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In Search of the Virtuous Mean: Helping Student Writers Find "The Sweet Spot"

Terri Van Sickle

Writer, teacher of writers, and mother of two budding writers
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A student-athlete who was struggling to narrow his topic for a piece of writing had an "a-ha" moment last week in class when I likened finding the sweet spot on a baseball bat -- not too close to the tip and not too close to the hand -- to finding the right balance in writing. Like my student, Travis, most of us hit off the tip of the bat a few times, narrowing and broadening our scope before we zero in on what we're really trying to say and how to say it. We try out different stances, different voices, and different techniques in an effort to meet our own desires and the needs of our readers.

Rules of the Game

Just as baseball enthusiasts share a set of values that guide their appreciation of the game, and societies have values that are shared among many of the participants of that culture, a writing culture shares values. A large portion of my job as a writing instructor is to create a culture of writing where certain virtues/values are shared. This does not mean a strict set of rules are to be followed and never broken, but instead that importance is placed on the process of finding the right balance for the writer's task, purpose, style, and audience. It might seem a bit of a stretch to tie virtues and the writing process together, but if a virtue is a pattern of thought and behavior based on high standards, it seems to me that virtues exist not only in the realm of morality, but also in the multitudes of communities we create for ourselves every day.

One cannot speak of virtues without mentioning vices. A vice is that which has a defect or absence of perfection due to a thing. It follows that, as a writing mentor, I should guide students toward writing virtues and steer them clear of writing vices, aware that both virtues and vices carry with them a potency or power. Virtues have the power to create positive outcomes and vices have the power to create negative outcomes -- in life and in writing.

Striking a Balance

Aristotle defined virtue as the golden mean between the vice of deficiency and the vice of excess. Too little or too much of any trait is a vice. The "sweet spot" somewhere in between is the balance point where virtue exists -- the mean between two extremes. In medio stat virtus -- in the center lies virtue. This is not to say that we should strive for mediocrity, rather we should strive for balance. Recording engineers may refer to a "sweet spot" as the focal point between two speakers where an individual is fully capable of hearing the stereo audio mix the way it was intended to be heard by the audio engineer who mixed it. A writer or writing instructor might define the "sweet spot" as a point where a reader is fully capable of interpreting the written word the way writer intended.

I find that many novice writers, like those in my Basic Skills English classes, are extremists. They tend to veer far in the direction of deficiencies and excesses. I am careful in the use of the word deficiency here, as I am in no way saying they are deficient in their ability to grow as writers, but their under-utilization of writing strategies and techniques valued in the culture of writing can be viewed as temporary and specific deficiencies. The vice of excess can be just as damaging as the vice of deficiency. I strive to help them examine their writing vices as well as their writing virtues and guide them toward the mean. Together, my students and I try to find a writing solution where the opposing factors of deficiency and excess produce a compelling tension.

Using a table based on the Aristotelian model, I share some common examples of writing vices (both deficiency and excess). The center column highlights how these vices can be tempered to a virtuous mean -- moving toward the "sweet spot."

Vice of Deficiency Virtuous Mean (a.k.a The Sweet Spot) Vice of Excess
The writer's voice is too distant and aloof. The writer is honest and sincere. The voice is "real." Too much personal information is offered by the writer, or perhaps the voice is forced and comes across as egotistical or fake.
Does not provide enough information for the defined audience. Understanding the interests and purposes of her readers, the writer puts herself in their shoes, is respectful of their time and their position (knowledge or lack thereof). Too verbose or redundant.
Absence of punctuation hinders the reader's comprehension. Appropriate punctuation guides the reader and aides in comprehension while not becoming distracting. Over-punctuation causes the reader's attention to be diverted from the meaning to the punctuation.
No dialogue is present. Dialogue is used to add interest and relevancy. Only dialogue is present.
The topic is too narrow. The topic is focused, yet not so narrow that it cuts off opportunity for development. The topic is too broad.
Little to no organizational strategies are used in the prewriting stage, causing the writing to lack coherence and lose focus. Organizational methods are used to guide the writing, creating unity, focus and flow. A strict outline is adhered to so closely that the writing feels stifled and stiff.
Too academic and stuffy. Tone is appropriate for the audience. Too humorous and/or too familiar

This table is reminiscent of a Berenstain Bears book titled Old Hat, New Hat, in which the main character seeks to replace his old hat with a new one, only to find that each new choice is either too loose, too tight, too feathery, too scratchy, too plain or too patchy, until he abandons the search and decides his old hat is "just right." In part, the simplicity of the table above is that it doesn't nearly represent all the elements of virtuous writing, and it doesn't address the interconnected nature of virtues.

Connecting the Virtues

The interconnectivity of the writing virtues makes writing difficult to teach and difficult to master. Interconnectivity is a trait of all virtues, not just writing virtues, as Benjamin Franklin found when he set out to improve himself by charting daily key virtues which he had identified as important to living a wholesome life. Franklin noted that when he paid attention to one virtue, others suffered. "The virtues," says St. Gregory, "if separated, cannot be perfect in the nature of virtue." Similarly, Plato states in Protagoras and in Meno, that the virtues cannot exist independently. Likewise, the virtues of writing cannot exist independently.

It is not enough to teach student writers to avoid writing vices and work toward writing virtues. Writing mentors must also show students how the virtues work together to create an effective piece of writing, much like the woven leather strips of a baseball glove possess the power to stop a line drive. A single piece of leather would likely snap, but the woven strips adapt to the shape of the ball as they absorb its force. Isolated attention to any one writing virtue diverts attention from the others. Repeated practice of each virtue in combination with others leads helps a novice become a pro--a flexible writer who is equipped to adapt to his audience while realizing the impact of his words.

Writers Need Fans

Hours after my baseball player student, Travis, had his "a-ha" moment, I sat at home thumbing through an old daybook that I wrote in daily while teaching high school English. I ran across a quote I once used as a "Writing into the Day" warm-up prompt. In this quote, Marguerite Yourcenar, a 20th-century Belgian-born French novelist who created characters torn between their own passions and society's demands (much like writers torn between our own passions and the demands of our readers), warns, "Our great mistake is trying to get people to focus on virtues they don't possess and neglecting to cultivate those they do."

Yourcenar, like Aristotle and Franklin, inspires my values as a writing instructor. Encourage fledgling writers to just get started writing. Play up their strengths. Guide students towards what they should do less frequently and more often. Help them tweak their writing until the bat (the writer's desires) meets the ball (their readers' needs). Cultivate the writing virtues they already possess while helping them minimize their writing vices. Show them how the virtues of writing work together like a team to create a satisfying whole that feels right and connects with readers. Then cheer as they knock one out of the park.

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Mike's picture

What a wonderful way of expressing one of the challenges of teaching writing. Great blog!

Terri Van Sickle's picture
Terri Van Sickle
Writer, teacher of writers, and mother of two budding writers

I took you up on the offer to read your son's work on "LearnMeProject." Thanks for sharing! I plan to go back to learn more about your homeschooling experiences. I found your son's voice to be very clear and intriguing.

fawnponzar's picture
English 10 teacher and yearbook adviser from Missouri

I particularly like the quote you referenced from Marguerite Yourcenar, "Our great mistake is trying to get people to focus on virtues they don't possess and neglecting to cultivate those they do." As teachers, we all have course objectives to meet and sometimes fall into the trap of teaching to meet those things that we know the students will be tested on. Student grades are often based solely on how well they meet our expectations of these objectives and very little time is spent, if any, on the things they already do well. I think it is important that we get to know our students' abilities first before we can build upon them instead of designing a "one-size-fits-all" curriculum. I wonder if you have any tips you could share in helping to assess these strengths and build upon them beyond the chart you've introduced. I do daily journals with my English 10 classes and think the chart would be very helpful. However, I have trouble motivating the students to actually write so that I can even acknowledge their abilities. Any advice for motivating reluctant students to write more than one to two sentences in their journals?

Terri Van Sickle's picture
Terri Van Sickle
Writer, teacher of writers, and mother of two budding writers


Assessment of students' writing strengths definitely takes time. In fact, it is often midway through the semester when I am able to truly identify individual students' strengths. Sure, I pick up on commendable aspects of their writing early on, but I don't clearly identify them as virtuous traits until I've seen them display it more than once or twice--until a trend emerges. I comment on positive attributes in their writing from the beginning, anyway, in hopes of promoting their future use of any strategy that worked for them, even if it was a "fluke" occurrence. It's this positive reinforcement, a valued response from their readers, that keeps them coming back to that strategy again and again. The more they use a strategy that works for them as writers and works for their readers, the more they hone the use of that particular strategy. They'll often end up overusing it, and that's when they come to the realization that a strategy that worked well for one particular writing purpose and audience may not carry over into a new writing scenario as smoothly as they'd hoped. That realization opens the door for communication about new strategies. I might make a suggestion. The student writer might try it out and either confirm or deny its usefulness for that particular writing task. Most of this process takes place in writing conferences (whether formally set meetings or a series of brief check-ins as I stop by their desk to see how it's going).

As for motivating high school students to write in their journals, I have a couple of suggestions. First, encourage them to make their journal unique to them (cover it with photos, bumper stickers, whatever expresses their personality). Second, build in lots of opportunities for them to make choices about their journal entries. For example, you might ask them to write a descriptive entry using sensory details, but you let them decide their topic. I find that the more I use their journals as a source for building mini-lessons, the more my students write. In other words, if they know I'll come back to that descriptive journal entry later and ask them to highlight all of the sight descriptions in one color, the sound descriptions in another color, and so forth, they will likely write more. I tie the assessment not to the journal entry itself, but to the mini-lesson attached to it. This way, their journal serves as a place to express themselves but also as a forum for mini-lessons and as a means of formative assessment. My 10th-grade students particularly enjoy writing rants, letters from the perspective of a character in the literature they're reading, descriptions of scenes they observe (take them outside to watch band practice or go people-watching in the media center), and writing narratives that spring from their own sketches or from others' artwork.

I hope this is of some use to you.

Warm regards,

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