Author: Jovi Nazareno, Grad Student at Harvard University, Extension School

When people hear that I majored in English, have a job title of editor, and actually write and generally like it, some reactions are:

  • Why?
  • You must like reading
  • Do you have any tips to get me to write?
  • I shouldn’t share with you what I just wrote
  • When do I use a comma (or hyphen? Wait, hyphen or dash?)
  • My son/daughter is struggling with writing and I want to know how to help
  • Can you read this for me?
  • Can you fix this for me?
  • So you work for a newspaper or magazine, right?
  • Good for you

The titles I have accumulated (e.g., English major) share such a direct connection to writing that I am automatically seen as a “good writer.” Without getting into the flaws of such an assumption, I will say that the “good writer” is a label that carries a lot of mystery. The alternative label of a “bad writer” carries inaccuracies. Together, such labels minimize all the options in-between like “someone who writes” and make global statements that may or may not be true. Global statements fail to explain and appreciate the details, situations, and changes that occur over time.

The iceberg of writing: We see the product

A typical view of writing is much like an iceberg, with a visible tip but the entire structure hidden away. Most of the above-listed reactions highlight a desire from others to understand how to have something to show for writing, i.e., its final product. What we see and tend to value is the tangible product, yet its creation involves a thinking process and the progress we make over time.1 A grade or score can be assigned but does not necessarily measure all aspects of what makes a “good writer.”

In many ways, I think we do realize how much goes into the production of a piece of writing. When I think of my engineering colleagues, I can easily recall people speaking to the value of the written product. The tangible publication becomes important because of how it represents years of research, data collection, analyses, and discoveries. Much of the effort of such work culminates in a report, but a report without all that effort would be meaningless.

So, the iceberg analogy is important because it changes our awareness of how we think about writing. In addition to assessing the written product, we also know to spend time praising and providing feedback on the progress a person has made as well as the process by which they approached the task. We can consider the process or steps one follows and how they spend their time. We can consider the strengths and weaknesses of the product. And we can value the fact that we progress by learning over time and trying to improve the next time.

The problem: Time is used for outcomes rather than mastery

Common standards of writing use time as the constraint or goal, when time should instead be the support for the goal of mastering writing. To understand what I mean, let’s first look at some common standards and tests.

U.S. Common Core2



·   Text Types and Purposes (opinions, explanatory texts, narratives)

·   Production and Distribution of Writing (producing, strengthening, and publishing writings)

·   Research to Build and Present Knowledge (using research, sources, and experience)

·   Range of Writing (writing short and extended pieces for a range of purposes)

Secondary School Admission Test


3-4(none; given a one-story writing prompt; unscored writing is given to schools)15 min.x
5-1125 min.x
Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE)4 2-4(none; given a prompt; unscored writing is given to schools)untimedx
5-630 min.x
7-830 min.x
9-1230 min.x
Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT)5, 6



9-12Complete a multiple choice, 44-question Writing and Language Test to show:

·   Command of Evidence

·   Words in Context

·   Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science

·   Expression of Ideas

·   Standard English Conventions

35 min.x
Essay to read/explain an argument to show these abilities:

·   Reading

·   Analysis

·   Writing

Scored on scale of 1-4 by two scorers

50 min.x
Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) General Test7, 8Graduate levelTwo essays to show critical thinking and language mechanics in:

·   Analyzing an issue

·   Analyzing an argument

Scored on scale of 0-6

30 min.x
U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in Writing94, 8, 12Two essay tasks to either:

·   Persuade

·   Explain

·   Convey experience

Scored on scale of 1-6 on development of ideas, organization, and language facility

30 min.x

All these standards of writing might give you some information about the product completed within a set amount of time. But none of these standards explicitly teaches how to think about the writing process or how to get better with each assignment. While the U.S. Common Core does seem to address product, process, and progress, many teachers believe that not all components of writing development are addressed by the Common Core standards. 10

Even when looking at the classroom level, sadly, several national surveys reported that middle school teachers spend little time on writing instruction and that students spend little time producing extended composition (i.e., producing more than a paragraph, showcasing knowledge/thinking, connection to new ideas). 11, 12, 13 So, while time is used to set a goal of what should be achieved, time is not spent in a way that supports mastery of writing. As my table shows, emphasis is placed on products, particularly products created in as little as 15 minutes!

Time as mastery: The unseen potential

Brief texts produced in and/or over brief periods of time do not lend toward the goal of cultivating writers. If we continue to value the product over all else, we will continue to miss the unique potential of each individual writer. As Bloom once wrote about many years ago, most of us can master a subject/skill if allowed the time to do so. 14

Instead of a focus on deadlines, timed outcomes, and urging everyone from point “A” to “B” in the same way, imagine instead a focus on the thinking, refining, and reflection processes. With a shift in how we think about writing, we can begin to value not just the bare minimum standards but the unmet potential of each student to succeed at writing.

1 Guskey, T. R. (2011). Five obstacles to grading reform. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 16–21.

2 Common Core State Standards Initiative. (n.d.). Common core state standards for writing. Retrieved August 5, 2020, from

3 The Enrollment Management Association. (n.d.). About the Test. Retrieved August 5, 2020, from The SSAT website:

4 Educational Records Bureau. (n.d.). ISEE Overview. Retrieved August 5, 2020, from ERB: Lighting the Pathways to Learning website:

5 College Board. (2015, May 12). Writing and Language Test. Retrieved August 5, 2020, from SAT Suite of Assessments website:

6 College Board. (2014, December 3). SAT Essay Scoring. Retrieved August 5, 2020, from SAT Suite of Assessments website:

7 Educational Testing Service. (n.d.). Overview of the GRE Analytical Writing Measure (For Test Takers). Retrieved August 5, 2020, from

8 Educational Testing Service. (n.d.). Score Level Descriptions for the GRE Analytical Writing Measure (For Test Takers). Retrieved August 5, 2020, from

9 National Assessment Governing Board, U.S. Department of Education. (2011). Writing Framework for the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Retrieved from

10 Troia, G. A., & Graham, S. (2016). Common core writing and language standards and aligned state assessments: a national survey of teacher beliefs and attitudes. Reading and Writing, 29(9), 1719–1743.

11 Applebee, A. N., & Langer, J. A. (2011). A snapshot of writing instruction in middle schools and high schools. English Journal, 100(6), 14–27.

12 Graham, S., Capizzi, A., Harris, K. R., Hebert, M., & Morphy, P. (2014). Teaching writing to middle school students: A national survey. Reading and Writing, 27(6), 1015–1042.

13 Ray, A. B., Graham, S., Houston, J. D., & Harris, K. R. (2016). Teachers use of writing to support students’ learning in middle school: A national survey in the United States. Reading and Writing, 29(5), 1039–1068.

14 Bloom, B. S. (1968). Learning for Mastery. Instruction and Curriculum. Regional Education Laboratory for the Carolina and Virginia, Topical Papers and Reprints, Number 1. Evaluation comment, 1, n2.