Many are familiar with “math anxiety,” a term used to describe students who freeze when confronted with numbers. Countless individuals suffer similarly in regard to writing, although the affliction lacks a catchy name (Don’t-Wanna-Writis, perhaps?). For those who suffer from this affliction, the idea of composing a paragraph – let alone a complete essay or story – induces bottomless panic. I’ve seen it happen many times. Friends, classmates, and even my own mother have expressed a deep-seated lack of confidence when tasked to string sentences together. Their minds go blank. They fear sounding contrived or pedantic. They think to themselves, “I wasn’t born to do this. I don’t know how to do this. This is not for me.”
What would make you a better writer?
An August 23rd blog post on edweek.org written by California high school humanities teacher Britt Shirk includes a pie chart that details students’ responses when asked what would make them better writers. I wasn’t surprised to see that 40% of students reported a need to feel more confident and honest on the page.
I have two secrets to tell them. The first is this: no one is born a writer. No one. Not Stephen King. Not Shakespeare. Not J.K. Rowling. Babies aren’t born knowing how to write a good story or compose a compelling speech, just as babies aren’t born knowing how to properly paint with oils. It is a skill that has to be learned and consistently honed to achieve some measure of success. We all start at the same baseline of zero when it comes to writing ability.
The second secret is: you and your doubts are in good company. Even professional writers – perhaps especially professional writers – feel this way sometimes. We fear a mark is being missed. We fear our characters are not sympathetic, relatable, or interesting. We fear that our style or point of view choices will be questioned. Grammar, clarity, imagery, punctuation, tone – there are many variables that work together to create a whole piece, and wrangling them all at once does not come easy. Writing is a vast sea, containing endless permutations and possibilities.
…And students are, too. There is no set “way” to write, just as there is no default way to be a person. Students are nuanced individuals who will respond more excitedly to assignments that pique their interest than to ones seemingly generated from thin air. A student who is interested in martial arts, for example, will find it easier to compare and contrast Kung Fu and Judo than she will with two other topics. While clearly the end goal is for students to be strong writers on any subject, that’s not the place to start when trying to encourage a comfort in the medium. A novice writer needs to start on a subject in which they feel a measure of knowledge and control. Only after they are comfortable writing in this arena can they branch out into new territory.
The Value of Small Assignments
Of course, teachers don’t have the time to let students move at a snail’s pace as they grow comfortable with writing. This is why small assignments meant to encourage confidence in writing should be given in tandem with regular classwork. These can entail 100-word daily journal entries on a selection of prompts, or on the subject of a student’s choosing. Students can write responses to films or books they enjoy, or react to current events. They can also play writing games in which each person adds a sentence to a story to show the possibilities inherent in the written word.
The Writing Workshop
While in pursuit of my writing degree, the most useful tool, by far, was the writing workshop. During a workshop, student work was distributed among other participants for focused, public critique. This method is useful because it can be brutal – no one is a harsher critic than an actual, unbiased audience. Students who fret about writing and are shy about their desire to improve may not benefit from this. Such an experience will only be beneficial if all participating students have an active interest in improving their writing and don’t mind hearing what their peers have to say. One choice may be to create a voluntary writing workshop participation to which students can sign up. The pieces can be of pre-set length and subject, or on varied subjects. Large-scale discussion of a piece of writing is a good way for students to understand the perception of an audience, and how words and ideas can transform as they travel from the brain, to the page, to another’s brain.
Improvement Doesn’t Happen Overnight
Many students’ improvement pace will be incremental at first – and that’s fine. Lasting improvement doesn’t happen overnight. It will happen as the student grows more comfortable using words to convey ideas. The result will be the interweaving of increased writing confidence with the predetermined class material. Vocabulary, structure, and other elements of writing will begin to improve organically so long as a student’s interests are combined with challenge and guidance.