Thinking like a writer

How do we get better at writing? By writing.

The advice I always give to students to improve their writing is to write. Often. Everyday if possible. This might be a private diary entry, an Amazon review, an essay or, even better: a public blog post which someone might actually read.

For years now I’ve been in the habit of writing with my students; whenever they have a controlled assessment to write or a question to answer, I do the work too. Apart from the desire to build a sense of solidarity, I started doing this to model the thinking required to write in a particular way. The benefits are huge; not only do I now have a vast resource bank of essays I’ve written, it’s also made me more effective at teaching various aspects of the English curriculum. Because I’ve experienced the same difficulties, I know what problems my students are likely to encounter. Sometimes I’ve realised that a particular task is too hard (or too easy) and have been able to adjust my teaching as a result. Sometime the benefits have been particularly dramatic. I When I taught the spoken language component of the English Language GCSE course for first time it wasn’t until I’d got half way through my controlled assessment that I realised what I should have taught. Would I have realised this without doing the work? Maybe not.

But by the biggest (most unexpected) benefit has been that my own writing has improved enormously. The hours of deliberate practice I’ve logged in consciously writing A* essays has helped me along the path to mastery. There’s a hell of a long way to go before I might consider myself a master but I have started to think of myself as a writer. And that’s important.


See? It’s number 2 on my list!

At the risk of sounding boastful, the fact that I’ve written a book that has not only been published but can, I’m reliably informed, be described as a ‘best-seller’ is an enormous source of pride and pleasure. The fact that this blog has had over 200,000 views and is (apparently) the 26th most influential education blog in the world is simply staggering. Writing for an audience, drafting and redrafting, and reading critically have been revelatory – when I sit down to write I find that I really am thinking like a writer.

But can you teach this?

I’ve put a fair bit of effort into coming up with ways to help students reflect on how rather than what they’re writing. If you’re interested, my posts on Slow Writing and getting students to value writing both provide simple and (I hope) effective strategies for introducing these ideas in the classroom, but do they actually make any impact on the way students think?

Part of the literacy strategy I’ve been leading this year has been to identify how thinking occurs in different subject areas and to develop students’ ability to think like an artist, speak like a designer, write like a scientist etc. And since writing about meta-cognition last week, I’ve been giving some serious though to how to teach students to think meta-cognitively about writing.

The more you know about a subject, the better your thinking will be on that subject. Thinking depends on knowledge. I’m sorry if this makes you uneasy, but it just does. (If you want to challenge me on this, read this article on Critical Thinking first.) That being the case, in order to think like a writer you have to know as much as possible about writing. This knowledge might be broken down into these components:

  1. Awareness of audience and purpose
  2. The ability to closely analyse writing
  3. Paragraphing and structure
  4. Spelling, punctuation and grammar

There may well be others – please let me know if your think I’ve missed anything crucial.

Students need to be exposed to a wide variety of great writing in order to consciously examine how it works. They need the opportunity to explicitly apply this knowledge to texts and to then transfer what they find to their own writing. And they need this experience to be as difficult as possible.

What’s that? Isn’t it our job to make things easy for students?

No. It isn’t.

A teacher’s job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult. if you are not challenged, you do not make mistakes. If you do not make mistakes, feedback is useless.

John Hattie Visible Learning

And some difficulties are more desirable than others. In the run up to exams I will remind students in certain writing basics that can make a big difference to the way their writing is perceived:

  • Avoid starting sentences with ‘I’ or ‘The’
  • If in doubt, leave commas out
  • Link paragraphs together with connectives

And so on…

But Robert Bjork talks about the likelihood of long term retention and transfer of knowledge increasing when we remove aids to recall. Clearly this is counter intuitive, but one of the many things I’ve learned since starting to read about cognitive psychology is how unreliable my intuition is. Bjork argues that retrieval induced forgetting (providing prompts or cues) actively makes it harder to remember anything except the thing that has been prompted. So, if I asked you think of a fruit and told you it began with the letters O R you would immediately think of oranges.  But, intriguingly, you would find it much harder to think of apples, bananas or raspberries. Clearly, this is unimportant with something as banal as fruit but perhaps by prompting students to pay attention to apostrophes prevents them from also thinking about discourse markers? And if this is correct, where does that leave us?

Well, we left where we started: trying to promote domain specific thinking. One way to make this kind of thinking reflexive is to drill it. The best sports people don’t just play their sports, they drill particular aspects in order to improve their performance in this one (possibly tiny) area. Daisy Christodoulou, somewhat unfashionably, recommends decontextualised grammar drilling for exactly this reason. If the habits of grammar are ingrained then working memory is freed up to think about lovelier stuff, like imagery.

Another aspect of promoting the kind of thinking engaged in by a writer is to model it. So, how do I think when I write? Here are some of the things I’m aware of consciously thinking about when composing a blog post:

  • What is this like to read? Am I being boring? Do I sound too worthy or authoritative? What I can I do to make my writing more informal and chatty?
  • Is there an extended metaphor I can use to provide a compelling, memorable image?
  • Are my sentences sufficiently varied? If so, can I use punctuation to vary the effect?
  • Will exaggerating add humour or make me sound like an idiot?
  • Is there a better word than this? Have I already used this phrase? Is there another way of saying this?
  • Have I spelt that correctly?
  • Is this as good as Tom Bennett‘s writing? Or Phil Beadle‘s? (The answer to this has almost always been a resounding, nay deafening, NO!)

I’m sure there are loads of other things I think about, but these are certainly the foremost. As you can see, this thinking breaks down into my 4 areas of knowledge about writing. This is a process I can (and do) make visible to my students but I’m very aware that however much they see me do it, they still need to put into the hard work of doing it themselves.

Two things I enjoy about teaching A level English Language are, firstly, that students have to write a commentary on their own writing. It’s a great shame that this isn’t something they normally do up until then; making them analyse their writing makes quite a difference to its quality. The second thing is the expectation that they will create multiple drafts. Understanding that writers draft their work is transformative; little of quality is produced at the first attempt. As I well know, achieving mastery in writing cannot be achieved in the short term. It takes effort, determination and time. As  Doug Lemov says in Practice Perfect, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent“, but not necessarily better. Just doing the same old leads to repeating the same mistakes and bad habits. This, perhaps, is why so many students fail to punctuate and use capital letters. Maybe, with a healthy dose of grit and deliberate practice, even the most reluctant can learn to take pleasure in the act of thinking like a writer.

To summarise, we can encourage students to think meta-cognitively about writing in the following ways:

  • Teach students knowledge about writing
  • Get them reading great texts
  • Model the process of writing and thinking about writing
  • Think counter-intuitively
  • Know when to withdraw scaffolds
  • Never accept the first draft
  • Make them write. A lot.

Related posts

Does creativity need rules?
The mathematics of writing
The Grand Unified Theory of Mastery

And a lovely post from @MissJLud: Mind the gap: Building writers

17 Responses to Thinking like a writer

  1. […] Continued in Thinking like a writer « The Learning Spy […]

  2. Jill Berry says:

    David: Many thanks for this, which I found very interesting.

    On the subject of writing with the students, you reminded me of when I was a newly appointed deputy head, an English teacher joining a school which really didn’t need an English teacher at that time. My timetable in that first year was made up of things like PSHE and General Studies, and I was asked to offer a course for a Sixth Form programme we ran called ‘Leisure Studies’. I chose to focus on Creative Writing for Pleasure, and decided that any task I set for this small group of (committed, enthusiastic) students I would also try out myself. It was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying experiences of my 30 year teaching career!

    I’m not convinced the quality of my writing did improve significantly, but I did learn (about myself as well as about writing) and it was positively challenging and fulfilling.

  3. learningspy says:

    Thanks Jill

    I wonder why that practice didn’t make you a better writer? I’ve been reading recently about the fact that practising the wrong things just encodes bad habits. I need to think more about how I can make sure students are practising good habits and not just ingraining bad ones.

  4. Xris32 says:

    Loved the blog. Lots of great advice here. I heard a great quote/advice from an Ofsted inspector (not an oxymoron) this week and I thought of it when reading this: “Read like a writer and write like a reader”. I thought it was such a simple but effective of explaining things.

    I have some similar thoughts about writing which I will blog tomorrow. Plus, I am talking about it at a teachmeet in Leeds today – learning through sentences. 🙂

  5. […] writing. And the only way I know to do this effectively is to talk. I’ve written before about thinking like a writer, and the techniques of Slow Writing lend themselves very well to effective […]

  6. […] mathematics of writing  – an attempt to make teaching sentence structure more logical Thinking like a writer – advice on improving writing skills How to get students to value […]

  7. […] The art of beautifully crafted sentences Thinking like a writer […]

  8. […] a lot about how to get my thoughts across coherently, I did not have the knowledge to be able to think meta-cognitively about writing. This meant that my ability to write creatively was hampered; I wasn’t able to make informed […]

  9. […] consequently, although I had a pretty good implicit understanding of how to write, my ability to think meta-cognitively about what I was doing when I put pen to paper was severely curtailed by my inability to […]

  10. […] writing. And the only way I know to do this effectively is to talk. I’ve written before about thinking like a writer, and the techniques of Slow Writing lend themselves very well to effective […]

  11. […] Slow writing: how slowing down can improve your writing The art of beautifully crafted sentences Thinking like a writer […]

  12. […] consequently, although I had a pretty good implicit understanding of how to write, my ability to think meta-cognitively about what I was doing when I put pen to paper was severely curtailed by my inability to […]

  13. […] To be creative you have to know the rules – explicit knowledge of grammar matters. I’ve written about this here and here. […]

  14. […] not the case for many students – they just don’t have the metacognitive experience to think like a writer. Techniques like Slow Writing or The Art of the Sentence help students to focus on details without […]

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