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Teaching Writing or Editing Writing?

Susan Barber

High School English Teacher & English Department Chair
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Editing student writing typically takes a few minutes and a red pen. Teaching writing requires hard work, and even though many teachers assign writing, few actually teach the art of writing. The writing process is time consuming and often messy, so it's no wonder that many teachers becomes editors by default. How can teachers be sure that they're teaching students how to write and not simply editing writing assignments?

1. Ongoing Feedback

Teachers should offer feedback throughout the entire writing process and not just on the final product. If writing is done correctly, the majority of the work happens long before the final copy is submitted. When a teacher only offers feedback on the final paper, the window to teach and shape writing has passed, since the student has moved onto the next assignment. Instead, check on student work at the beginning and in the middle of the process. Kaizena (a Google add-on that allows for voice comments on a document) or Google Docs are both great ways to have one-on-one conversations throughout the process. Issues concerning the overall focus, specific content, or organization can be caught early, giving students a chance to finish the paper with clarity.

2. Freedom to Experiment

Teachers should allow students to find their writing voice and develop a personal style through experimentation. Since personal style is unique to each individual, this element of writing may be the most difficult to teach. Mentor texts are a great resource for exposing students to different styles and voices. When reading, have students record sentences from a text which they find interesting, and have them review these before writing. Students can choose two or three sentences from their list to mimic in their own writing. Trying out new sentences is like trying on new clothes -- some items work, while others won't. I ask students to experiment with at least three sentences in an essay by trying a different syntax pattern, rhetorical device, or possibly use punctuation for effect. Students will either highlight or star the "risk" sentences to let me know they are working on their personal style or voice, and I will not take points off if these sentences don't work. Students should be allowed to experiment with personal style without the worry of hurting their grade.

3. Self-Editing Skills

Teachers should not be concerned about marking every grammatical mistake, but rather teach students to self-edit as they write. Correct conventions are an important component of written communication, but very rarely does an essay with every error marked cause a student to become a better writer. Students must learn to self-edit. They can catch many mistakes simply by taking the time to read their paper aloud. Not only does reading aloud add an auditory element to writing, but the process has the added benefit of slowing the reader down long enough to think about the content as well. Providing a simple checklist of common grade-level errors is another way to give students who are not confident in self-editing the support they need to begin taking ownership of the editing process. In addition, teachers can educate students on how to use digital tools such as Grammarly, SAS Writing Reviser, or word processing features to ensure a grammatically correct paper.

4. Strengthening Content and Ideas

Teachers should offer feedback on students' content and ideas, as these are the most important element of writing, and developing them should be the focus of feedback. Consider giving a Glow comment (something really great about the content) and Grow comment (a piece of constructive criticism) with each paper. A Glow comment might be something like:

  • The hook in your introduction was very enticing.
  • Your second body paragraph offered a persuasive argument.

A Grow comment could include:

  • Your conclusion included new information.
  • Your third body paragraph did not have any concrete evidence.

Students can review Glow and Grow comments immediately before the next writing assignment in order to repeat what they did well and grow in their areas of weakness.

5. Student Reflection

Teachers should offer students a chance to reflect on their writing. Students should learn to think about themselves as writers, and one of the best ways to do this is having them reflect on their writing. Ask them to turn in a reflective paragraph with their written work assessing what they liked about it and why, as well as parts of the work that they felt might be weak. Students may also want to reflect on what part of the writing process seemed the most difficult and why. Not only does this help them own their writing, it also offers the teacher a chance to see the work through the students' eyes, which can help tailor feedback to specific concerns and needs.

Writing is hard work; teaching writing may be even harder work. The reward of teaching writing and not just editing papers, however, is each student who writes competently and confidently. And that's something to write home about!

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Susan Barber's picture
Susan Barber
High School English Teacher & English Department Chair

I love this!!! Students' stories are so powerful and to give them the voice and choice to share not only with you but with their peers -wow!

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

This is a great post Susan, I especially find the self-editing skills section to be so useful. I like the idea of providing a checklist for them to go over as a guide, that way editing their own work is less "tedious" and more manageable. Thanks for writing this awesome blog!

Dorothy Hastings's picture
Dorothy Hastings
Director of First school

This is a really nice article. Thanks for sharing this in child care. Students educational knowledge depends on teacher, and these tips are really helpful for teachers.

Susan Barber's picture
Susan Barber
High School English Teacher & English Department Chair

I'm glad this was helpful and please let me know if I can help you further. Thank you!

Leona Hinton's picture

Can't take my eyes off your excellent article, Susan, there are so many things teachers have to care about, thank you for writing it and sharing your observations and professional experience with us.
Talking about self-editing tools, this idea is brilliant and must be used in every classroom.
Apart from grammar checking and editing services, teachers should also use a reliable plagiarism checker. It helps to check student papers online and give a detailed feedback. I recently read another informative article and sent it to my students to give them some extra ideas on how to avoid unintentional plagiarism. I totally agree that teaching writing is pretty hard work but no one said it would be easy :-)

Geoffrey Gevalt's picture
Geoffrey Gevalt
Founder of Young Writers Project, a Vermont-based educational nonprofit

I appreciate your post a great deal. Some excellent advice. I confess that your first sentence threw me: "Editing student writing typically takes a few minutes and a red pen." At Young Writers Project, we encourage mentors and teachers to NOT use a red pen and to edit on the more substantive aspects of a piece, that is offer suggestions on the construct or the viewpoint or what works/what doesn't, on the tone, on whether the piece has a deeper point.

A couple of other things ... spend more time on the idea development to allow kids to find an idea they really like ... build peer-to-peer feedback (personal and online (we are not a fan of Google docs; use something that allows for free view and exchange of posts and comments)) ... and PUBLISHING - get that work out to an outside audience -- it brings affirmation AND a sense of purpose.

We are a nonprofit. Therefore it's legit to offer up our free online community for your kids to use ... Open to youths to share, give and receive feedback, revise and get published.

Thanks again for your post. Great ideas in here.


Yanglish's picture

Quite an interesting topic. In any case, it is necessary to build a rapport between teacher and student to create a person who will be able to generate a high-quality text.

Lisa_MCcoy's picture
Parent. Teacher. Budding Writer

Excellent article! Totally agree that teaching students how to write is quite difficult compared to just editing their writing

Jennifer Lockman's picture

I believe teaching how to write effectively is one of the most important life-long skills educators impart to their students. When teaching writing, educators must be sure to select resources and support materials that not only aid them in teaching how to write, but that will also be the most effective in helping their students learn to write.

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