My father, a retired businessman whose education never extended beyond high school, recently asked me to review a piece of writing he planned to publish on a website.  My father is a smart man, but I knew his writing skills might be rusty, so I feared his feelings could be hurt and I might appear overly-critical if I red-penciled too many of his words.  Nevertheless, I corrected grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors and also made a number of gentle edits and "suggestions" in clarity and structure.  After reading my critique, my father said, "This is great.  You improved the writing, but it still sounds like me!"  My father taught me that as a high school English teacher, I'd learned how to improve a piece of writing without sacrificing the writer's voice.  He reminded me that honoring the individual style while simultaneously addressing quality is one of the best ways to instill confidence in beginning writers.

Maintaining a positive attitude is one of the first steps in fostering confidence in beginning writers because constructive criticism can be positive as well as negative.  Emphasizing what's going well is as important as assessing areas for improvement, especially in early drafts.  On my students' papers, for example, I frequently place a star by a clever turn of phrase, an excellent word choice, or a particularly insightful piece of commentary.  This takes little effort, but the positive reinforcement tells the writer that specific areas have been successfully executed.  As teachers, we do not know how deeply our pupils internalize this praise and the benefit of that ripple effect is incalculable.  Beth, a former student who is now a teacher herself, recently e-mailed me to say that I was one of the first teachers to give her a sense of confidence in her writing and that I helped her become an "independent thinker."  I suspect I recognized her unique perspective on the world and nurtured her individual voice which, as her e-mail suggested, resulted in a positive classroom experience for her.

Another important technique in creating confidence while pushing students toward clarity and precision in their writing is to meet them at their current level of performance.  Earnestly wanting my students to improve their writing, I spent many years in the beginning of my career correcting every error I saw and making every suggestion I could think of.  While sincere, this approach often overwhelmed the student, and I eventually learned it wasn't the best avenue toward improvement.  I realized a much more effective approach was to ask myself, "What are the biggest issues preventing THIS piece of writing from being better?  What handful of corrections can the student handle--where he or she is right now--that will transfer to this piece of writing and move it to the next level of clarity?"  Next, I made edits, suggestions, or corrections based on those needs--typically asking for a revision and another draft to ensure the student was able to make the transfer from suggestion to implementation.  This proved more manageable for students and allowed them not only take ownership of their own writing skills, but to take control of the development OF those skills.  Once those initial roadblocks were eliminated, we were able to move to the next level.  This incremental approach to writing built confidence in the student while making concrete improvements.  The more I approached each student at his or her own level, the more success he or she found with each draft and each successive paper.

In seventeen years of teaching English (as well as two summer school sessions a year for the last ten years), I have read and marked over 19,000 student essays.  I've learned that whether it is a student sitting in a class of forty other writers or, quite possible, my own father, creating a non-judgmental atmosphere is imperative.  The beginning writer must feel comfortable experimenting, risking and, yes, even failing, without the fear that he or she will be humiliated in the process.

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1/27/2012

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