Ten Things I Want My Students to Believe About Writing

The Struggle


Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

I teach writing to university students in Taiwan. A common strategy is to watch for patterns of errors to help students improve their writing; however, sometimes the problem is more basic. Sometimes, students are so focused on grammar and mechanics that they have no idea how to generate ideas or how to support them. This leads to another pattern that keeps students from experiencing writing as a way to learn and to express themselves.

Many students tell me in their introductory letters that they dislike or even fear writing. They think they would be better writers if they had better grammar, or more vocabulary, or if they didn’t have so many rules to worry about. Unfortunately, that is the only side of the writing process. Many of them haven’t experienced the creative side of the writing process: what it’s like to make discoveries and connections they hadn’t thought of before or to get lost in writing because they’re excited about what they have to share.

If students thought differently about writing, they might approach it with more curiosity and less apprehension. I want students to know that if they change the way they think about writing, it can change the way they experience writing. Here are ten things that I want my students to believe about writing.

Ten Ways to Think About Writing Differently

1. Writing doesn’t have to be painful or scary. 

Part of the reason that writing seems unpleasant might be that you’re trying so hard to be perfect. We don’t expect basketball players to be perfect the first time they play. We don’t expect a painter to paint masterpieces the first time without a plan and some practice. The same is true with playing a musical instrument. All of these things involve learning and practicing skills. With writing, it is the same. You need ideas, and you need to practice the skills. Over time, you become better and better. But if you wait until you are perfect, you will never begin, or you will write pieces that you aren’t happy with.

2. The key to writing is to understand that it is a process.

Once you know the steps in the process, you just work at them one at a time. The rules are important, but not at the beginning! First, focus on finding ideas, make a plan, write a first draft, and THEN think above fixing mistakes and looking for other ways to make the writing stronger. Give yourself some time to go through the steps. It might seem like it takes longer to write, but your writing will be clearer and more interesting if you go through the steps, rather than taking shortcuts.

3. Good writing comes from good ideas.

The Writing process

(Photo credit: brainpop_uk)

Let your mind play and explore to find your best ideas. If you take the first ideas that come to mind, you will miss the treasures that lie buried within your subconscious. You have so many more ideas than you realize, but you have to give yourself time to let those ideas come out. The prewriting part of the writing process is important because all the grammar rules in the world can’t change a weak topic into something interesting. You have good ideas. Trust that fact, and you will work with the process long enough to uncover them.

4. Make sure you know these two things:  the purpose of your writing and who your audience will be.

Most students think that the only reason they are writing is because their teacher is going to read their work and grade it. That should never be the only reason you write. Make sure you understand the purpose of the assignment. Is it to persuade someone? It is to get someone to understand a process? Whatever your purpose, it is then important to know who your audience is, because then you can focus your writing toward that audience. For example, if you are writing a letter to a friend to tell them about a trip you are on, you can picture that person when you write, and it’s almost like speaking to them through writing. Having an audience in mind when doing your writing helps you express your ideas in a way that can be more clearly understood..

5. When you explore your ideas and different ways of organizing them, your rough draft (first draft) will be easier to write.

Once you discover what you really want to say, you can try arranging things in different ways. If you have a plan for how you will support your thesis, your paragraphs will be much easier to construct. Your reader will be able to follow the order and logic of your plan. Best of all, you can follow the plan when writing your first draft. Having an outline (or plan) to follow makes the drafting process less confusing.

6. A rough draft (first draft) should be part of every writing assignment.

This goes back to the basketball, piano, and art analogies from above. Make sure you warm-up. If you’ve done your prewriting exercises and you’ve made a plan, writing a draft to get the ideas on paper will be the first step in a writing project that you’re happy with. After the first draft, there will be plenty of time to revise and edit your paper to make a stronger paper. For the first draft, get the ideas down in an order that makes sense to you, based on your plan.

7. You can learn unexpected things while you are writing.

Once you have a draft with all of your ideas, you can make your writing stronger. If you write the draft without worrying about grammar and other mechanics, you may discover ideas you hadn’t realized were there. One way that you know you are really writing from the subconscious part of your brain is if you find new ideas in your writing, ideas that are a surprise. Once you start getting that kind of surprise while you’re writing, you will understand how the process of writing can be magical at times..

8. Mistakes are one way that we learn,

The more you practice, the fewer mistakes you make. But no matter how many mistakes you make, you can learn from them. Each mistake you make and correct takes you one step closer to a well-written final draft. But remember, there is more to making our writing better than fixing grammar mistakes. In fact, many of the ways to improve our writing aren’t based on mistakes at all, but on skills and ideas that can be practiced and developed over time. If you approach writing with a sense of adventure and a desire to express yourself, you can learn many techniques for making your writing stronger.

9. There are many ways to express the same idea.

There are other ways to improve our writing other than just asking someone to “fix our grammar.” I have students ask me to do this often, yet, I’ve never had a student ask me to help them brainstorm, or to see if they have a good organizational pattern, or if I could look at their structure. If I could convince you to believe one thing differently, it is this: Grammar is not the most important part of writing. It’s important, but it’s only a tool, not the whole project.

10. Write about things that interest you, things you are passionate about.

You don’t always get to choose your topics for writing, but whenever you can, choose a topic you are passionate about. It’s easier to generate ideas when you care about the topic and when you wait until you’ve generated those ideas before you worry about all of the rules. REMEMBER, if you’re bored, your reader will be bored.

A New Perspective

If you can start thinking about writing differently, you might just find yourself becoming more confident about your ability to become a better writer.

12 comments on “Ten Things I Want My Students to Believe About Writing

  1. 🙂 Deborah, I like your list very much. I do believe we’re on the same teaching writing wavelength. How many students do you have between those 7 classes?
    One of my favorite lines is “grammar can be red inked–great ideas cannot be inked at all.”
    So nice to meet you.

    • True! I tell my students: “I can help you fix your grammar, but I can’t pull the ideas out of your head.” So I think you’re right about being on the same page. 🙂 Nice to meet you too!

      Four of my courses are writing courses. I have a first year writing course with about 32 students; and three sections of a second year writing course, with about 85 students across those three classes.

    • Thanks, Carol! I’m glad you found it useful. If I can help a few students discover that writing doesn’t have to be the onerous experience they think it is, I’d like to do that. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and for sharing the list! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Audience and Purpose: Teaching ESL Students to Write | Container Chronicles

  3. I love this list, particularly # 10. I’ve used the “if you’re bored, your reader will be bored” line in talks about finding your voice, and reading it here helps validate what I said.

    • It always surprises me when students (or anyone, for that matter) writes about a topic or idea for which they have no real interest. Then they wonder why it is not well received by the reader. If you can’t engage yourself in the topic as you’re writing, how can you possibly engage readers?

      I included this one in self-defense. 😉 Since I have to read their papers, I tell them that I want to know about something they find fascinating. That if they share something that they think is really interesting, their interest will shine through. It’s amazing to me some of the new things I have learned about because someone else was passionate enough to write about them.

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