Writing skills matter…even if you don’t plan to go pro
When you’re in high school, having to write essay after essay in English, history and humanities classes can start to feel exhausting…maybe even pointless. After all, you might think, I’m not interested in a career as a writer, so why am I expected to write so much in school? You may not like it, but the truth is that writing well is an important skill you’ll use for the rest of your life, even if you don’t become a novelist or journalist.
In fact, you probably already write more than you realize. Every time you send a text message to your friend or respond to a social media post, you’re writing. When you comment on a YouTube video or email a question to your teacher, you are writing.
And no matter what career you choose, you’ll have to know how to write clearly and concisely. Whether it’s a cover letter for a job application, an email to your boss or any number of other flyers, memos and reports that get exchanged in the workplace, the things you write make a lasting impression. Not being able to communicate clearly, or using incorrect grammar and sentence structure, may reflect poorly on you — and it could even cost you your job.
One reason students often dislike or procrastinate writing assignments is because writing is difficult. But that’s not necessarily for lack of skill. Writing is difficult, even for the best writers, because it requires us to figure out exactly what we think about a given topic. Exploring and sorting out our thoughts can be challenging enough. And then there’s the work of revision and editing, a painful but necessary process if we want to get our ideas across in a clear and engaging way.
So how do you become a better writer and make the process a little less painful? The answer is simple: You’ve gotta write – a lot. Summer is a great time to practice, especially because you can choose topics you actually care about.
If you want some interesting writing prompts to get you started this summer, a great place to look is The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing, by John Warner. In this book, Warner offers creative and engaging writing exercises and suggestions for what you might learn in the process of answering each prompt.
We recently caught up with Warner to get his advice on how students can become better writers and learn to love (or at least not hate) the writing process.
EE: Why do students dislike writing?
JW: I think it’s important to draw a distinction between writing in general and some (or much) of the writing students do in school contexts. My experience is students often like writing in general, but not so much writing for school. My view is that this is because much of the writing students are asked to do in school isn’t writing – trying to communicate a specific idea to a specific audience to fulfill a specific purpose (also known as the rhetorical situation) – but is instead a kind of imitation of writing, made according to templates to please an often standardized assessment. It’s no mystery why that kind of experience would be unlikable.
When students enter my college courses and are liberated from those strictures they seem to like writing just fine. One of my life goals is to help students be liberated from those strictures long before they get into a college classroom.
EE: What misconceptions do young writers struggle with?
JW: In my view, most misconceptions students struggle with are rooted in the misconceptions about writing that schooling communicates…that there is one right way to approach a particular writing occasion, that what matters most is a surface-level correctness rather than the deeper ideas and attempts at communicating with audiences.
Students learn what they’re taught, and much of what they’re taught about writing in the context of school does not properly communicate the complexity and pleasures of what it means to write in a genuine and interesting rhetorical situation.
The base unit of writing is the idea, not the sentence. Without an idea, the specifics of the sentence are meaningless.
EE: How can students use their parents or teachers as a resource in this process of growing their writing practice?
JW: The most important thing is to talk to other people about how they go about writing, and how writing works for them, in an effort to figure out how writing will work for you. I think of it like trying on different styles of clothing to see what fits each individual best. The more exposure you have to more styles, the more likely you are to find one that works for you.
EE: Just like many students have a summer reading list, would it be helpful for students to have a summer writing list? If they did, what projects/tasks/exercises would you put at the top of the list?
JW: This is where I plug my book, The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing, which is filled with writing experiences that cover a range of tasks which help develop one’s writing “practice”: the skills, attitudes, knowledge, and habits of mind of writers. If you can build your practice, even unfamiliar writing occasions are doable because it’s easier to see how experience in one realm translates to another.
Big picture, the goal should be to do a variety of writing, for it to be fun, and for it to be done for audiences who will find the work meaningful.
EE: What are some qualities that good writers have in common?
JW: This falls under the “attitudes” inside the writer’s practice. The most important attitude is to recognize that when it comes to writing there is no terminal proficiency. You will get a little better each time you write. More writing makes someone a better writer. This is an ironclad rule.
At the same time, one must recognize that even the proficiency we seem to have achieved will occasionally desert us. Sometimes it’s because we’re writing something unfamiliar and we need to fall back on the other parts of our practice to learn this new form, a painful and frustrating process. Other times it’s simply that writing well is hard and sometimes we fall short of the challenge. In that case it’s important to be able to recognize how one’s writing falls short of the goals we set for communicating with our audience and work that sucker until it’s closer to what you meant to achieve.
EE: Any other tips you have for high school students who want to become better writers?
JW: Read as much and as widely as possible. Congregate with others who share your passion for the things you want to write about and share your writing with them. Above all, believe that your writing matters, no matter what signal your schooling might be sending. If school isn’t scratching the writing itch, try to find an outlet that keeps you engaged and interested.