What is a Writer?

All, Pillar, Reflections

What is a writer and how do you become one? These are crucial questions that I always ask my students and even more essential when my students are teachers. Our sense of ourselves as writers is an important part of who we are as writing teachers. Central to the work done by the National Writing Project to improve the teaching of writing is based on the guiding idea that “teachers who write are better teachers of writing.”

I always begin the work of our Online Summer Institute with an exploration of the literacy myths we possessed in the past or perhaps still carry with us as well as the literacy myths that our students possess. I know many of my freshmen cling to the “magic bean” theory of writing instruction (one reason I always share Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” with them) and believe if I will just “give” them the secret then they will be all set to for future writing success. Others have bought the “weak” or “strong” label assigned to them by a school system focused on on-demand writing and other meaningless forms of assessment that have little to no predictive value regarding the writing abilities. Both labels are destructive and counterproductive to all writers.

This is why I think it is so important to have serious conversations with our students (and fellow teachers of writers) about what is a writer. Many students (and teachers) include in their baggage an idealized notion of what a writer is and, much worse, what “good writing” is. Too many people consider me a “writer” because I have published books but I have always found that definition far too limiting for me and for the writers I work with. I have worked as a professional writer all of my adult life, but why should romance novels I published in my 20s count for more than the newspaper and magazine articles, the journal articles, the web sites, the technical documents – all of which earned me a lot more money? Why should any these matter more than my passion and dedication for the written word? My students write journals, blogs, presentations, infographics, and tutorials and much more – why should these count for more or less than five paragraph essays and research papers? If they write words that matter to them and to others then does that not make them writers too? I think so. I think writers write. I think good writers possess two key traits – confidence and self-regulation – which are developed by writing and writing a lot in many different formats and forums. Sadly, we do far too little to develop either trait in our writing classrooms, but that is another blog post.

I love to have my students think about the important questions: “What is a Writer” and “Why I Write” as well as the equally important question: Are you a writer or a Writer (what is the difference between a lower/upper case “w”)? We are reading Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider in the Morehead Online Summer Institute which includes some great thoughts on these questions.

I like for my students to spend a lot of time thinking about this topic and so we engage in a lot of reflection and discussion as well as write literacy narratives.

How do you define “writer” and “good writing” and how do you engage your students in this conversation? Let’s encourage lots of teachers to engage in this conversation so we can all work to improve the teaching of writing.

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