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Teaching Intrinsic Writing

The more students write, the better their writing becomes. Yet most students do not write enough to break out of the beginner ranks and become great writers. Instead, they slog through unpleasant writing assignments and put the experience behind them as soon as they can.

Which raises an interesting question. Why can’t we make writing fun and positive enough that students want to write?

Shall we indulge in a metaphor—one of those writers’ tools that is or ought to be a whole lot of fun? Imagine that we challenged young people to learn to ride bicycles in mud and rain on dangerously steep and rocky roads without proper gear. Why? Because that would seem like a really unpleasant experience for most of them. Now, what percentage of them would become competent riders?

“Less than 8 percent of those 19 years of age and younger felt they needed some or substantial instruction” in writing according to a survey of U.S. college students by Primary Research Group (reported by Inside Higher Ed). But as the old adage goes, you don’t know what you don’t know, and other statistics tell us that we are not a literate nation. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that half of Americans can’t read a book written at eighth-grade level.

Writing and reading are two sides of a coin, and people who rarely read for pleasure have little notion of what great writing is or where their own skills stand. So it’s highly relevant that a National Endowment for the Arts study found just 5% of Americans are avid readers, defined as consuming fifty or more books a year. This is a natural roll-forward of an educational system in which, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only one of every eight twelfth graders is reading daily.

The Dept. of Education’s NAEP is the most careful survey of US student achievement levels. It’s not done yearly, in fact, the latest data on writing comes from 2011 when 24% of students (in both grades 8 and 12) scored proficient. Wait, that’s not bad—or is it? First, it’s really quite an optimistic way to state the findings. The unspoken bit is that nearly three-fourths of students are not proficient writers. Oh, and one other thing: Proficient isn’t as, well, proficient as you might think, because it’s a basic hurdle and really good writing is defined as advanced by NAEP. How many of our middle and high school students are advanced writers? Only 3%.

It’s not until students reach the advanced level that you see “rhetorically powerful” writing with a “distinct voice.” In other words, good writing! Just a few out of every hundred students get to the level where they can produce and appreciate good writing. For the others, it’s a slog, a duty, a cover-the-bases exercise.

Let’s coin a term: intrinsic writing. That’s when you polish your draft to please yourself based on your knowledge of what good writing looks like. It’s what real writers do, and it reliably produces rhetorically powerful writing with a strong personal voice. Nothing else does.

Alas, most students write not to please themselves or even their peers but to avoid the wrath of their instructor, whose red pencil hovers over their words. I know the feeling of reading a very imperfect student essay and wanting to whip it into shape. But it’s not heading out for publication—and I’m their teacher, not their editor. Why am I editing it?

The opposite of intrinsic writing is of course extrinsic writing, which is what students do when they focus on getting a decent grade. It might in the short term produce a better essay but it will never produce a great one.

How can we help young people become intrinsic writers? I have a few thoughts.

First, playfulness. You’ve got to teach the joy of writing before you can get students motivated enough to really pursue the craft. We need to share great openings, read our favorite scenes out loud, try our hand at cool forms of poetry—and love the entire writing process.

Second, output. In workshops and classes, students need to spend the majority of their time actually writing. Don’t just send students home to struggle with assignments on their own. Fill up daily notebooks with scribbled thoughts, engage in timed writing challenges, produce numerous stories, poems or essays not just one. Volume matters!

Third, real help. This is not the same as correcting, which is a nasty thing to do to someone else’s work. It’s being a resource to help the student express themselves even better.

The so-called talent myth is popularly stated as this: if you practice something difficult for 10,000 hours you can become expert. First violin in a symphony orchestra. A top chess player. Or a really great writer. Wait, not so fast! The pop version leaves out a critical component of the findings of psychologist Anders Ericsson. The missing component? “Deliberate efforts to improve,” according to his core article, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance (Psychological Review, 1993). The idea is that student and mentor focus together on the pursuit of better writing.

Underlying these three elements of teaching intrinsic writing is positive feedback. You’d think the average English teacher had no notion of how to say anything positive about student writing. Maybe they don’t, not having been taught in a positive tradition themselves, but it’s really very simple: Highlight what you like about the writing, not what you don’t like.

That’s how you encourage students to write more and better. Over time, as they strive to find their voices and improve their craft, they naturally gain a sophisticated understanding of grammar and style. Forcing that prematurely is putting a heavily loaded cart before the horse.

When I attended workshops to learn how to coach youth soccer, the biggest ahah I took away was to focus on “touches on the ball.” Lecturing the players doesn’t maximize their touches on the ball. Nor does lining them up to take turns at a drill. Getting them to play lots of fun games that naturally emphasize skills is the key, because the ball and the other players actually do most of the teaching..

It took me a while to realize that we need to teach writing the same way.

Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure available at Amazon.

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