This past Tuesday marked another step in my growth as a writer. Every summer, one of the English professors here at my university teaches a writing workshop for teachers, and this year she asked if I would speak to her class about my experience as a writer.
Honestly, I was terrified. I’ve never been comfortable speaking up front, and I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to say, but I agreed to speak all the same. Because after all, there’s nothing I love more than talking about writing.
The talk went over much better than I thought it would. I became more comfortable as I spoke, and I enjoyed answering the questions that the teachers asked me. However, it was those questions that inspired me to write this blog.
As usual, I got a lot of questions about self-publishing and I spoke rather extensively on how I get inspiration for my work. But there was one question that I wasn’t quite sure how to answer, and even now I’m still mulling over it: how do you get students interested in writing?
It’s a good question, really, and I suppose if there was one sure-fire answer then there would be no need for me to write this post. After all, if there were an answer, then someone far more educated and experienced than me would have said something by now. But since there isn’t any one “correct” answer, I figured I would write my thoughts on the matter here.
#1: Make it Interesting
Sure, it sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how hard this one is to achieve. One of the biggest complaints I hear in regards to writing is that it is “boring”, to which I ask, “How?”
Writing is like so many other things a person does in life. It all depends on how you look at it. For students, when someone says “write” they think “essay”, which automatically shifts to the “uninteresting/waste-of-time/busywork” category in their minds, and when that happens you have a student who might manage to produce a paragraph, if reluctantly. Granted, not every person is meant to be a writer, but even those who don’t aspire to be novelists can still learn to enjoy writing. The key, though, is to remove the thought of writing from the “waste-of-time” category.
One way to do it is to show them your own passion for writing, provided you are actually passionate about it. The best example I can think of in this regard is the case of my friends who inspired the characters of Rayne and Gavin in my trilogy. When I first began writing my books, neither one did any sort of writing. As I shared my own work with them, however, they began to formulate their own ideas and start their own stories. Did they go anywhere with those stories? No, but they wrote. And, furthermore, they enjoyed it. Why did they do it? Because I cared about my writing, and they cared about me, it gave us a connection and gave them a reason to start writing, too.
But of course I’m realistic enough to know that not all teachers can love writing as much as I do nor will all students respond that well to a writer’s enthusiasm, and in that case there is another option. My brother is a good example of this. He is creative, but there is almost nothing he hates more than writing. One night, my brother was struggling with a particular piece of homework and, exasperated, my mother asked me to help him. I don’t remember what the exact assignment was, but it was a sort of free-write deal where you pick the topic but you follow a set of rules. My brother couldn’t come up with anything, and so I told him to tell me about something he liked. He started talking (I think it might have been something about the Civil War) and I listened while he talked. Then I told him to put that on paper. All he had to do was follow the guidelines, and within a short amount of time he had completed his assignment.
In a classroom setting, I’m sure this would probably be harder to do, but evoking a student’s passion about something else and directing it toward writing has always struck me as a good way to get them to write without feeling like you’re participating in the Spanish Inquisition. Say you want them to write a descriptive essay and you find out a struggling student likes to play basketball. Have them write about playing basketball. If they have difficulty being descriptive, have them write out a list with the categories hearing, taste, sight, smell, and touch, and tell them to write whatever they experience in those categories. It really depends on where the student is in their writing as to what methods can be used, but the most important thing is to help them get away from thinking of writing as nothing more than homework.
#2: They Can Do It
I cannot tell you how many people I have met who tell me the same story: in school they tried to write, someone told them they were terrible writers and shouldn’t even try, and they stopped writing or, worse still, grew to hate it. You have no idea how much this pains me.
I have always been of the belief that anyone can write. Furthermore, everyone has the right to do so. But the sad thing is that often times the people who hate writing the most are the people who believe that they can’t do it, and convincing these people any differently is a job in and of itself. Yes, there will always be someone who can write better than you. Even famous authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Mark Twain still get flack about what they did wrong, and they’ve been dead for a year or two.
In dealing with a situation where a person refuses to write because they “can’t”, there are a couple ways I approach it. First and foremost, I encourage them by telling them they can. It sounds simple, but it means a lot. Secondly, no one starts out perfect. I’ve never considered myself to be a writing expert, but I still have had many friends and family members tell me, “Well, I could never write as good as you.”
Over the course of six years, I have written six complete books: one children’s book and five novels. The word count for these six books alone adds up to somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 words. And that doesn’t include all I’ve written on my computer and in the notebooks on the shelf that is now breaking because of the weight of those said notebooks. You get “good” at writing by writing.
For someone who is really struggling with this insecurity, my story isn’t the best one to tell. After all, most students are not going to be aspiring authors. They just want to pass the class. But regardless, they must know that they can and that the more they try the more likely they are to succeed. It isn’t a matter of can they do it but, rather, will they do it? And encouragement is the best way to get them to that point.
#3: Make it Simple
Writing tends not only to be a chore but an intimidation also. There is practically no end to what you can do with writing and, therefore, practically no end to the number of rules a person might come across as well. Because of this fact, many people find writing frightening. In the writing world we call it “writer’s anxiety”. And guess what? Committed writers get it, too.
It is typical for teachers to try to bestow as much knowledge as possible on their students before the end of the year, which is a great ideal but can end up being a daunting proposition for the student. Particularly in English classes, students often find that they are expected to learn the rules of grammar and punctuation, read difficult literary works, analyze and understand those works, and write a large selection of papers all in the same time period. Granted, it doesn’t matter which subject you are dealing with. There will always be someone who struggles with something. But writing papers? Not only is the thought of writing unpleasant to many people, but with so many other things on their minds, trying to keep in mind every rule and still think creatively enough to get a decent grade is like planning for a solo trip to the top of Mount Everest. And then “writer’s anxiety” hits, and all of a sudden the
student individual feels as though their brain was abducted by an alien and they stare blankly at the computer screen for hours on end. And yes, I’m speaking from experience.
The key to getting around “writer’s anxiety” is to look at the assignment and make it as simple as possible. Short, clear-cut rules seem to work best. Another problem, though, is the simple fact of what is expected from a student. Often times, a student writing a paper for class will be more worried about the page count than the writing itself. This was an area in which I really appreciated my AP English teacher my senior year of high school. She would always tell us, “I want quality, not quantity.” I recognize why some teachers choose to set a page count. They don’t want the student to skimp on their writing assignment, and judging quality is a lot harder to do than judging quantity. But believe it or not, there was hardly a single student in that class who didn’t enjoy it, and I think part of the reason was that everything was simple. There were no page numbers to worry about and directions were clear and understandable. Writing for that class was always easier to handle, and I experienced a lot less writer’s anxiety.
I’ll be honest, I’m no expert in classroom management and assignment giving. I’m a writing tutor, so I know a few things, but in the end I think that getting people, particularly kids, interested in writing is a process of trial and error. The most important thing is to make it fun and to ensure that each individual knows they can succeed if they try. Making things simple is always a plus.
I write from the view point of an amateur writer, a writing tutor, and a student. I have watched friends and family members struggle in the area of writing. I myself have struggled with the academic writing process for as long as I’ve been a student. There will always be those who refuse to love writing, so as a message to teachers, I have to say: don’t let yourself get discouraged.
Make it fun, make it understandable, make it doable, and the rest is up to the student to choose whether to try or not.
And these are my opinions on the matter.