Writing is going to come up in a lot of subjects for our students: English Language Arts, History, other Humanities, Social Sciences.
Just like with math, we have an Overcome Your Writing Anxiety course, and whenever we start working with a student on their writing, we start there so that students can get a hold of exactly what’s going on in their brain if they feel tense when writing.
We also teach students a specific procedure for approaching writing that removes as much anxiety from the experience as possible by breaking this very complex task down into bite-sized, relatively easy to achieve pieces.
They get to experience a “win” at the end of each step, which makes them feel good and helps them persist through to the end of the project. They get to focus on using one skill at a time, which means that they can work at their highest level of that skill. And, they have almost no opportunity to self-criticize their way into getting frustrated and stuck staring at a blank page.
Step 1: Notes
The first step of this process is to write out their notes. What this looks like will depend on what the assignment is. If the assignment is to write a short story or a journal entry, then the student is going to have all the information in their head, and they just need to brain dump it out onto a page in bullet points. The bullet points do not need to be in any particular order, we just want them to get all the thoughts out onto the page.
In the case of a research assignment, then you’re going to want to look at the prompt and help them determine what resources they will need to use to find the information needed to answer the prompt. They can find their sources first, and then read and take notes on each one. They can both paraphrase notes and copy/paste direct quotes into bullet points on a document during this stage. Just be sure they are clearly recording what source each note is taken from.
Step 2: Outline
The next step is going to be to outline. First, have them use color-coding to put each of their bulleted notes in categories. This will make it easier for them to name the main ideas in the Roman numerals of their outline. Roman numeral one will be the introduction. Roman numeral two will be the first category that they want to present in their paper or their story. Roman numeral three will be the second category of information, Roman numeral four will be the third, and so on. The final Roman numeral will be for the conclusion.
Then, have them copy and paste their bulleted notes into the outline. Note that in this part of the writing process, they are not having to write any original sentences. They’re just copying and pasting what they’ve already written from their notes into the outline which shows what order the information will be presented in.
Step 3: Write, but not from the beginning
The first words are always the hardest to write. So we don’t start with the first words. Our students jump right into the middle.
It’s a single paragraph they need to write, they’re going to write the middle of the paragraph first, which means that they will write the dreaded topic sentence later.
If it’s a longer paper, then they will write the body paragraphs first. Again, they can leave the topic sentences out. They’ll go back and add in the topic sentences after they’ve written all their body paragraphs. This allows them to isolate the task of transitioning from paragraph to paragraph after they’ve already warmed up, and they’re not staring at a daunting blank page.
After they write the middle of their piece, they’ll write the end. If the piece of writing is only one paragraph, at this stage they will write a concluding sentence. If they are writing a longer paper, this will be the stage at which they write their conclusion paragraph.
And only after all of that is done will they go back and write the introduction.
Step 4: Edit and Revise
As the student is writing, we may notice that they have some grammar mistakes. We may notice that they have some clarity issues within their sentences. When we do, we make a note of these opportunities for improvement and hold on to it until the editing and revision phase of the process. We do this specifically to avoid interrupting the student’s flow, getting them stuck in perfecting their writing and blocking them from moving forward.
Once the entire piece is drafted, the editing and revising phase begins. This is when we will help correct grammar and help to improve the clarity of sentences. This is also the only part of the process where we provide suggestions for what to write if the student specifically ask for them or if we notice that they do not know how to say what they want to say in a correct way.
To get the student ready to receive our suggestions, and to make sure that they are learning to improve their writing from this process, we’ll say something like, “Hey, let’s take a break and brainstorm together some ways you can say what you want to say here.” When they’ve got enough ideas, we end the brainstorm and have them write what we’ve determined together is a great choice of words.
After completing one writing assignment this way, our students are changed for good. They see the possibility that writing doesn’t have to feel impossible, it can even feel easy! And they see that they can feel good about what they write.
Resistance to writing practice drops, and they are happy to work on their writing skills with us every time the opportunity arises. And with each of those opportunities, they become better and better writers.
Founder & Principal Academic Coach
Laura Fragomeni, Ed.M
Laura Fragomeni is a Harvard-educated master academic coach and the founder of School Without Suffering, an academic coaching practice specializing in helping struggling students around the world be happy and successful.