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

Too many labels exist to oversimplify the complex act of writing. I’ve heard phrases like, “he’s slow,” “she should already know this,” “he’s not paying attention,” “she’s lazy,” “he’s unmotivated by this assignment,” “she can’t write,” or “he’s just not thinking.” These phrases share an attempt to pinpoint one major causal factor to explain a person’s struggle with writing. Such attempts fail in recognizing the potential strengths of a writer or a written piece, opting instead to throw hands up at what becomes marked as an unfixable problem.

To anyone pinpointing a single-point-of-failure for a struggling writer, I ask you this: How do you know with absolute certainty that you are right?

What one person tags as a problem of attention could be lack of interest, lack of sleep, lack of nutrition, or boredom. Being unmotivated could mean the writing is not connecting with one’s personal life or could mean the person is exhausted. It is quite challenging to not think at all, so someone labeled this way may not have experience in how to approach the project or topic. It would be impossible for me to list all the possible alternative explanations for simple labels.

Writing is a complex phenomenon, full of a range of possibilities—different genres, different audiences, different modalities, different topics, different authors, different purposes. Although we might already accept that many forms of writing exist, what we might not yet appreciate is how much of writing occurs hidden away. And this invisibility is key—it means that the labels and quick judgment we make are based on a minority of the act of writing. A lot of thinking happens behind-the-scenes, leaving us with only the product to assess for majority of the time.

However, I believe it is unlikely that we have enough products from which to draw meaningful conclusions. For example, in the U.S., several surveys found 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). 1,2,3 So, basically, we can be quick to label based on incomplete information.

This is exactly why compassion is powerful. Compassion enables us to check our presumptions, and calls for a conversation, for respect, and for the chance to maximize the potential of writing.

Compassion from mentor to writer

What do I mean by compassion? I do not mean seeing someone’s struggle with writing and having a sense of “feeling sorry.” I do not mean feeling what the writer is feeling. I do not mean the feeling of distress you might have when watching the writer face a challenge. I do not mean assuming or imagining what a writer might be feeling, thinking, or experiencing.

I ask instead that we take our feelings and observations one step further. I ask that we use our empathy to take action. By compassion, I mean: (1) asking about and understanding what a writer is feeling and (2) acting in a way to support that writer.

The idea of taking action might seem obvious—after all, don’t teachers take action every day when working with students? I think many great teachers do take action every day. What I am asking for is a re-look at what motivates compassionate action and what prerequisites make compassion more likely. As I describe what compassion looks like in terms of writing, please pause and reflect on your personal biases, judgments, and misconceptions. After reaching each section below, ask yourself “to what extent have I done this for each writer?”

For a struggling writer, compassion in writing instruction means:

  • experiencing empathy, or in other words, perceiving a writer in need and valuing his/her success and/or well-being4
  • believing that a struggling writer is going through something serious,5
  • believing that a struggling writer is a victim of a situation or situations,5 and
  • imagining yourself as a struggling writer too.5

Show empathy instead of feeling sorry4

Empathy is about perceiving a writer in need while also valuing their success and/or well-being. While empathy includes feeling what others feel as well as connecting others’ experience(s) with our own, the perspective of who we are doing this for matters. The focus needs to shift to the writer rather than being about you. Rather than presume to know what a writer is feeling or struggling with, ask. Instead of worrying about whether you are saying the right thing to support the writer, have a conversation.

Why does this matter? These interactions are important because they cultivate empathy and in turn increase the likelihood of future helping behavior. Because the thinking behind the written product is often invisible, you may be surprised by what you uncover when conversing with a struggling writer. What one writer needs will be different from another.

Believe the writer is going through something serious5

Learning does not always feel good. Much as we can talk about the importance of positive emotions in our lives (e.g., joy, calmness, triumph), we cannot completely purge the negative ones (e.g., fear, anxiety, sadness). Because emotions are part of learning6 (and even writing), we know that what a writer feels affects their learning. Challenge and some discomfort enhance learning, yet threat inhibits learning. A writer who is fearful or anxious during a lesson, while writing, or when receiving feedback is not going to be functioning at their best.

Why does this matter? Accepting and understanding how emotions affect our cognitive abilities and physiological states enables us to value each writer’s reaction. If we believe such reactions are serious (or could have serious consequences), we pay attention to them and adapt our lessons. As mentioned earlier, writing is complex, and arguably a highest form of thinking.7 By shifting through different types of thinking, monitoring the process we use, and using language to communicate our message, we are constantly challenged. Some discomfort should be expected for a writer stretching their skillset.

Believe the writer’s challenge is situational5

 Being subject to a situation is different from blaming a challenge or reaction on an internal characteristic. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we take away responsibility. What I am suggesting is holding a writer responsible while also overcoming attributional bias. Attributional bias refers to the bias we have when explaining our own behaviors versus the behaviors of others. This bias is the tendency to explain our own behaviors as having an external cause (e.g., “I struggled with writing too because I had terrible teachers”) but explaining the behaviors of others to internal factors (e.g., “he is just not a good writer”).

Why does this matter? By viewing a writer’s struggle as situational, we can accept that the situation can be changed, that a negative emotion is temporary, and most importantly, that with effort and support writing can be learned. With so many ways to write, a writer’s struggle might be exposed because of a new genre, a teacher with different expectations, or an unfamiliar topic, to name a few examples. A writer can excel at one type of writing and then struggle with another. But with adequate scaffolding, support, and time, mastery can be achieved.

Imagine yourself as a writer facing challenges too5

It is of no surprise that social engagement and relationships are important to learning because we know these to be part of life. Yet taking the perspective of another person necessitates an awareness of and comfort with ourselves first. You must be able to see yourself in the same situation as the writer, regardless of how that might make you feel or appear. This sense of identifying with someone supports our ability to act compassionately in writing instruction.

Why does this matter? If you can picture yourself struggling with a writing activity or assignment, you can accept that such experiences are authentic. As someone in a position to help a struggling writer, it could feel uncomfortable to admit that you struggle (or used to struggle) at times with writing. However, by considering how you might have or do struggle with writing, you become open to compassion. You can even offer the depth of explanation that would have once helped you.

Major Takeaway: Choose compassion

Without compassion or the drive to take action for the best possible outcome, strategies that could help break, or better yet, avoid downward spirals would be inadequate. Compassion allows for deeper connections with others and leads to helping behaviors, two outcomes that are beneficial to education. Compassion is a choice, and one that we must make every day for every writer.

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

2 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

3 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

4 Batson, D. C., Ahmad, N., & Lishner, D. A. (2009). Empathy and altruism. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology [kindle version] (2nd ed., pp. 417–426). New York: Oxford University Press.

5 Cassell, E. J. (2009). Compassion. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology [kindle version] (2nd ed., pp. 393–403). New York: Oxford University Press.

6 Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3–10. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-228X.2007.00004.x

7 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