Writing well includes having something worth saying

by Mr. Sheehy

I have always wanted to be a writer professionally, but earlier in my life–particularly when I was a student choosing how to direct my vocation–I didn’t feel that I had anything worth saying. Whatever I said, I said well–that’s what my teachers usually told me–but never had I been praised for saying things particularly insightful or worthwhile. In my eyes, the lack was a real issue, so I directed myself away from the writing life.

Years later, I am convinced I was right. I wrote a few things in notebooks during that time, and each piece exudes that lack of content, that ability to say nothing well. My best writing all ended up in letters I wrote to a girl, a girl to whom I had so much to say I couldn’t find the time to write it all down. I have never re-read those letters, but I assume they’re much better than what’s in the notebooks, since the recipient later married me.

The conviction that content matters directs much of how I teach writing. I do not enjoy sending students into frenzies where they do not know what to write. Few are the people in the world who attempt to write text without a clearly prescribed purpose and area of content from which to pull. Thus, few business executives, salespeople, marketers, business owners, and great aunts get writer’s block, because they know why they are writing and what it is they need to say. Knowing this, when I present a writing task to my students, I give them a purpose, not a genre.

I admit that my thinking arises mostly from personal experience and conviction, but lately I have bumped into a pair of articles that have buoyed my thinking. One is an article sitting in my cubicle about supporting the six traits in writing, which is about the most unlikely thing in the world for me to read (my eyes cross at the mention of the six traits). Yet I read it, and I actually liked some of it. Concerning the ideas and content trait, the point is this:

Many writing approaches are based on the notion that children’s brains are filled with “original” thoughts and that they should have a desire or ability to write these insights down on paper. However, a careful observation of children completely contradicts these ideas. Most children who do write easily will first use facts they have read or been taught . . .

Those children who can, without much assistance, easily create content that is “clear, focused, anecdotal, insightful and purposeful” (criteria from the 6 Traits) almost always use ideas and information that they have read recently, read a lot about because of a strong interest, or have written about previously.

There is nothing wrong with having students write primarily as a response tool, or in a reporting manner, which are the styles I demand most frequently. Usually, these occasions give students something to say, because content is involved. Style, voice, and fluency still come into play in such genres, and I find that I can help their writing better when they have content to convey than when they are saying something silly like, “My craziest experience in a restaurant or shopping mall.”

The idea was reinforced when I read Will Fitzhugh’s article, “Where’s the Content?” from an Educational Leadership of few years back:

The very idea of writing without content takes some getting used to. I was taken aback not long ago to read the comments of a young woman who was asked how she felt about having a computer grade the essays . . . She replied that she didn’t mind, noting that the test givers were more interested in her “ability to communicate” than in what she actually said.

Although style, fluency, tone, and correct grammar are certainly important in writing, folks like me think that content has value as well. The guidelines for scoring the new writing section on the SAT seem to say otherwise, however: Readers evaluating the essays are told not to take off points for factual mistakes, and they must score the essays “holistically”—at the rate of 30 per hour (Winerip, 2005).

Fitzhugh’s article is not the final word on the subject of how to teach writing in schools, but it did give me pause. I am about to push my ninth graders to their annual essay response to The Odyssey, and for years I have assigned the topic, “Odysseus and Me,” requiring students to extend three characteristics of Odysseus to themselves. It’s been a moderately successful essay, though most of the challenge comes from including six quotes from The Odyssey to support the arguments. After reading Fitzhugh’s thoughts, I second-guessed my assignment, thinking I’d lowered the expectations a bit too far and passed up an opportunity for students to engage in the creation of real content.

I then began to change the essay and am crafting it into a grander challenge, one where I’ll have the chance to teach students more of the process of writing, of breaking down the thinking, and of looking to sources of accurate information to support their arguments. Now, the essay reads like this: “How much is Odysseus like another figure, either from history or literature?” The challenge is real, the content is meaty, and I think students are up to the task if I teach them how to do it.

I do not want my students to be good at saying nothing well. I want them to be interesting, and I want them to learn how to spot good content, content worthy of inclusion in their writing. To help them in this, it seems to me that the best way might be to challenge them to find it and to include it accurately. It might not serve them as well on The Test, but I have a hunch it will serve them better in life.

Thanks for reading.