Things Professional Writers Do That Students Should Too
Everyone gets stumped when they begin a new writing project—even the professionals. Here are some strategies the world’s best writers use to push past the doldrums and generate higher-quality writing.
If you’re trying to help your students become better writers, what better place to go for advice than professionals?
A recent New York Times article went behind the scenes to get tips from journalists about the best practices they use to make their writing sparkle. One big piece of advice was quite simple: Read your work out loud.
“Whether it’s parsing tricky passages or checking for overall flow, they [the New York Times journalists] all agree: Hearing their words makes their writing stronger,” the story notes.
Julia Jacobs, a general assignment reporter for the paper, said reading her work aloud is an easy way to slow down and pay attention to small, but crucial details—like the length of her sentences. “It’s a way to focus my brain very quickly,” she said, adding that she knows particular sentences need more work when she starts to run out of breath while reading them.
Dan Barry, a veteran Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who is often lauded for long narrative features, said reading aloud is a surefire way to “nail the rhythm” of a piece of writing. “Hearing his words,” the article notes, “allows him to immediately spot an overworked alliteration, dropped articles, and gaps in logic.”
The practice is also backed by science. A recent study asked college students to proofread texts silently and then aloud to assess which approach helped them spot more typos, grammatical mistakes, and errors in word choice. Compared to silent readers, those who read out loud found 5 percent more errors. For more challenging errors—like the common they’re/their/there mistake—accuracy jumped to 12 percent.
Asking students to read aloud, while focusing on things like tone, sentence structure, and cadence, is a simple, effective, and researched-backed way to improve their writing—particularly during the revision stage.
That insight got us thinking about other easy strategies—used by real pros—that students can also employ to improve their writing.
WALK AWAY FROM IT
It might seem counterintuitive to prescribe taking a break from writing as a way to improve it, but research suggests short breaks from challenging tasks aren’t idle time; they provide the brain with the space needed to resolve tricky issues.
In a 2021 study, researchers observed the neural activity of students as they learned how to type with their nondominant hand. During breaks, the brains of the participants unconsciously replayed the practice session over and over “at an astonishingly high rate of speed” according to the study, flipping the information between processing and memory centers dozens of times in the span of a few seconds. The brain makes progress even when we are not focused on a problem, and “stepping away from the activity, it turns out, is not stepping away from the activity at all,” the researchers concluded.
If research isn’t enough to sway you, take it from literary luminaries like Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, and William Wordsworth, who are among the scores of writers known to use walks to get creative juices flowing after hitting rough patches in their work.
While it may be difficult to build walks into the middle of a school day, it is certainly something you can prescribe to students as they work on writing outside of school.
TALK IT OUT
Alexandra Parrish Cheshire, an educational consultant and former educator, writes that students who can talk at length about a given topic often freeze up when it is time to get things down on the page—“almost as if they’ve been handicapped by the task we have set for them.”
One easy way to help students to overcome this natural resistance is to allow them to use recorders or voice memo apps to record themselves speaking out their essay, rather than trying to write it out first. They can then play back the recording and write down the most salient points. Free transcription tools, like Trint, can also be used to quickly convert their speech into text.
For students who are really struggling, Cheshire writes that teachers can schedule one-on-one time and give them the opportunity to talk out their ideas, while the teacher jots them down. At the end, students have something to work off of and are able to push past their initial fears. That approach, she says, might free a student up “to express their thoughts without the hesitation that makes some students’ minds go blank as they pick up that pen or pencil.”
The pros agree. National Book Award winning novelist Richard Powers writes that he’s been dictating his work for over a decade, which allows him to “hear every sentence as it’s made, testing what it will sound like, inside the mind’s ear.” Powers notes that the practice dates as far back as the 17th century, when English poet John Milton, who was blind, dictated his epic poem Paradise Lost to his daughters.
HAVE THE COURAGE TO BE (VERY) BAD
Another reason students freeze up on the page during the drafting process, writes Christina Torres Cawdery, an eighth grade English teacher in Hawaii, is that they spend a lot of time self-editing and self-critiquing themselves early on—stifling any forward momentum. First drafts can be thought of as a form of doodling, instead, and Cawdery says it’s important to create opportunities for informal, ungraded writing that is less focused on content, grammar, or fluency, and more on just getting raw thinking down to be reworked later.
Award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that even his first drafts are “cringe-inducing.”
Crafting eloquent and persuasive writing, he says, entails revising your worst version of a piece of writing over and over again until it sings. “I believe that many people have the talent to write. But very few have the courage to rewrite. Even fewer have the courage to rewrite, fail, and live to do the whole thing again.”
Getting down a bad first draft, quickly, is an approach backed by countless writers and authors who profess the merits of “vomit drafts.” So many that it would be worthwhile for ELA teachers to hang up quotes from the professionals as a means of inspiring their students to do it themselves.
In her classroom, Cawdery gets students to generate quick drafts by giving them 10 minutes after reading a prompt or a text to write down as much as they can, unfiltered. “This exercise allows students to get as many ideas on the page as they can, helping them release judgment about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ideas.” When time is up, students can take a highlighter to find and mark “hidden gems in their work,” which helps them realize that their informal writing can provide them with good ideas to use in higher-stakes assignments.
Cawdery says you can also challenge students to write the “worst” first draft possible of their paper. Explain that they’re free to discard grammar rules and come up with the silliest possible connections they can think of. According to Cawdery, more often than not, students will come away with bits and pieces that are useful, and perhaps even more interesting, than if they’d started off the writing process thinking about getting things down as perfectly as possible.