for simply producing something that met minimal thresholds and was often done in class.

When I was designing these assignments I said to myself, “Self, if you’re not going to attach a grade to these things, you better make them interesting so you get more than a pro forma effort,” and so I did.

One example is what I call an “impossible argument” using the prompt “Are hot dogs sandwiches?”[1] which I used to kick of the unit on persuasion which culminated with the researched essay. Students loved arguing about stuff like that.

An interesting thing happened. Looking at these “low stakes” assignments, I saw arguably better writing, certainly more engaged, more lively, and more interesting writing. The results could be messy, but students were thinking and acting as writers.

In the summary/response unit I added a low-stakes assignment where students would write a response to a New York Times op-ed and post it to the website. In the type of thinking required, it was identical to the assignment they would work on for two weeks and turn in for a grade, but they would do it in between class periods.

Again, I had to admit the resulting artifacts were essentially no different than what I was seeing in the graded assignments with considerably longer gestations. I was tied up in the rhythms and practices of academics, but now I was shifting my values towards learning, past practices be damned.

By this time, I’d already converted to a grading contract in my fiction writing courses that privileged production over “quality” and had seen students easily handle writing loads which were roughly double what they’d done when the course was centered around preparing two stories for a full-class workshop. In talking with students they almost universally cited having the chance to write more as a benefit. They believed they were learning more because they were writing more, and I believed them.

Committing to a similar grading contract in first-year writing allowed me to break free of units centered 100% around that graded artifact at the end. Students would still produce writing that addressed the goals of the unit, but they would be doing it every day, in different ways.

They would be working on their writing “practices.” All practice would be purposeful, but they would not be fully focused on that one graded assignment. Sometimes, the work could be about a smaller aspect of the writer’s practice.

The result, similar to the fiction writing class, was students simply writing more, and having carried over the goal of making sure all the writing experiences were interesting, they wrote with greater attention and energy.

This wasn’t a panacea. There was no sudden shift in externally perceived competence. But what I knew for sure is students were getting more practice than before, they understood the context of what they were practicing, and they were better positioned to extend the practice to unfamiliar writing occasions. They had both momentum and method to keep improving as writers even when the course was completed.

I remained a strong believer in helping students navigate the full writing process, but rather than running them through it for every assignment, they would select out the pieces they felt about most strongly and revise and edit those to the point of “can’t make it better” for a final portfolio.

By adding in reflective writing assignments for every unit as well, I was able to fold in even more writing, more practice.

I’ve now collected all of those experiences (along with some I’ve just recently invented) into a book, The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing, and I firmly believe that engaging with the experiences in the book will result in the promise of the subtitle.

The only proven way I know to learn to write is to read and write as much as possible. Figuring out how to get students writing more was the most important pedagogical shift I’ve ever made.

If you can find room to let students write more often, and write with purpose, I believe the benefits will be apparent.


[1] The argument is “impossible” because even though you can muster evidence and make a case, there really is no definitive answer


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