Lots of teachers ask me how to engage their reluctant writers.
It’s like they know my secret when they ask me.
The secret that my family know only too well:
I, Riss Leung, am a reluctant writer.
(Well actually, I’m a writer who experiences reluctance.)
I loathe writing my weekly blog.
I whinge and drag my sorry body all over the house on Friday and Saturday, groaning about having to sit down and write it every Sunday.
Each week when I sit down to write, I imagine I’m wrestling a wild tiger. The tiger is my idea. I need to get it focused and stop it lashing about all over the place. I need to tame it into being controlled and manageable.
Sometimes the tiger comes into the wrestling ring pre-sedated and ready to make writing easy for me (eg. my post on genre vs the traits).
Other times though, like last week, we wrestle for round after round, and I end up getting pinned to the ground, almost out for the count.
Is it any wonder I’m reluctant to sit at my computer and go back into the ring time and time again!?
Let’s be real: We’re all reluctant writers
Every single one of us is a reluctant writer at some stage.
Don’t believe me?
Think about your dread at report writing time (or newsletter writing time if you’re in leadership).
Think about all the procrastination tactics you employ- the cleaned oven, the vacuuming, the cupboard sorting.
You are engaging in reluctance.
The best thing you can do to help support the reluctant writers in your class is to reflect on your own reluctance.
When and why were you reluctant?
- What did you do to overcome it?
- You’ll soon realise that reluctance comes in many forms and there are many strategies you can use to overcome it.
Here are some of my main reasons for reluctance, along with the strategies I use to try and overcome them.
reason: I can’t work out what to write about.
This is real and valid.
The world has a bazillion possible topics floating around in it and I have to select just one of them.
I know that my topic choice impacts how much I write, how passionate I am and how interested my reader will be.
Sometimes this choice is overwhelming.
- I go back to the list of possible topics I created months ago, read through the list and see which one strikes me today.
- I ask teachers (my audience) what they’d like to read about.
- Teach students about the writer’s notebook list writing strategy. Even if you don’t use a writer’s notebook with your students, they can still use this strategy. It is so simple, yet so effective.
- Encourage students to talk to their audience (or their peers) to help develop ideas for topics. Crowd-sourcing is a perfectly acceptable (and authentic) way to find a topic.
Reason: I can’t narrow my topic down to be something that’s tight and manageable.
Ahhh the wild tiger. We meet again!
Sometimes I have so many things I want to say about a topic that it would be more of a book chapter than a blog post.
Good writing though is about ‘doing less and doing it well.’
I talk it out; either with myself or someone else (usually my long-suffering husband).
To talk it out with myself: I go for a walk, run or ride (somewhere where there aren’t a lot of other people) and I have a conversation with myself out loud. I interview myself about the topic. I compose potential sentences and go through the structure of the piece.
Doing this out loud better enables me to think it through. I can test how it sounds, decide if I have enough information and hear if there is a good flow to the ideas.
Encourage students to talk before they write- either with themselves or a partner.
Have their partner interview them about the topic so they can practise talking about it out loud. Get them to jot down their thoughts in dot point form after they talk.
Model this conversation and process for them first though, to help them understand what it looks like and how it helps.
Reason: The size of the task is overwhelming
Have you ever felt the overwhelming weight of 20+ student reports looming over you?
So crushing, in fact, that it can sometimes stop you from starting.
I try and break the task into much smaller chunks.
I promise myself that I just need to write the introduction today and then I can come back tomorrow to work on the first argument etc.
Usually, making this commitment is enough to get me started and then I end up doing more than I committed to anyway.
The trick is to get yourself off the starting blocks: Action eradicates overwhelm.
Break the writing task into short and manageable chunks.
Do students really need to write the WHOLE narrative or persuasive piece in this one lesson? Is there a smaller goal they could aim for?
Sometimes just talking out the plan for getting this work done is enough convince yourself the task is achievable and get yourself off the starting blocks.
Reason: I’m paralysed by the pressure of trying to produce the perfect piece
I think this is one of the main reasons students demonstrate reluctance to write- especially those with poor spelling.
I am the one responsible for putting the pressure for perfection on myself.
This pressure empowers my internal critic- who loves filtering words and sentences before they get a chance to hit the keyboard.
As I always say, ‘You can’t revise what you haven’t written.’
A page of shitty writing is MUCH better than a page of no writing at all.
I give myself permission to just get ANYTHING down; the revising can (and will) come later.
Sometimes, when I’m really struggling with allowing my internal critic to delete too many words and sentences, I use the speech-to-text function on my computer to at least get some words and sentences on the page. That way, I don’t have to despair over all the lost effort when I eventually delete them.
When I do get some writing on the page, I can finally start to shape it. And maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a nugget in there that sparks inspiration or thinking for what I’m supposed to be writing about or how I can turn it into a powerful piece.
Let students know that having an internal critic is normal – all writers have them. Share your experiences with yours and then share your strategies for quietening them down and/or taking away their power.
Because we never talk about this part of writing, students often think they’re the only ones going through these internal struggles, they start to think that they’re not normal and that there must be something wrong with them as a writer.
We can remove this stress and worry simply by being open and honest about our own experiences.
Another helpful strategy is to allow students to type their writing directly on to a computer.
And teach them how to use the speech to text functions on their devices (Google Docs and Microsoft office both have effective versions of this).
As I’ve learned through writing every week, the more you recognise and reflect on your own reluctance as a writer, the better you’ll be able to support the reluctance of the writers in your class.
What are the reasons for your reluctance?
What are your strategies for overcoming them?
Share your experiences in the comments below or join in the conversation on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook Group.