The Messy, Beautiful Writing Process

I love writing.

I love searching for the right combination of words that not only make my point, but show my passion behind that point. I love when an idea pops into my head out of nowhere and I have to write it, even if the publish button never gets hit. I love the challenge of sitting in front of a blank screen with no idea in my head. I love when something just clicks and the keys start getting punched; words appear. It’s almost magical.

Actually, it is magical.

I love hitting the publish button and feeling that mixed emotion of letting a piece go, knowing that if I had just a bit more time, something could have been better. But, the other part of that mixture is the hope that someone reads my combination of words and it moves them. I love knowing that maybe just one person will be moved to take action, moved to try something new, or even moved to comment that the whole piece was awful. I write for myself, but I write in the hope of making an impact.

That love of writing has led me to do things that I never thought could happen. First, I starting writing baseball articles. I was able to actually go and cover two Major League Baseball Winter Meetings and interview players, coaches, and front office executives. I got to cover a series at Citi Field and write a couple of cover stories for USA Today Sports Weekly. For someone who is obsessed with baseball, the idea of being able to write about the sport was truly something that I couldn’t imagine. Yet, writing gave me that gift.

Once I figured out that I had so much to say about an even bigger, more important passion, this website was born. Because of this and a shared passion for writing, Kris (The Admin) and I are just finishing up a first draft of our book, which will be coming out later this year. To say that this is a dream come true would be an understatement. It is, indeed, one of those dream moments becoming a reality. Yet, another gift from writing.

So, yes, I love writing. It’s who I am. It’s what I do. It’s what I love to teach the most.

Here’s the thing: I am absolutely dreading having to go back and edit the book.

I poured everything I had into it. I wrote, fixed things as I went along, and even erased things and started over. There were nights when words just flowed. There were other nights when the blank screen taunted me, daring me to put down even just one word that didn’t sound ridiculous. So, it’s painful to think that I’ll have to go back through it, fix things, change things, move things around.

Writing is my passion, yet I am dreading this step, even on a project that has been a dream of mine and is a passion of mine.

Can you imagine how a student feels when they finish an assignment and then are asked to read a bunch of feedback and fix things?

They worked hard, fought through their difficulties of finding a topic, finding the right combinations of words. They may have even done that with a topic that they had little interest about. But, they labored and finished the assignment. For some, this was easy, but it still took time. For others, getting words on a page is torturous. And, then many teachers wonder why kids don’t read and react to feedback.

That is the main problem with a lot of writing instruction. Much of a school’s writing instruction is far too linear, often leaving kids with writer’s fatigue when it comes going back and improving a piece. If we want kids to value the process of continually improving their writing, we must be willing to actually show them and allow them to truly experience the real writing process.

That writing process is messy. It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t fit into the traditional 45 minute classroom session. There really isn’t a beginning, middle, and end. And, that classic writing process that is used in schools doesn’t lend itself to creating real writers who are willing to spend time perfecting their words and searching for that magical combination.

It is why many teachers default to assigning an essay, rather than teaching writing. It is why many will relegate writing into its own week or two, rather than integrate it with literature study. That messiness makes teachers feel uncomfortable. The messiness scares teachers into a linear, fixed setup. Or, worse, it scares them into avoidance. The messiness scares districts into purchasing these “one size fits all” writing programs that hand teachers scripts to follow. While there is value to many of these programs, most operate under the premise of guiding classes through writing, not guiding each kid through writing.

Writing Process Is Still King

One thing is most definitely still the same. The process of writing hasn’t changed. All writers still need to generate a topic (pre-write), write (draft), play with their writing and ideas (revise), play with their writing and structure (editing), and publish.

All writers need to go through that process. It is the goal of every teacher of writing to have their students go through that process. Even for those who simply hand out an assignment, there is the expectation that students will pre-write, draft, revise, edit, and do a final copy. The problem with the “assigners” is that pre-writing is usually some contrived graphic organizer that has students fill in the blanks, or building blocks to a formulaic essay. While there will be words, is that really teaching them how to write? Is that teaching them how to generate their own ideas in their own way? Or, are we giving them our own hoops to jump through?

But, despite that, the writing process is still the backbone of writing instruction. It is the misapplication in the classroom that gets in the way of students truly working through all of it.

The Only Common Point: Topic Generation

Before the messiness of the real writing process truly begins, there is one common point for all genres of writing–the start. All teachers can have a lesson planned for topic generation. Whether it is a game storming approach, a question tornado approach (asking kids to respond to many different questions or scenarios to generate ideas), a maker space activity, video clips to jump start thinking, debate activities, mentor texts, book tastings, research tastings, web quests, and whatever else you can think of, a teacher of writing can plan the starting activity and truly guide students to select topics that they are passionate about.

It is during this phase where we can really hook even the most reluctant writers. Many kids are fearful of writing. There is a fear of judgment and of being boxed in by the system in which they were taught before landing in your class. The best way to hook a kid is to get them to select a topic that they have some passion about. All of the approaches listed above can accomplish that. And, many of those approaches can be partnered with activities to solicit their peers’ opinions about those potential writing topics.

This, however, is where the messiness begins. If you are allowing students to select their own topics, whether a narrative, an argument, a research paper, or any other genre, the teacher doesn’t have control any more. And, that is a good thing. They cannot give their class a fill in the blank essay. They can’t give a day by day model of a particular essay written through their lens and for kids to take and “make their own”. You can’t do a lesson and have kids generate the same, cookie cutter thesis or claim.

That scares people and often leads to practices such as giving kids a bank of topics to choose from or, worse yet, assigning them a topic. This keeps perceived order at the expense of true thinking. And, more importantly, it comes at the expense of student passion. Yes, kids some kids will have trouble generating a topic. That is not a reason to abandon the practice. It is the very reason to sit with that kid and continue to prod until a topic is found. All kids have a story and a passion. We have to unlock it.

Some overlook the importance of student passion and actual interest in their topics. We can all agree that writing is difficult. If a kid is writing about something of interest, they are more apt to fight through that difficulty. If our goal is to teach writing and communication skills, why should a student have to write about a topic that has little or no interest to them? Yes, there are content specific courses and exams, but those aren’t the issue. If we arm kids with enough experience with the writing process by allowing them write about their areas of interest whenever possible, they will be more than prepared to write specific content area pieces or perform well on tests.

Of course, some teachers will be nervous about giving students free reign when it comes to topic choice. They’ll worry about kids simply picking the same topic they did in a previous grade level. Some will do that, but not many. For those few, it could turn into a powerful experience if we see them adding more perspective, improving it as they take it through another year of writing instruction. There is value in that, but, again, it is messy. A teacher will have to ask pointed questions, work with the student to add different techniques and apply the maturity gained through more instruction. And, perhaps more importantly, the idea of taking away choice for the possibility of a select few trying to beat the system is terrible logic. Never make a decision based on a minority trying to get around the system.

Even topic generation can get messy. But, it is the common starting point. Excellent, whole class instruction can happen here because it is something that all writers need. From there, the focus shifts from guiding a group to guiding the one.

Writing Triage Center

And, then the fun begins. And, fun is messy.

Traditional writing instruction or even the supposedly progressive scripting writing programs are more like writing surgery. There is a procedure. The procedure is followed. Protocols are developed and executed. For some, it works really well. For the others, well, you need to go see a different surgeon.

Scripted writing programs may say that they allow for deviance, but they don’t. The programs come with an outline of what to accomplish each day. Every single program has a culminating editing activity and a publishing day. All kids have to follow that schedule.

Instead, a writing class is more like a triage center. There are 30 different writers in my room during one given period. Once we do the topic generation, the work becomes their own labor. Some writers start strong. They charge out of the gate and write a couple of paragraphs. Others begin to outline because they want to plan. Others are looking for research. Others are still having trouble coming up with a clear claim. And, still others are just staring at their blank screen or paper.

Triage.

Give me a claim, stat.

Get me a reliable source, stat.

Get me a clear transition, stat.

Ok, you get the idea. The class looks like chaos. Kids are writing; I am either walking around or they are coming up to me with their work. Each interaction is a mini lesson, depending on their need. In a 45 minute class, there could be 10 different topics discussed and even more ideas generated as a result of those conversations.

Writing instruction is about the individual. It is about treating a specific problem in that moment. There is no script for that type of instruction. There are no real protocols. There is simply working with the kid who is right in front of you with their own, original piece. It’s real. It’s authentic. It’s messy.

And, yes, you have to be alright with that mess. Some kids may do other things. Some may wait for you instead of trying something. But, that’s ok. What’s the goal? Total class control or actual, real teaching that can impact individual writing?

How does that look like on a daily basis?

It looks different in each class, for sure. But, I go into each class with a general plan of a five to ten minute mini lesson about a particular skill. The topics are generally picked by where I believe most kids are in the process. So, in the beginning, we’ll do a mini lesson on writing clear claims. Towards the middle, we’ll spend a few minutes looking at a mentor text and seeing how structure can improve. At the end, we’ll look at editing skills such as subject-verb agreement rules or how to use a fragment purposefully. Sometimes, I will post a question on Google Classroom, asking for students to write their claim or some other part of their work. This gives me a quick view of what’s going on in the class and whether or not any trends are developing that I can address in future mini lessons.

After those quick lessons, it’s off to triage. I’ll try to conference with as many kids as I can during a class. But, I will admit that I sometimes get lost in the nuances of writing or we get sidetracked into other conversations. But, I wouldn’t trade those for anything as we are strengthening our relationship and I am getting to know kids better and getting to know their thought process better. Each day, I’ll try to cycle through the class and get to all of them. Some do look to avoid, but we eventually do connect.

Revising And Editing: Small Chunks

During these meetings, I’ll actually go over the editing and revision stuff as they are writing. That does run contrary to the scripted program. And, it doesn’t make for a nice, neat whole class lesson where kids are using checklists to make sure they have all of the required elements checked.

But, the benefit is that kids are more apt to fix their writing while they are still working. There are two reasons for this. First, the size of the editing and revision is smaller. It is digestible for them. We can focus on things early and, if done correctly, we can stop them from happening later on in their piece. Second, their mindset is still in work mode. They aren’t “done”. Sure, it’s the same work, but there is a difference of fixing things as you work than having to go back when you’re done. I grew more comfortable with this when I started publishing my own stuff. I write a section, edit it, revise it, and then move on. That way, when I am done, I am only reading for flow and for catching little typos that I inevitably miss.

I’ll argue that this is more of a real world skill that they’ll need in their future jobs. With content going live almost as it is typed, writers have to develop these “edit as I go” skills and be able to look at their work in small chunks.

Rubrics and Exemplars

Towards the end of a writing cycle, it is important for students to see how they will be assessed and really get an idea of where they are at. While I have a policy of allowing students to rewrite pieces until they get a 100, they should have the opportunity to self assess before they turn in.

So, as the majority of the class is about to finish up, we will take a day and go through the rubric. We’ll highlight the key words for the top scores in each category. Then, we will look at a set of exemplar papers. I usually show the high scored papers and the mid level papers. I don’t see a lot of value in showing the lower end papers. But, before revealing the exemplar paper’s scores, the students grade them and we discuss the rationale behind their grades and what the exemplars really scored.

Just this past week, we conducted this activity with my 10th grade classes. Besides wanting them to see the rubric, use the rubric, and apply the rubric, there was one specific area that I felt needed to be addressed, which was the idea of academic language, something emphasized on part of the rubric. By showing them the exemplars, they were struck by the difference in language from the high papers to the medium papers. Many of them went back to their papers and elevated their language, starting with the removal of personal pronouns.

Afterwards, I will have the students grade themselves. This allows them to see where they are at before they are finished. Again, we are tapping into the mindset of “still working” rather than going back.

It’s Never Going To Be Perfect

Teachers of writing are constantly learning and deploying new methods to get kids to produce meaningful and impactful pieces. We are constantly evolving. One colleague of mine said it perfectly, “As I get better at this, it is taking me longer because I am going into more depth.”

That is completely true. It is part of the messiness of writing instruction. You add pieces. Each individual has different needs and deficiencies to address. No year will ever be the same. That’s why the scripted programs don’t work. They eventually fizzle because teachers see that their kids have those different needs that a script can’t teach. And, the whole give a kid a topic and walk them through the writing process day by day doesn’t work either. All writers don’t work at the same pace. All students don’t process the same way. There is no perfect way to do it other than to embrace the messiness and enter the triage mindset.

My mess isn’t for everyone. As I get older and better at this, my conferences with kids are becoming longer. There’s more depth. There’s more conversation. They are meaningful. A few years ago, I would zip through a class of 30 in perhaps two sessions. Now, I don’t because of this depth. So, I combat that with technology.

I’ll have kids email me to hop on their doc after my house is mostly down for the night. I’ll read and give feedback on their google document. Sometimes they are on and we’ll chat back and forth. Other times, feedback is waiting for them when they get to class. Then, it becomes clarifying question time for them. Or, they work and show me afterwards. Later in the process, I will take advantage of Google Docs’ revision history feature and read the highlighted changes since I am quite familiar with their pieces by that point.

Or, I will read ahead of time, take notes, and then go through those notes with kids quickly. I don’t do this method as often, but at least they are getting feedback. Other times, especially at the start of the process, I will just make a point to roam the room and read over their shoulders and offer feedback.

Every teacher can find their own way to get through the messiness of the writing process. If they can let go of the need for complete control and complete order, they will be giving students an authentic experience that will allow students to not only write about topics of interest, but to give individualized instruction on each phase of the writing process, even grammar.

The classroom won’t look like the other rooms where kids are in rows and the teacher is in front of the room. It will be a bit noisy and, to an outsider, it may look like the teacher isn’t teaching. But, the reality is there is more meaningful, differentiated instruction going on than in most rooms. More importantly, the result will be some beautiful writing created by amazing kids.


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