How Do Writers Write?

By Brian Crawford

A year ago I had an epiphany: the way I taught writing vastly differed from the way I wrote.

In Language Arts education, buzz words for writing instruction abound: 6 + 1 traits, free-write, peer editing, writers’ workshop, conferencing, writing rubrics, student-centered instruction, and so on. Teachers embrace these approaches, attending well-run conferences, ordering supplementary materials, and honing their craft. For years, I too embraced these conventional approaches.

But then I realized: As a professional author, I did none of these things. Sure, I planned, drafted, and rewrote, revised, and cut; but never once had I consciously applied the seven traits, used a rubric, or really benefited from critique groups (whose feedback was generally overly polite and all over the map).

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Instead, I created a gnarled draft, and my editor and I had lengthy conversations about major content strengths and weaknesses. I re-wrote and re-submitted the entire manuscript, addressing these issues. The next round focused on line-by-line tweaks of sentence structure, clarity, dialogue, diction, and fluency. Enter draft three, which would be sent through three rounds of copy-editing and proofing before going to press.

At The Downtown School, the teachers use a similar approach to all publications: content editing, multiple drafts, and proofing by many eyes.

So if this is the way writing happens professionally, why didn’t I teach that way?

Now I do.

Instead of filling a student’s paper with comments and expecting improvement, I meet with every student to discuss major issues. We exchange ideas, and the student keeps a running document--created by them in Google Docs and shared with me--in which they take notes on all points to address. In subsequent writing, students consult this (ever-growing) bullet-point list prior to drafting. Their goal: to continue in the same vein as before, but now consciously addressing the points. This list becomes the student’s personalized and constantly evolving rubric. And copy-editing? We practice how to identify mechanics problems in others’ and our own writing, and we address these through multiple rounds of shared proofing.

So is this way the best way? I can’t say. But what I can say is that this approach is meant to mirror what happens in professional contexts. And since I have adopted this approach, I have seen more growth than I have with any other writing instructional method. Not that I hope to train future published authors, but I do hope to train writers with the skills to focus on what matters most: clarity of content.