This post is the fourth (and final) installment of our series on helping students incorporate more structure into their writing. If you'd like to read more, check out our earlier posts: Writing as a Complement to Reading: Why Write?, The Importance of Freeform Writing, Writing Beyond the Essay, and Writing a Retrospective Outline.
Writing well is a difficult undertaking, and for good reason.
In order to write well, an author needs to be watchful, perseverant, and a careful thinker. It’s also necessary to be a creative thinker, a grammarian (more or less), and a compelling storyteller. Moreover, a writer must be someone who is willing to spend countless hours revising his or her work.
So how can a student possibly become a good, much less great, writer by the time they enter college? The task seems to be almost impossible.
In my experience, many teachers, parents, administrators, etc. believe that their students are “failing” at writing. And to be perfectly honest, this view does not seem to me to be entirely just to the students (or to their former teachers). Learning to write well takes a tremendous amount of work, and it also requires considerable time, as well as maturity and a sincere commitment on the part of the student.
Think for a moment about how children learn to read. Vast resources and effort are poured into teaching children to read independently. Parents and teachers alike read aloud to them and encourage them to read on their own. Yet we don’t expect children to grapple with truly difficult texts for at least a decade after they’ve first begun to read. Instead, children are gradually introduced to more challenging books as they mature.
With writing, on the other hand, not nearly so much effort is put into instruction, yet our expectations for the outcome are disproportionately high. We expect adolescents, with very little practice or support, to write as though they’ve been writing diligently for decades. It is simply not reasonable. (In saying this, it is not my intention to defend bad writing or to suggest that standards be lowered; rather I’m trying to point out that many students take a long time to become great writers and understandably so.)
To continue the comparison between reading and writing, writing is also an activity that, much like reading, an individual will naturally begin to excel at in his or her own time. Until that time comes, much of a teacher’s efforts to improve a student’s writing will often feel futile and frustrating to both parties.
So, all of this begs the question: what do you do while waiting for writing to “click” for a student? Our answer to this is for them to read. The absolute best thing a student, or anyone, can do for their writing is to read.
To me, reading well and widely is the single best thing that anyone who wants to be a writer can do. It is, after all, one of the most important activities that we as human beings do. In reading, we learn so much about language, about how to use words, about syntax, about structure, about movement, and much more. We engage with ideas, learn how to evaluate the arguments of others, as well learn how to shape arguments of our own.
It’s worth noting here, though, that maintaining a consistent reading practice is not a “quick fix” to poor or disorganized writing; rather it’s something with benefits that will accrue slowly over time. The benefits of reading will likely not be immediately apparent in a student’s writing, nor may they be evident for years. Even if their writing doesn’t seem to be progressing in as rapid a manner as their teacher may wish, if a student is reading widely and carefully, their writing will improve. Even if they are not writing much or at all at the present time, reading will still be of benefit to their writing in the future.
The following are a couple of notes and suggestions about reading to improve a writing practice, although they are by no means comprehensive. Hopefully you find some of this information helpful!
Encourage students to identify for themselves the authors whose style of writing they are drawn to and admire. I think this is an important exercise for writers of all ages to do, and one that I would leave very open-ended by simply asking the question.
Students need to desire to become better writers for their own sake, not for ours, and permitting them to select their own literary models is an important step in this process. If we hold up Melville as an example of literary excellence and they’ve had to fight through every last paragraph of one of his stories, they may become disengaged from the project of writing because he is not a literary hero to them (or at least not at this time).
Besides, the writers whose work we think we should admire are often not the writers whose work is most instructive to us. Give students the opportunity to decide which authors they want to be their teachers, and they'll be a lot more motivated to learn from them.
And here I do mean study poetry, not just read it passively. A poem is such a concentrated form of language that a close examination of it can be tremendously fruitful to us both as readers and as writers. Unfortunately, scansion isn’t something that many people get excited about, but it does yield a wealth of information about poems written in meter. Scanning poems also teaches us that there is typically much more sophistication in their construction than at first meets the eye.
Attempting to write poems ourselves can also a beneficial practice because of the form’s many constraints. It is very challenging to actually say what you mean to say in so few words, in meter, and also in a pleasing manner. Even more difficult is the task of capturing an expansive thought in this more restricted form. However, the care with which we learn to write and to read poetry does translate to heightened care in reading and writing prose, as well.
Probably someone far more insightful and articulate than I am has already said everything I could ever say about this topic, so I'll be brief here. I would just encourage you to have your children and students read Shakespeare aloud over and over throughout their lives and to never “retire” a play. You may have seen more productions of Twelfth Night or Much Ado About Nothing than you can count, but continue coming back to these plays over the years, and your life -- and writing practice -- will be all the richer for it.
Learning foreign languages can benefit our writing in numerous ways. Among these benefits are a deepened and more nuanced understanding of grammar, and a more creative relationship to words and to syntax.
For whatever reason, many students find that learning the grammar of another language doesn’t feel quite so agonizing as studying English grammar. It’s also virtually impossible to learn grammar in a foreign language without contrasting it directly to the grammar of your native tongue. As a result, learning a new language can provide good grammatical reinforcement to students who may be less than optimally motivated to study English grammar.
In terms of language use, when we learn the roots of English words, we begin thinking more of the literal meanings as opposed to their colloquial uses. Knowing etymological roots allows us to use words much more precisely and, I believe, creatively. (As a bonus, you’ll need to look up far fewer words in the dictionary!) Examining the sentence construction and syntax in foreign languages can also be instructive and give us insight into how we might craft sentences in our own language differently.
Another practice that has been immeasurably rewarding for me has been reading writers who are not native English speakers but who still author their books in English. Such authors are considered “exophonic” writers, meaning that they write in a language other than their native tongue.
I’ve found that these writers tend to use words in striking ways and often teach me a great deal about the expansive nature of the English language. Some well known examples are Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Jack Kerouac, Kahlil Gibran, and Milan Kundera. Yiyun Li is another, perhaps lesser known, contemporary exophonic author whose prose is also exquisite. You can find a more comprehensive list of exophonic writers here.
A related practice is reading the work of native English speakers who have grown up all around the world. Just as British authors of a certain era have a particularly “sensibility”, so do the authors of other places and times. Modern Nigerian literature is my personal favorite instance of this phenomenon. I love reading 21st century Nigerian authors for the vibrancy of their language and imagery. I always come away feeling that I have learned to see the world more brightly through their eyes.
Lastly, recognizing that reading is the most important thing you can do to prepare students to become better writers requires a great deal of faith. By encouraging students to read, you aren't imparting an easily quantifiable skill, nor do you know how long it may take a student to begin writing seriously. However, rest assured that offering students literature of the highest quality will change their lives for the better in countless ways, including giving them an elevated standard to aspire to in their own writing. (To read more on the topic of writing as a natural consequence of reading, see our earlier post Writing as a Complement to Reading: Why Write?)
Have you ever read books, plays, or poems that directly or indirectly improved the quality of your writing? If so, what book was it and how did it help your writing? Please leave us a comment below, letting us know — we’d love to hear from you!
Our third recommendation for helping students incorporate more structure into their writing is to have them create a rather unconventional form of outline. Instead of composing an outline before writing their essay, we suggest that they try creating one after a full draft has been completed instead. The main reason for this is because it is often far more fruitful to think about structure once most of your ideas have already been set down on the page, instead of in advance.
This can also be an especially helpful exercise for anyone struggling with sequencing of their paragraphs or ideas. While an essay is absolutely dependent on logic and the ideas presented must logically follow one another, part of the reason we write is to order our thoughts for ourselves. Often when we write a first draft, most of the material set down on the page is related to our main idea or thesis in some way, but the thoughts aren’t always perfectly ordered. Hence, outlining retrospectively.
The first time I ever tried this exercise was when I was working on my senior thesis for my undergraduate degree. I found myself struggling to rearrange paragraphs within a 3-page subsection of a 30-page word document so out of frustration I decided to print the 3 pages at issue and cut out each of the paragraphs. I then began to arrange and rearrange the paragraphs, shuffling them about until the order was perfect. After that, it took virtually no time at all to go back into the word document and copy and paste appropriately, and voila – problem solved.
I’ve also used the retrospective outline with high school students and I find it works well for this age group because when a student is asked to write an outline before all of their ideas are fleshed out, the entire writing process can sometimes come to a screeching halt and they may lose whatever momentum they had previously gathered. A student may also wonder how they can possibly write an entire essay if they couldn’t even write a coherent outline, and become paralyzed.
In such a scenario, I would ask the student to ditch the outline for the time being and first write their essay, as some students have an easier time sorting out their ideas in actual prose than in skeletal form. Then later we would go back to the outline and map out their argument in outline form to ensure that their argument is sound and that they are actually saying what they had wanted to in their writing.
To begin this exercise, a student should write on a blank sheet of paper what the function is for each paragraph of their draft and what that paragraph contributes to the overall argument. They can ask: if this paragraph were missing, what would be lost from the argument? Why might its omission compromise the validity of my conclusion? What is the main point I’m trying to make here? Then, if a reordering of ideas is necessary – they can cut apart the summaries of each paragraph and see what can and should reasonably be rearranged. Likely, not every single paragraph will need to be repositioned, so target more problematic areas. If you have an especially thorny section, you could even do this with sentences in a paragraph.
The retrospective outline then helps to illuminate where the gaps and redundancies in an argument may be. When the “meat” of each paragraph has been written out, the argument should read like a proposition and each item should follow stepwise from the one before. (One way to test this is to show the retrospective outline to a friend or teacher and have them work through it to ensure that the reasoning is both sound and complete.) It’s easy to think that you’ve stated something explicitly when you haven’t, and it’s also easy to become attached to sentences that are more or less irrelevant to your final argument. These sorts of errors can become much more readily apparent with an ex post facto outline!
Have you ever struggled with outlining? We'd love to hear about your solutions in a comment below!