7 Rules for Teaching Writers

All, Guides, Pillar

I have been blogging away diligently for more than two years and it should be no surprise (on a blog titled Metawriting) that more than half the posts written to date have focused on writing. About half of those have been discussions about a specific assignment or activity to support writing, but the other half have been a mixture of rants (about the way writing is taught and assessed in so many schools) and raves (celebrating the National Writing Project and the wonderful peers who inspire me). However, there are eight posts in particular that I want to highlight (thumbnails below link to these posts), because they get at the heart of my philosophy of teaching writers. No, that’s not quite right, these posts make up the pillars of my manifesto for teaching writers which can be summed up with these seven rules:

WHAT IS A WRITERBottom line – teach writers not writing. This idea of focusing on the writer panics many teachers and administrators because they are usually not confident writers themselves and so do not understand how they can foster and support writing development. This is why there is such a thriving trade in textbooks, graphic organizers, and other quick fixes. These educators have never experienced and never witnessed good writing instruction focused on the writer. How can it be a thing if they don’t know how it looks, feels, or tastes? It is a matter of trust. They do not trust themselves and so they do not trust their students. This lack of understanding and lack of faith results in an endless self-fulfilling cycle of writing failure. This is what our education system (K-16) does by focusing on writing instead of the writer. People want easy solutions and it is easier to latch onto a gimmick that promises to solve all writing problems than to focus on the one common denominator – the writer.

einstein-insanityWriting is not a single skill. Writing is not a singular skill that can be learned once and then serve the possessor until death. Consider for a moment learning to tie your shoelaces. This is a skill that remains the same whether you are donning sneakers, dress shoes, or boots. Most of us learn this skill at a very young age and continue to use the same technique day in and day out no matter what type of shoe we are wearing or for what activity. Can you really compare writing to tying shoelaces? Is writing a poem the same as a scientific report or a business proposal? All useful skills, but hardly interchangeable. Writing is actually a set of complex skills that vary according to the context and purpose. This is why teaching gimmicks (such as graphic organizers and rigid formulas) fail to help so many writers.

how to make a writer - writing - reading - reflecting - communityMaking writers is simple but not easy. Make them (and then let them) write. Make them (and let them) read. Make them (and let them) reflect on their writing and the writing of others (both peers and role models) individually and within a supportive community of writers. If you want your students to be writers then let them be writers – let them write, read, and reflect within a community of writers. There is still teaching to do, but banish the formulas and the rules and let them discover their own. It is this process that will forge writers who can adapt to new writing demands. A formula can only take a writer so far, but tools and tricks they develop themselves, along with the confidence to choose and deploy them,  can take writers anywhere.

writers-are-writers-are-writersStop segregating writers. Writers are writers are writers. Once writers have mastered the basics of manipulating a writing utensil and keyboard then they are ready to be writers and shouldn’t be subjected to watered down challenges and lessons. I have conferenced with writers from primary school to senior center and they have the same fears, goals, and interests. While the vocabulary and subject matter might vary (although not as much as you might think), the essential bones of the conversation is the same. Some very young writers are interested in very tough subjects so let them write. Some older writers need to explore childhood experiences so let them write. Don’t water down your expectations for developmental writers or those struggling with the language. Let the writer work with challenging ideas and texts or push them to do so if you know they are interested but afraid. Support them, but challenge them.

write-all-the-thingsBelieve in your writers. As I noted above, many educators are not confident in themselves as writers, but perhaps even worse are the educators who believe they are good writers because it is some kind of genetic blessing or gift from the gods. They do not believe that writing is a skill that can be developed and they do not believe everyone can be a writer. I believe. I believe because of my own experience as a struggling writer. I believe because I have witnessed writers of all ages create amazing pieces. I believe that our current system of teaching writers too often destroys them and this is one of the great tragedies of our time. Some writers just need someone to believe in them. Be that someone and create a community of others to support their dream.

love-the-writerBelieve in the importance and power of this work. I have always believed as a writing teacher that I am teaching the most important class in my students’ educational experience. Good education in every discipline should include writing. Writing is key to professional and civic achievement and plays an important role in personal development. We write to understand, to remember, and to communicate. Some writing is fleeting and left forgotten in the supermarket parking lot, but other writing lives on to inspire and challenge generations born centuries after the scribe went to dust. I am certain of the power of writing to change the writer, to change those touched by their message, and the world.

never-forget-to-feed-the-writerNever forget to feed the writer. Writers are tough. We have to be to withstand the withering criticism we level at our own work (let alone what outside critics have to say) and the constant struggle to cross the gap between what we dream and we put on paper. Writing is dangerous work. There are volatile emotions and raw energy unleashed into small spaces. We emerge from these crucibles either tempered or destroyed. However, we need to constantly work our writing muscles else they will atrophy. Writing is a bloody and difficult endeavor and we all need way stations to feed our souls and balm our wounds. Writers need care and tending at every stage and every age. We must take care of ourselves as writers and we must take care of the writers in our charge.

What is your manifesto for teaching writers? What are your rules for teaching writers?



  • Love this, Deanna! My thoughts on writing align well with yours, that learning to write comes from PRACTICE, not learning grammar and punctuation skills. Reading, and being read to, are possibly the most important activities that contribute to people being able to write.

  • I remember my first writing teacher telling me to embrace my poor writing, as I wouldn’t know my good writing sounded like until I’d written poorly. I’d like to think my manifesto would sync with yours but I haven’t thought about it. Tim

    • And that’s one of the things we challenge teachers to do during a NWP summer institute – think about their manifesto!

  • This is fantastic, Deanna. Thanks for pulling together this meta-post of your metawriting blog. Meta-meta. Love it, love it!

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