Quick Tip Tuesday: Modeling strategies that promote better first-draft writing

July 6th, 2010

Writing is hard work. And the best way for teachers to show students just how hard – and how rewarding – it is to write, is to be writers themselves. In this week’s Quick Tip, Kelly Gallagher shares some of his own modeling strategies from his book Teaching Adolescent Writers.

For many of my students, getting started is the hardest part of composing. Why? Because writing is hard, and beginning a writing task creates a formidable cognitive hurdle for inexperienced or reluctant writers. Unfortunately, many students continue year in and year out with the mistaken notion that writing is easy for some and difficult for others (generally speaking, they think writing is easy for the teacher and difficult for the students). My guess is that they have reached this erroneous conclusion primarily due to one of two reasons:
1. They have teachers who do not actively write. As a result, these teachers may have forgotten how hard they themselves struggled as developing writers. When teachers do not write, students lose the opportunity to see adults successfully struggle through the writing process.
2. They have teachers who do actively write but who have become expert at hiding the work it takes from their students. Often when teachers share their own writing, it is only after extensive revising and polishing that has been done out of the sight of the students.

Students’ anxiety is reduced when they come to understand that everyone—students, teachers, professional writers—has to work hard when they sit down to write. Even Stephen King, one of the most prolific writers working today, has to fight self-doubt when he sits down to write, as he recounts in On Writing: “With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories,I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” (2000, p. 209) Rather than hide the fact that writing is a constant struggle against the “self-doubt” King refers to, teachers serve their students better when they reveal their own writing doubts. What better way to model how to handle these doubts and the various challenges of writing than to compose in front of the students? Though students already know that writing is hard, they do not realize that more experienced writers often struggle as much as they do. Our students stand a greater chance of internalizing and embracing the complexity of writing when they see their teachers struggle to internalize and embrace the complexity of writing.

Beyond the notion that writing is hard, a second reason surfaces to explain why my students have a difficult time diving into a first draft: they are often afraid their writing will be lousy. Writing is personal and risky, and many of my students are paralyzed by the notion that the writing they produce will be sub-par (especially when it comes to sharing their writing with their teacher and peers). They often feel they have nothing interesting to say, or if they do have an idea, they are unsure how to get it down on paper. My response to students faced with writing apprehension is simple and straightforward: Join the crowd.

Students do not understand that most first-draft writing, for everyone, is lousy. But a good writer recognizes that a lot of lousy first-draft writing must be done before better writing can occur. To help get students over the fear of failure, I begin our writing year by sharing the following poem:
Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
Author unknown
You’ve failed many times,
although you may not
You fell down
the first time
you tried to walk.
You almost drowned
the first time
you tried to
swim, didn’t you?
Did you hit the
ball the first time
you swung a bat?
Heavy hitters,
the ones who hit the most home runs,
also strike
out a lot.
English novelist
John Creasey got
752 rejection slips
before he published
564 books.
Babe Ruth struck out
1,330 times,
but he also hit 714 home runs.
Don’t worry about failure.
Worry about the
chances you miss
when you don’t
even try.

After sharing the poem I remind my students that Peter Elbow (1998) once said a person’s best writing is often mixed up with his worst. I tell them it is a requirement in my class to produce a lot of bad writing. From bad writing, I tell them, the seeds of good writing will eventually grow. Bad writing is necessary before good writing emerges. To better encourage them to take risks in first-draft writing and to understand that first- and second-draft writing are
not the same thing, I share with them the chart depicted in Figure 3.1.

This chart, developed by my friend and mentor Mary K. Healy, who was an early leader in the Bay Area Writing Project, reinforces the idea that before writers can get it right they first have to get it down. Ralph Fletcher, in What a Writer Needs (1993), calls getting the first draft down “the sneeze.” He encourages students to blast out their thoughts without fear of how the writing will turn out. Once students recognize that first-draft writing is tentative and exploratory in nature, their trepidations begin to dissipate. This is the first step in breaking down their reticence.

Beyond getting students to embrace the difficulty of writing and helping them accept the notion that it’s okay for first-draft writing to be lousy, here are five additional ideas to consider. When implemented, these ideas help lower student anxiety about first-draft writing.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Practice, Practice, Pract&hellip  |  June 12th, 2012 at 10:14 am

    […] to differentiate between first draft and final copy writing.  These posters are based on the First- vs. Second-Draft Comparison Chart in Gallagher’s “Teaching Adolescent Writers” (p. 51) ….  I’ve changed the language a bit to make it more accessible for my […]

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