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Teaching high school students to write

It is easy to tell a story to your friends. You even have a sense where to speed up, when to slow down and when a pause makes the story more exciting.

But when asked to write it down, many people freeze.

What’s the difference?

We may be trying to impress our friends but if the story doesn’t go over that well, it is usually handled kiddingly and the group moves on to another passtime.

In other words, you don’t get graded. And you don’t get humiliated about your poor grade. But were we always afraid to write. Actually, no, if you can remember when you were first learning to spell and even earlier, when you made up stories for the joy of it.

So what’s the difference?

It may boil down to television, which appears to diminish our imaginations and cuts us off from our own stories. This, in turn, has the effect of making up more depressed, lonely and anxious.

But there is increasingly evidence that we need stories to make sense of our lives. Alcoholics Anonymous is one such example. The program has helped millions of people get sober, primarily through stories. One of the first stories in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is simply titled Bill’s story. Stories can heal.

So it is important that we can tell stories.

The other thing is that writing is central to our lives. If nothing more than texting, it is important to keep up with friends. If you want to apply for a job, writing is necessary most of the time. IF you get a job, most of them will require reports, responding to e-mails and if you work for a non-profit, you will be writing fundraising letters, grants and regular letters. You may also be working on creating or upgrading a website. All of this means writing–

I write poetry. My first therapist said the poetry saved my life. I agree. More about that some other time.

So the question is how do you learn to write.

First you pick a topic. That’s easy… you’ll either be assigned one or you’ll have the freedom to choose one yourself.

The way to pick a topic is simple– choose something that moves you emotionally. There is always something that gets you psyched or pisses you off. Any one of those things makes good writing.

Secondly, if you know lots about the subject, write down everything you know. IT doesn’t have to be in any order. It can also be a brain map– I used them forty years ago and called them braintrees… but write it all down. If you are missing some important information– look it up. Nearly all great writers read as much as they can.

Arrange all the materials you have and put them in order. Then you are good to go. Write as fast as you can. It produces better writing. Get it all down on paper. When you write quickly, you probably vary your sentence length. Like this piece uses longer and shorter sentences, and believe me, I haven’t done it consciously. It just happened.

So get it all down on paper, then edit. Do not edit while you are doing the first draft or you run the risk of getting stuck. OK– more on editing– check your spelling. Make sure you use an active voice most of the time. If you can, under your breath, read the piece aloud. You will always find something to improve if you read what you write aloud.

Check your thinking by spending a few moments arguing the other side of the issue. If you have time, you can raise some of these objections and then demolish them, strengthening your argument.

When it is done and edited, spend a couple of minutes seeing if you can come up with a great opening and ending. That makes a piece much more powerful.

If you have time, realize that no single test is a judge of your value or worth as a person. You will survive even if your writing isn’t wonderful. But you can improve and that’s important.

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