The Hardest Part of (Teaching) Writing

As I wade into writing instruction in my high school classroom, I reflect on the simple truth that teaching writing is hard to do because writing well is hard to do.

I’ve always loved writing. However, I do not always enjoy teaching writing. In fact, I find it the most challenging part of my job as an English teacher.

As I’ve slogged through writing units with both my sophomores and my seniors this past week, I had an epiphany about this. Teaching writing is hard to do because writing well is hard to do.

Teaching writing is hard to do because writing well is hard to do.

I know, right? Not that mind-blowing a realization.  But the more I think about it, the more I realize that this idea has huge implications on my practice as a teacher.

So let’s break this down: Why is writing so difficult? And how can we help students with the process so that we can all feel successful at the end of a big writing assignment?

When I asked my 4th hour seniors what the hardest part of writing is for them, they enthusiastically yelled out a list. According to them, these are the first struggles that came to mind:

  • Starting
  • Organizing ideas
  • Staying on topic
  • Understanding what is being asked of them
  • Maintaining stamina
  • Applying the “rules” of writing to their ideas
  • Finding inspiration for things write about

Some of these things ring true to my own writing process. I also have a hard time starting, knowing what to write about and having the stamina to finish my tasks. These are things for which I can model strategies and provide encouragement, mainly in the form of time and opportunity.

However, some of these things are require me to reflect on and revise my instructional practice to support student success.

For example, “understanding what is being asked of them” and “staying on topic” are both struggles that require me to have clear objectives for our writing tasks. If my prompts aren’t clear, then it will be difficult for students to feel confident in their process.

More importantly, though, I’m realizing that I need to be mindful of the organic nature of writing and provide more opportunities for my students to be self-guided in their practice.

If students are only ever asked to write to a prompt or about something that a teacher suggests is important to write about, then they will never acquire the skills to start, organize, and craft meaningful text about things that have meaning to them. And that would be a terrible thing.

So how will I move forward?

Even though I made the rookie mistake of assigning major pieces in both my classes this week (120 essays coming in at the same time is giving me night sweats), I have some ideas that I hope to implement as we draft and revise in class over the next few weeks.

First, I plan to provide lots of class time for the process. Then I plan to do mini-lessons on elements of style and the “rules” of writing that often derail their efforts. Finally, I plan to have students draft their work in Google docs so that they can share chunks of their work with me along the way so I can provide feedback in the drafting process rather than at the end when my feedback isn’t as valuable.

Most importantly, though, I plan to be more transparent about my identity and process as a writer. It is so important for us to engage in the learning process with our students so they can see that it is normal to struggle. If they see that writing is hard for everyone, I hope that they will be willing to struggle—and succeed—with me. 

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  • Liz Prather

    Re: Teaching Writing

    I like what Dorothy Parker said on the subject: "I hate writing; I love having written."  

  • TriciaEbner

    So powerful . . .so real . . . and yeah, so much work!

    Jessica, you have this way of making me face the mirror and say “Yep, I need to change some things up, too.” I’m guilty of the “here’s the prompt” thing. Why do I let that happen?

    Providing feedback along the way–I do this often with my students. We use Word, and in our secure site, the kids can share their drafts with me in a folder. I comment, they comment on each other’s work, and it really helps with pushing writing skill, solidifying claims and theses and support and evidence and detail and plot line and whatever else. And the big pay-off for me: the grading goes so much faster later on. Maybe I shouldn’t say that “out loud” because maybe I’m doing something wrong, but it really does, and even my commenting takes less time because I can say things like, “That was a wise change here” or “great way to switch up sentence structures,” rather than taking time to write out explanations. (I already did that!)

    And I feel for you on the 120 papers at once . . . but with the process and the minilessons and the feedback along the way, I hope it will be an exciting time, reading those papers and seeing how students have grown as writers through the process.

  • BriannaCrowley

    Love the thinking here!

    I love how you used your own experiences as a writer to better reach your students as writers. If we keep our own learning as a resource, we will remain connected and relevant to our students as role models for how they can be growing as learners. This works for writing especially because the process is so individualized and internal. Very few people can “see” the process to try it for themselves. 

    Thanks for sharing this!

  • JenniferHenderson

    Listen to the kids!


    So true!  I love how you asked the students what they view as the most difficult part of writing – leading to “yeah, this is hard for me too.” or “this might be an instructional issue, let me see what I can do.”  

    I’m still amazed when I meet writing teachers who don’t write with or in front of their students.  But then I remember…writing is hard!  It’s easy to tell students to go ahead and start their writing, but it’s another story when you have to actually show them what a writer thinks about in order to begin writing.  

    I just got one of my drafts back with lots and lots of red revision and editing marks and I can’t wait to show my students and talk about how this helps me as a writer and the thought process I will go through as I begin my revisions.  

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Kate Amate

    Those days you wish you taught something with a “right answer”

    This mirrors a lot of my thinking. Every year, I feel like I chip away a little more at solving the mystery of how to help my students make progress as writers, but it also always presents new pitfalls that I hadn't recognized before. It is hard work!

    One thing that I am struggling with a lot this year is how much prompting and structure to give them. It's often "easier" to teach when I direct the prewriting or have a specific formula for the writing, but then I am really just assessing how well their writing matches my vision, and that doesn't produce independent writers. However, the students are so used to canned approaches that they really struggle to think for themselves.

    • TerriR

      Structure without the “right answer”

      This is where you teach them the classical "Topics of Invention."  They are the categories of thought.  We all think in similar ways.  The Topics of Invention are the places (gk- "topoi") to go to get ideas.  Google it.  Read about classical writing pedagogy.  I've used it with students and it works pretty well as a structure that does not give the right answer.

  • Kim Wells

    only those learn how to write who are interested in writing

    Well, teaching writing is hard simply because learning how to write nice pieces depends on the writer's determination and attitude towards writing. And unless one of my students is interested in writing, I wouldn't make them work hard.It is up to them to decide whether or not writing matters to them and if they want to learn I'll do my best to teach them all basic techniques and let them experience writing as much as possible. This I learned from one writer who talks in her writing blog about writing and how extreme exposure to it makes you either a great writer or a bored one.

  • College Ready Now

    Amazing share!

    Amazing share! Your kids brilliant way of seeing the world as a beautiful place to live in is something really precious. Their way of expressing it varies, some expresses their feelings in storytelling thru writing and some with conversations or interaction with others.

  • TimTone

    Public Thanks

    I enjoyed reading this blog. It opened my eyes to the benefits of having teachers lead in the schools. I will strive to do this. Anbieter Vergleich

  • JustinArmostrong

    Very likely I’m going to

    Very likely I’m going to bookmark your blog . You absolutely have wonderful content. Cheers for sharing with us your blog. Justin

  • Jameshanson

    More importantly, though, I’m

    More importantly, though, I’m realizing that I need to be mindful of the organic nature of writing and provide more opportunities for my students to be self-guided in their practice.