Today I attended a workshop that focused on student writing.  At one point, the presenter talked about what a student means when he or she says, “I hate writing!” 

I’d like to give you that list and share with you some impromptu reflections:

When students say, “I hate writing,” what they’re really saying is:

1.  I don’t know where to begin. 

Staring at a blank white sheet of paper (or, more often these days, a blank computer screen) is a very daunting process.  Some students are not sure how to prioritize the ideas they have, select the strongest ones to open their paper, or how to tell the difference between gold and garbage.  The opposite problem is that other students have no ideas at all. 

Both ends of the spectrum can be equally intimidating.  The other issue is figuring out whether the student even knows how to structure the beginning of a story, essay, freewrite, or journal entry once they are set on which ideas to use.  It is also just as possible that the student doesn’t know the difference between the aforementioned types of writing. 

All of this makes knowing how to start a piece of formal writing a paralyzing prospect for some young writers.  No one enjoys beginning an activity that causes anxiety right out of the gate, so many of  students elect not to do it at all, having found themselves hamstrung from the get-go.

2.  I get bad grades on all my essays. 

As teachers, we are taught, and often preach, the concept of The Self-Fulfilling Prophesy.  If a student is told often enough that he or she is stupid or ugly or worthless, he or she begins to believe it.  But I wonder if we ever consider this concept in regard to handing back student papers.  Many students find themselves on the treadmill of receiving a successions of “Ds” on their essays and feel—accurately or inaccurately, is difficult to say—that none of their English teachers has helped them jump off the treadmill of substandard writing.  Their logic tells them, then, that they must be to blame.  Clearly, they are terrible writers and permanently and irredeemably unskilled in the written word. 

The truth is: the blame should probably be shared.  Teachers often don’t have (or maybe take) the time or energy to provide certain students with more than the “assembly line” instruction that is possible in a class of 38-40, but I also know that I’ve written SEE ME on essay after essay and my guess is that only 1 in 10 ever show up. 

3.  Everything I write sounds stupid. 

Everything I write sounds stupid, too. 
The first time. 
That’s why God invented revision.
This essay took 6 drafts.
4.  I don’t understand the prompt. 

One nugget of wisdom I took away from today’s workshop is that when English teachers give a class full of teenagers an essay prompt, we often assume that since they’ve written X number of essays in their high school career, they know how to deconstruct (break down) a prompt and address its various parts.  Not so. I will immediately be changing/addressing this approach in my own classroom.  I will no longer assume that my prompts are immediately clear.  I will invest the time in pointing out WHAT the prompt is asking and how to ORGANIZE its parts.  All BEFORE a single student puts pen to paper or finger to keyboard.  The presenter said she used to do this with her AP students, and my thought was, why doesn't EVERY student deserve that same consideration.  My hope is that improved clarity and direction will result in higher essay scores.

5.  I don’t know enough to write on this subject. 

Sadly, I cannot count the number of students who, while attempting to compose their recent essay on Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, leaned in to me three days into the composition process and confided in hushed tones, “But, Mr. T., I didn’t read the book.”  This, unfortunately, is an epidemic problem and is responsible for the lion’s share of poor English grades.  In a Twitter world of 140 characters, writing 380 words about a book that clocks in at 281 pages might, for some students, seem harder than scaling Mount Everest.  But if you haven’t even read the book, you don’t have a chance.  I always tell my students that “you can’t write an essay on a book you didn’t read.”  I tell them this every time I hand them a new novel, hoping that I’m telling them this early enough in the process to make a difference.  I’m not.
Note:  One student e-mailed me and told me she was having trouble with her essay, despite the fact that it had been due the week before.  She said she hadn’t read the book, but that she had powered through it that weekend and had listened to our class discussions and was now ready to write.  She cranked out the essay and turned it in late.  What was the grade?  It doesn’t really matter because the bottom she turned in an essay that wasn’t going to come in. 

I was proud of her because, in my business, that’s a victory.

6.  I don’t want to think this hard.

Too bad.  You’re going to.

The bottom line is that the next time I start to talk about an essay and a student starts to groan and says, “I hate writing,” I’m going to spend a little more time looking at what, in my business, we call the “subtext” of what that student is really trying to say.