The secret to writing …

A selection of texts to examine

We’re in our final week of school over here. The kids are mostly done with their work — math finished up and such. So today I decided to introduce a simple, but hopefully powerful, lesson about writing. I told them that I was going to teach them the “secret” of writing … of writing anything.

I spread out some different samples of writing:

  • Children’s novel
  • Graduate-level academic paper
  • Poem
  • Instagram post
  • Letter to the editor
  • Children’s magazine article
  • Newspaper article (from the New York Times)
  • Non-fiction children’s book
  • Rental lease agreement
  • Graphic novel/comicbook for kids

Then I asked them to describe a little bit about each — I introduced some new words, like “genre” and “form” to help guide our discussion. I wanted to help them understand that a “magazine article” is A Thing with expectations of form and content attached to it.

We talked about the different “purposes” and intended “audiences” that guided the writers to choose their particular forms. For example, what might the writer of the letter to the editor be trying to do? Who was he wanting to address? (In this case, it’s a letter in favor of a local political candidate.) How is this different from the purpose and audience of the lease agreement?

We compared the different lengths of the pieces in the different forms and genres, noting which were very short (letter to the editor, poem, Instagram post) and which were very long (novel, non-fiction book). We looked at how images were used and when they were integral components of the text (graphic novel and Instagram) and when they were not (rental lease agreement).

We talked about how the same writer might choose different words for the article for a children’s magazine versus an article for the New York Times and why. We talked about what we might expect to find in each kind of text. Would we expect to find made-up dialogue in the magazine article? Why not? Would we expect it in the novel? Why?

I introduced them to some of the oddities around academic writing and explained that this style of writing is used primarily in school settings and between professors/academics, but that it informs many other kinds of writing too. We will spend a lot of time learning how to “do” academic writing, and it is important for academic success and for developing analytical thinking skills. But realistically it is not a form they are likely to use regularly once they graduate, so I wanted to put it in context now of being one form among many.

We talked about what other kinds of texts exist in the word that weren’t included in the samples. Dottie brought up written instructions, and we talked about what kind of choices we might want to make when writing instructions. We talked about how our goals with writing instructions and a lease agreement might be really different than, say, a poem — especially in terms of how much room there is for multiple interpretations. We also talked about daily forms of writing like letters and emails and phone texts.

Next, I asked the kids to consider what forms and genres they might choose for different purposes. I said what would you choose to write if you want to make plans with friends? (Text or email) What about if you want to oppose a landfill expansion in your community? (Letter to the editor) What if you have a really wonderful epic story idea you want to share? (Novel)

Finally, I asked: so, how would you learn how to write any of these? And, we talked about the importance of reading good examples of the different forms and genres and analyzing how those writers are making them work.

Bingo. The secret of writing.

Obviously we’ll keep using these concepts daily over the many years the kids will spend working on their writing, but I really do think this way of looking at writing — as something we can learn through modeling — is so empowering.

My current students are 7 and 10. This is essentially what I taught my college freshman when I taught English 101 during graduate school. It was a new idea to many of them, and it was clear that many were not well versed in different texts. They didn’t feel comfortable with reading and navigating different kinds of texts yet, let alone writing them.

I actually wrote a paper on this topic as part of my teacher training — my question was, “how can we teach our students how to write when they don’t know how to read?” Obviously they could read, but there’s a big difference between casual reading and purposeful reading. Good writing has to be purposeful, so the route to purposeful writing is purposeful reading.

Now that I’ve given my current students some language and concepts to help guide their purposeful reading, we’ll incorporate this into everything going forward — reading and writing both.

Ultimately, I want to empower my children/students to feel capable of writing anything for any purpose. Obviously, they’ll need to study the forms and models in order to do so. This is one of the main goals of law school, for example, to teach a kind of reading and writing that no one learns outside of that context.

But, I want them to know today, that they can learn to engage in the written discourse of our world. They can learn to communicate effectively with words, regardless of their purpose.