Many people associate writing with the words on the page. And that makes a lot of sense. After all, when parents, teachers, or others complain that ‘no one can write anymore’ that’s what they generally point to—the poorly constructed sentences on the page. And when students struggle to get started, much less completed, it’s the words they’re generally struggling with. I don’t want to say everyone is wrong and I am right so maybe I’ll just say the first part: everyone is wrong.

Everyone, Victoria?

Okay, maybe not everyone. After all, I use to be one of the correctors who believed that well-stated words and sentences were a way to divide the world into the have and have nots. And it some cases, it still kind of works like that. But one of my first courses in graduate school blew my mind, when we learned that most people weren’t making a lot of mistakes. In fact, they were just making the same mistakes over and over. So yes, there are the composition theorists, learning specialists, and a handful of other types, like me, that do not see the mistakes in writing as the sum total of the quality of the writer, and yet we still haven’t gotten to the point.

Your point, Victoria?

My point is this. Writing is a symbolic form that makes the invisible, visible. It takes ethereal ideas, famous for their evaporative nature, and captures them, paints them, causes us to SEE them. When students struggle painfully with the words, they are struggling painfully with the symbolic form, but the struggle within the struggle (like Shakespeare’s play within a play) is the grasping, the reaching, the uncertainty of what they actually want to say.

Alright okay, but the point, the point Victoria?

That’s a good question. And it’s a question I ask students a lot. What is it that you are trying to say? You’d think that it would be easier to answer. Now imagine this scenario. I am working with an 8th grade student whose been tasked to write about American identity. He writes a sentence like this “American identity comes from people, places, and the American Dream.” Perhaps this is one of the sentences the complainers are referring to? I call this sentence, not bad or even incorrect, I just call it empty—it contains words, but it doesn’t really meaning anything…yet. So I ask the 8th grader a few questions: “What people, what places, what American Dream?” Because we can’t fix this sentence—the symbolic representation of his ideas—until the ideas themselves are all present and accounted for. Interesting note: when I asked this student to define the American Dream, he could not do so. He realized that he had no idea what that phrase even meant. He had no idea where the phrase came from; he’s only ever head other people say it. Now if we want to understand what’s going wrong in students’ writing, here’s our opportunity. Here’s our starting point. And I don’t mean the lack of education in our schools today and an 8th grader’s inability to define the American Dream–my university of Portland students who read Annie Dillard’s “An American Childhood” struggled with the same question, but the starting point is the way the student clearly does not understand what he’s writing about and yet he is unphased by it. He does not think that maybe he should stop—to look it up or ask a question. He just keeps going. Now this is precisely the thing that makes people mad about schools, their kids, learning, the state of America today…but for me, it’s the kind of thing that makes me think about what’s missing from the student’s experience that causes him to keep writing, even when he doesn’t know what the words mean.

So why did he do it?

Many people write poorly because they forget that it’s a form of a communication. They think of it as something to ‘complete.’ Once I received a negative course evaluation in my university class that said, “It’s like she thinks we’re going to be writers or something.” And that student was right. He or she is a writer, whether they like it or not. Isn’t that what everyone is complaining about? The bad emails? The bad school papers? The text-invasion of the English language?

So how do we turn students into writers?

Nobody’s writing will improve as long as they don’t understand or care that words themselves stand for ideas and that the gentle arrangement of the sentence upon the page equals the meaning for every sentence and sentence thereafter. That’s why complaints about bad writing and lazy writers and a hopeless generation of students miss the mark. It’s not the writing that you see that is the problem; it’s the thoughts that you don’t see. And honestly, we should be way more concerned about that. But alas there’s good news, and it come from the trenches of the writing coach…

The Good News

When students remember or learn for the first time that their ideas are just as important as the words, the sentences, the punctuation, they improve! In fact, students with writing anxiety who struggle to write anything because of all sorts of crippling fears, including that their writing is unclear, uninteresting, not good enough, or wrong, improve instantly when I help them lower the stakes for their own writing. It’s like when the pitcher starts to panic and can’t throw a strike and his Dad yells, “Hey kid, we’re just playing catch!” that’s my approach as the writing coach. And it’s counter intuitive, right? I mean if the critics say that the writing is awful, why tell someone to stop trying so hard? For the same reason that the pitcher does better when he thinks of playing catch than when he thinks of throwing strikes.

Now writing without thinking is great for unbinding the blocked writer, but it’s not a cure all. It will not magically make someone’s writing beautiful. It can, however, give the writer knowledge—knowledge of his or her own mind. I often say to my students that writing is this: I have this good idea and I want to give it to you. I cannot give you anything that I do not understand myself. I mean sure I can give you my rambling, my half-baked ideas, but I cannot give you a lovely present tied in ribbon and bows until I’ve placed it in the package and wrapped it neatly, just for you.

So when one discovers the meaning of his/her ideas—I call this interviewing your own writing—then they are ready to address the words, the punctuation, the sentence construction, then they are ready to make the writing beautiful. I call this writing recalibration, meaning I teach students how to use less effort on the creation of initial writing, so that they have the time, energy, and interest to do the work that makes writing sing. If a student engages in that process—I mean the whole thing—and the critics still reign down, then it just means that there’s something about how sentences are made, communicated, or made interesting that isn’t clicking. It’s not the worst thing to happen and it’s not permanent. Now I work with many students who have learning differences that affect their writing, so if you think your student might have an undiagnosed learning disability, I highly recommend testing. The results of the testing can guide you on what steps to take next. And even if the results signal major challenges with reading and writing don’t panic; it just means that along with these challenges your student may also need some lessons in the demystification of paragraphing, sentences, and word choice. All things that are teachable.

If you want to help your student become a better writer, don’t get stuck on the words they write on the page. Instead, ask questions about his/her thoughts, try to have a conversation. If your time is more valuable making other contributions to your family, find a specialist that can help your student discover both the communicative nature of writing and the traits of excellent writing. It’s an investment that will reward your student far beyond the years spent in a classroom.