Writing is a process. Good writers plan what they will write, come up with ideas, draft, revise and edit. This article will give some practical ideas for how students can be taught to become good writers.
Writing is a process – or, at least, it should be. It involves thinking, jotting down ideas, refining these ideas, thinking about the structure, linking ideas and much more. One problem is that writing is often neglected in the classroom – it’s seen as time-consuming and ends up being relegated to a homework task with little or no proper preparation.
If we want our students to become good writers, then we have to spend more time in the classroom teaching them how to write. This doesn’t simply mean getting them to write, as that isn’t teaching. Of course, practice is important, but you can only practise something if you have a clear idea of what your goal is and how to reach it.
Talking about goals, it is absolutely essential that the goals are realistic. It is impossible for students to become best-selling novelists overnight, and we (the teacher) have to set realistic targets and get students to see writing as something that can be learnt.
What do good writers do?
The great twentieth-century writer Ernest Hemingway once said: ‘We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.’ In other words, however good your writing is, it will never be perfect. There is always room for improvement, and you should expect to have to write something more than once. Another writer, the popular novelist Michael Crichton, said: ‘Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten … It’s one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it!’
So one of the key things to good writing is a willingness to go back over what you’ve written, edit, revise and rewrite. At first, it can be really difficult and sometimes even painful, but, with practice, students will come to realize that what they are producing is improving by leaps and bounds. It’s not simply a matter of reading through a piece of writing looking for spelling mistakes or grammatical errors; it’s about reading through it to see how it can be made better. In a way, a piece of writing should never be finished – it should just be one step further on.
Another thing that good writers do is read a lot. The more a student reads, the more language they are exposed to. This is not so they can copy another writer’s style but rather learn how someone else structures things, the words they choose, the way they express their ideas. Even reading something that is badly written can be useful – Why do you think it’s badly written? How would you improve it?
The three rules
The British writer Somerset Maugham once said: ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.’ However, I would argue that we do know what it is that makes a good, if not a great, writer – and, actually, it is three things: planning, drafting and editing.
Even if students sit down with a blank piece of paper in front of them (or, more likely nowadays, a blank screen), they need to have some idea of what they want to write. For most writing, there needs to be a purpose and an idea of who the reader is going to be. This is all part of the planning stage. Often the planning will take longer than the actual writing, but if the result is a better piece of writing then there is nothing wrong with that at all. Planning can take all sorts of shapes and forms, from brainstorming ideas to jotting down important facts or pieces of information to be included (or, at least, not forgotten).
Once students start writing, they need to understand that this is just the first draft – that finishing the writing is actually only the first step to getting a piece that is good enough. But how does a teacher help students realize this? There are a few ways. For example, speed writing. Set students a time limit that is quite short, and explain that they should not worry about spelling, grammar or punctuation – they should simply write as much as they can. Once they’ve done this, they can go back over the piece, improving it, correcting the spelling and the grammar and so on. Another way is to get the students to think about what it is they are writing and actually jot down different ideas in the place on the page they will write each one. For example, if they are writing a letter of complaint, then start by planning the paragraphs: 1 – what you are complaining about in brief; 2 – more details about what and why you are complaining; 3 – what you want to happen as a result of your letter.
Finally, once a piece of writing is ‘finished’, students need to go back and edit it. Start by getting them to read through the piece and see if they feel it says what they wanted it to say. Can they improve any of the vocabulary? Are there any small mistakes they notice? Having to edit a piece of writing is not a sign that the writing was bad; it’s a sign that the writer is good.
Is it a linear process?
The three rules listed above are written as if they are done one after another – in other words, as if writing is a linear process. But this simply isn’t true. These three steps – planning, drafting and editing – are part of a continual cycle: you’re editing even as you are jotting down ideas; you are coming up with new ideas while you are editing; and drafting and planning often go hand-in-hand. It’s almost like an Escher painting where you don’t really know where to start or finish. Of course, you can’t edit something until you’ve written it down, and you shouldn’t start writing until you’ve done some planning, but, other than that, there is no particular order in which you should do each of these things.
But I don’t have enough time!
Quite clearly, all of this takes time. Students often feel that they don’t have enough time to do all of these steps. However, it’s worth pointing out that time spent at the start thinking about things and deciding how you are going to link your ideas together will save twice as much time later on. As I’ve mentioned before, the planning often takes longer than the writing, but this then means that the writing is far quicker than it would have been and the results are infinitely better.
It’s a bit like cooking. If you check you have all the ingredients before you start making the dish, you won’t suddenly find halfway through that you are missing a vital ingredient. You’ll know right from the start whether or not you have everything you need or whether you’ll need to go out and get something. So students need to do the same thing before they start writing – then, they have a better chance of producing an edible dish!
Some practical ideas
1. A mini-saga
If you are a regular onestopenglish user, you have almost certainly come across the idea of a mini-saga before. But, for those of you who haven’t, here is the idea in a nutshell.
Give your students a title and tell them you want them to write a piece that is exactly fifty words long. It can’t be fewer (like forty-eight) or more (like fifty-one): it must be exactly fifty words. Give them a time limit (maybe ten minutes) and tell them to start writing. At the end, you could get the students to post their texts around the classroom and vote on which one they like the best.
The beauty of the mini-saga is that it requires students to re-read what they have written and edit it. However, because it’s presented as a challenge and is immensely fun, students don’t feel bored with the editing and rewriting process.
2. You edit mine and I’ll edit yours
In previous articles on writing, I’ve talked about collaborative writing. One of the best ways of getting students to help each other is getting them to work in pairs. They should exchange their pieces of writing and carefully read and edit their partner’s work. This needs to be done with the aim of helping each other, so students need to take this seriously and have a degree of trust in each other. It’s also important for them to realize that they should be trying to ‘understand’ the piece of writing – in other words: What’s the aim? Who would it be aimed at? How would it make the reader feel?
Encourage students to ask questions about each other’s writing, not simply correct spelling and grammar mistakes. The best way to do this is actually co-edit a single piece of work together in class (possibly written by a student not in the class but with their name removed from the work), talking through all the comments and changes you might suggest. In the past, I’ve done this by handing out a piece of work and getting students to discuss it first in pairs, and then displaying it on screen and going through it together.
3. From L1 to English
Ask your students to bring in a piece of writing they’ve done in their own language – it could be a letter or an email or even a school assignment. Then, ask them to read through it and see if they are happy with it or if they would make any changes to the original. Next, ask them to turn it over and try to write the same thing, or similar, in English. Tell them not to translate but to try to keep the main ideas and to concentrate on getting the message across in English. At this stage, you might well need to monitor and give help when they need it, especially in terms of supplying vocabulary or helping with a grammatical structure. Then, ask them to read through the original again before reading through the English version, making improvements as necessary.
Note: This only really works with students of intermediate level and above, as students at lower levels often struggle due to gaps in their English.
For some more practical ideas, you could take a look at another article I’ve written for onestopenglish here: www.onestopenglish.com/skills/writing/lesson-plans/writing-skills-thinking-about-writing/146340.article