Teaching and Learning in Writing 101

By Brady Krien

On my first day of teaching college writing I handed out 3x5 note cards to my students and asked them to give me a little bit of information to help me get to know them. I asked for their name, their major, why they chose Marquette, and their favorite Tom Hanks movie. I also asked a few questions aimed at getting a sense of who they were as writers, asking what they struggled with most, what their semester goals were, and if there was anything that I should know about them as writers.

The responses were mostly unsurprising. Students were anxious about commas and the higher stakes of college, many just wanted to get through the class and improve their writing a little (or, in one case, to improve their “grammer”), and none of them had heard of Joe versus the Volcano. What I did not expect was the number of students who claimed that they were “bad writers.” Over half the class claimed to be poor writers.

Looking back, having repeated some version of this same activity with each of my classes, I should not have been surprised. This was the most common response that I received at Marquette and continues to be the most common response I receive at my current institution in Iowa. The odd thing is that very few, if any, of the students that I work with are bad writers. There are writers who occasionally produce bad writing, writers who’ve convinced themselves that they “write better on the first draft” and never revise, and writers who don’t yet understand a topic well enough to make a compelling argument about it, but there are few out-and-out bad writers. 

What I’ve come to understand is that this bad writer claim is less a confession of compositional incompetence than a request for help. It’s a way of saying that 1) writing is really hard, and 2) writing scares the bejeezus out of me. These sentiments are not uncommon, even (or perhaps especially) among people who write a lot. As I’ve worked with students to overcome these challenges, I’ve found that my own understanding of writing has profoundly changed. The three most salient writing lessons I’ve taken from this experience are: 

1. Revision is Key. So many of my students come to college believing that they draft so well that revision is unnecessary (I confess that I shared in this delusion once upon a time). A significant portion of my teaching is devoted to converting them to the school of Anne Lamott: write shitty first drafts and revise extensively. As I’ve preached this particular writing gospel, my own revision process has expanded dramatically. I now devote at least as much time to revising as I do to drafting (and often more) and I’ve come to find an extensive revision process to be incredibly liberating for both myself and my students because it dramatically reduces the pressure to produce high-quality drafts.

2. Silence the Critic. I work with a lot of students who struggle to start writing. They’ll sit down, write a sentence or a paragraph, hate it, and delete it. They will then repeat some version of this process again and again until they either give up and go watch Netflix or the deadline forces them to accept work that they hate. I’ve found that silencing this inner critic by forbidding deleting anything during the drafting process (after all you’ll come back and revise it, right?) goes a long way toward getting words on the page, a necessary prerequisite to producing any writing.

3. Write for Time. I tell all my students set time rather than output goals. Anyone can commit to write for two half-hour blocks during the course of a day and this helps to alleviate the dread of sitting down and writing out the entirety of a ten-page paper which often leads to procrastination and no writing at all. I’ve found that committing to write for a little while every day drives writing productivity way up and the frequency of late night writing binges way down. Energy drink companies will suffer, but you will prosper.

I’m convinced that I’ve learned more about writing from my students than they ever learn from me. Observing their writing struggles and helping them to overcome them has been the best part of teaching writing and has helped my own writing dramatically. It’s helped me to understand that, while we all have very writing processes, there are a lot of shared roadblocks and talking about them, sharing them, and helping others to overcome them is sometimes the best way to move forward with your own writing.

Photo by Caleb Roenigk: https://flic.kr/p/brNqFE