Author: Jovi Nazareno, Grad Student at Harvard University, Extension School
I think many of us would agree that writing is not always easy and not always fun. Some people may even say writing is not fun at all. In my 10 years of working as an editor on various business projects, I can only recall one person who expressed genuine enthusiasm for doing the writing part of the work. Perhaps as adults we become jaded by the number of to-dos that we seem to accumulate and see writing as taking up too much of our precious time. Yet that does not explain the many children I’ve tutored who sigh when assigned a writing project. For some reason, across the ages, it seems to me that expressions of “I’m not a good writer” and “I don’t like writing” are much more prominent than they should be.
I don’t think I’m alone in hearing such phrases, as it makes the opposite “I like writing!” seem surprisingly odd. When people hear that I majored in English, have a job title of editor, and actually do write and generally like it, one commonly asked question is:
How do I (or my son/daughter, employee, friend, family member) get better at writing?
The conversation often expands to include questions about why I like writing, when you’re supposed to use a particular punctuation, why so many people have “bad grammar,” and what tips I might have to help someone to write.
Go back to the basics – practice!
Sometimes the most seemingly obvious thing gets missed. In the case of writing, the obvious thing to do is to write. Like any other skill we can gain, such as riding a bike, throwing a football, cooking, etc., if you want to learn or get better at doing something, you have to start by doing it. It is no surprise that many quotes exist about practice.
- “There is no glory in practice, but without practice, there is no glory.” – unknown
- “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” – Malcolm Gladwell
- “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
- “When asked, “How do you write?” I invariably answer, ‘one word at a time.’ – Stephen King
All these quotes share in common the idea that there is no success without the effort. Sure, some people seem to be talented writers, but more important than noticing talent is asking how talent came to be. No one comes out of the womb writing; there are developmental milestones to be reached before one starts to write. At a very basic level, example milestones include using language or holding a pencil (or typing on a keyboard). Despite knowing that basic skills (like holding a pencil) require practice, sometimes we slide past the importance of practice for those harder skills, like writing, and instead attribute success to talent. We would never say something like, “well so-and-so is just not born to hold a pencil,” so why do we say things like, “he’s just not a good writer” as if genes alone determine success?
Researchers, who were interested in what “works” for writing in for Grades 1–12, did a review of prior reviews of instructional practices in writing (known as evidence-based practices). After looking at 19 review articles with publication dates ranging from 1986 to 2014, and after assessing the effectiveness of each writing instructional method, these researchers came up with recommendations. Guess the first recommendation: Write!1
I’m entertained by the fact that it took probably hours upon hours of reading studies, analyzing data from previous studies, and consolidating the findings, to conclude to write more. How shocking, right? I bet after reading this post, you think this conclusion is rather obvious, and for great teachers, this is rather obvious. But let’s not devalue what these researchers brought to the table: evidence that effective teachers have students write often. More importantly, just writing more is not enough. Effective teachers have students write more often for different purposes and for different audiences. This is important because not all practice is created equal.
So, if you are struggling with writing or know someone who is, start by asking, “how much or how often do you write?” If you want to become a better writer or help someone become a better writer, doing actual writing is super important.
One more basic – Write with someone!
A less obvious way to improve writing is to write with someone. I do not necessarily mean collaborating on a same writing project (although that is an activity I would say to try!). I mean writing to someone, for someone, or sharing writing with someone. It is too easy to think of writing as a solitary activity in which there is nothing more than a person and their writing tool(s). Here are quotes illustrating the lonely activity:
- “There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway
- “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” – Isaac Asimov
If writing were so lonesome, I doubt I’d be as interested in writing as I am. While there certainly is an individual aspect to writing, where you need time alone, writing is a way of reaching people. In the review of reviews that I mentioned earlier, other important recommendations include having a supportive writing environment, teaching writing skills, giving feedback, using 21st century tools, and using writing itself as a means of learning (not just writing to show what you learned).1 Underlying each of these important recommendations is a social aspect to writing. Writing a lot and for different purposes enables an establishment of patterns and relationships. Writing for someone presents the authentic challenge of being human in a social environment.
Ok but practice with someone how much or how often?
Let’s start by acknowledging the lack of writing practice. Several U.S. national surveys about writing in the classroom unveiled that little writing is done in schools.2,3,4 Further, it seems that the average writing skill of Americans is a 5th grade level. The NAEP shows that only 24% of 8th grade students write at grade-level proficiency. 5
That being said, Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about a 10,000-hour rule for practice.6 Although lots of practice is part of the equation, it is arguable if you can prescribe an exact quantity of practice. Further, in addition to the quantity of practice we must also consider the quality. Going back to the basics, we can say this much: if you want to write, start by writing.
Writing for 30 minutes every day means:
- 210 minutes each week (3.5 hours)
- 840 minutes each month (14 hours)
- 2,520 minutes a quarter (42 hours)
- 10,080 minutes each year (168 hours)
Every little bit adds up, and in fact, spaced practice has been shown to be more effective compared to cramming anyway!7
Ultimately, if you’re wondering how to improve your writing or the writing of others, remember to address the basic question: How often do you write? Writing is a highest form of thinking8 with many processes that can be developed and strengthened with time and effort.
1 Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Chambers, A. B. (2016). Evidence-based practice and writing instruction: A review of reviews. In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (2nd ed., pp. 211–226). New York: The Guilford Press.
2 Applebee, A. N., & Langer, J. A. (2011). A snapshot of writing instruction in middle schools and high schools. English Journal, 100(6), 14–27.
3 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. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-013-9495-7
4 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. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-015-9602-z
5 National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). The nation’s report card: Writing 2011 (No. NCES 2012–470). Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education.
6 Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
7 Weinstein, Y., & Smith, M. (n.d.). Learn how to study using… Spaced practice. Retrieved from The Learning Scientists website: https://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/7/21-1
8 Tokuhama-Espinosa, T., Nazareno, J., Rappleye, C., & Kaye, M. (2019). Infographic: Writing as the highest form of thinking. Retrieved from https://thelearningsciences.com/site/portfolio-items/writing-process-2/?lang=en