Teaching students to be writers

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

A writer is someone who writes

I used to think that one either was or was not a writer. In other words, one was gifted with a muse, or not. Sometimes the muse would bestow her inspiration and words would flow through the writer, and other times the muse would stubbornly refuse to help, and the writer would be blocked from doing anything at all. In this view, the writer is a mere tool, and does no more than a pen in the process of writing.

In its extreme form, this sounds silly, but I think that some version of it underlies many people's view of what it means to be a writer. I didn't actually believe I had a muse (and if I did, mine was terribly uncooperative), but my relationship to writing was nonetheless passive. That is, when I was blocked, staring at a screen for hours on end, I didn't know what I could do. Sometimes I had a glass of wine, which sometimes helped; other times I waited until some kind of panic set in because a deadline was fast approaching, and then coffee was my drug of choice. These strategies worked for undergrad, but no amount of winespiration or coffee-fuelled binge-writing sessions will get you to a finished dissertation.

In the last couple of years of my dissertation, I worked hard at becoming a writer, inspired by the AGT Writing Challenge. The goal of the group is to support people in writing 400 words/day, 5 days/week (counted Sunday to Saturday), because in order to become a writer, one must simply write. That is, to be a writer has nothing to do with what someone is, but rather has everything to do with what someone does. It's an exceedingly simple concept, but one that took a lot of work to actually implement and practice continuously.

It's interesting that, although writing is such a core component of becoming an academic, I received virtually no training in this. That's not to disparage my Ph.D institution, since I understand that very few Ph.D programmes focus on teaching their students how to become successful writers, in the sense of becoming people who get words on the page very frequently. Of course I got feedback on the writing I produced, and I got better at various writing-related tasks over time, but the core skill, of engaging actively in the process of writing rather than thinking of writing as something that would just happen when the good ideas came, was not taught.

Although I had heard the advice to "just write everyday" prior to joining the challenge, it didn't make sense to me until I learned specific strategies to help me do so. Much of this advice is available online in various forms, and offered by people with more experience than I have, so the particular strategies aren't new or original to me. Beyond this advice, however, I wanted to create a pedagogical activity to help my undergraduate students learn how to become writers, and this is detailed at the end.

Strategies to being a writer

Create support in the writing process. Creating a system of support for the writing process can be very helpful, but this may look different for different people. One of my favourite ways to do this is to create a "shut up and write" group (3–4 people) using what I call a Declare/Assess Pomodoro Method. The Pomodoro method is well known, and involves focussed 25 minute work blocks broken up by short breaks (5–10 minutes); a longer break (20–30 minutes) follows after 3 pomodoros. The "Declare/Assess" aspect is just that: before the pomodoro, each member of the group declares what they will work on for that 25 minute block, and during the break after the pomodoro, each person reveals whether they were successful, and declares the next goal. In addition to helping me with accountability (particularly valuable when I really don't feel like writing!), it has also helped me to calibrate my expectations of how long writing tasks actually take.

Write to think. This is more of a change in mindset than strategy, but it's been an absolutely crucial shift in perspective. I used to think that thinking came before writing, but working through the writing challenge during my dissertation showed me that, in fact, writing can be a useful tool for thinking. That is, even if I don't have my thoughts worked out fully, it is helpful to just start writing, and that writing out my thoughts, however ill-formed, was beneficial. Crucially, the writing has to be prose, not simply outlines or bulleted notes; these are useful, but they aren't the same as forcing myself to articulate thoughts in full sentences, however terrible the quality of the prose. I also now prioritise writing throughout the research process, as a way to be continually engaged with the business of communicating my work, even if that's just communicating with my future self.

Write through writer's block. Anyone who has tried to write anything more complicated than an email has experienced writer's block, whether for a couple of hours to a couple of days (or weeks, or months...). Since not writing was not an option when I participated in the writing challenge, succumbing to writer's block was also not an option, since I didn't want to lose my $20 buy-in! As a result, I ended up stumbling across one of my most valuable strategies: writing about the block as a way to get through it. That is, on days when I felt that I had nothing to write about, I would write about the fact that I was experiencing writer's block, what it felt like, why I was frustrated, how it was impacting me, where I thought the block was coming from, etc. After at most 3 days of this, I found that what had been blocking me was usually some kind of anxiety, and that journalling the anxiety about that particular topic helped me to overcome it. This was surprising to me since I generally don't keep a diary or journal (and don't feel any inclination to do so), but this has been one of the most important strategies for getting me through writer's block.

Pedagogical activity to teach writing strategies to undergraduate students

In Fall 2021, I implemented "writing weeks" in both of my classes (80287 Language Variation and Change and 80388 Linguistic Typology) for students to work on reflection papers. They were told that they did not need to do any preparation ahead of time. A nice side benefit is that this activity functions as something of a break week, which is sorely needed, particularly in the fall semester! Both classes meet for 80 minutes, twice a week.

Day 1

Day 1 of the writing activity is devoted to helping students generate ideas, refine them, and get peer feedback early on in the writing stage. The activities are also designed to lower the negative affect that many students experience with respect to the early stages of thesis writing. This is a sample schedule for Day 1:

Free write — 5 minutes

  • Students begin by doing 5 minutes of free writing, in which they decide how they will tell someone about their paper in 1 minute. This can be very rough, even just articulating what topic they want to write about.

  • Objective: Provide students with opportunity to plan what they want to say to their peers.

Paired minute thesis ("speed dating" style) — approximately 10 minutes

  • Students are put into pairs, and each has 1 minute to share their thesis. The listener is asked to take note of 1 thing they like and 1 thing that needs improvement.

  • Students are placed into different pairs, to repeat the exercise. This is carried out 2–4 more times, depending on the number of students in the class.

  • Objective: Having to articulate a thesis in a minute requires that students clearly identify the most important component of what they want to say. This can also be an opportunity for students to see that what they thought was clear is not, in fact, clear. Requires students to be active listeners.

  • Meta-cognition building: I ask students why I had them do this activity, and I invite them to share their experience. Some report that their thesis became much more focussed the more they delivered it, others report that it revealed problems they hadn't anticipated, but all report agreeing that it was valuable.

Reflection on what they heard — 2 minutes

  • Students are asked to jot down some notes to reflect on what they heard, identifying commonalities in their peers' ideas.

  • Objective: Identify common themes; can help students determine how their peers' work relates to theirs.

Small group feedback — approximately 10 minutes

  • Students are put into small groups (~3–4 students per group) of students who had worked together during the paired minute thesis; the timer is set for 1min 30sec, during which group members provide feedback to one of the students in the group.

  • The activity is repeated for all group members until each member has received feedback from their peers.

  • Objective: Students receive feedback from their peers. Students practice providing concise and effective feedback.

Free write — 10 minutes

  • Students are asked to begin writing their paper, and told to refrain from doing additional research or trying to plan too much.

  • Objective: Students write to get their thoughts out while everything is still "fresh". Sometimes students find themselves lost at this stage, because they realise they need to restart; I encourage students that it's better they discover this early, and to use this time to simply freely write down ideas.

Reflection on own writing so far — 2 minutes

  • I ask students to pause their writing to reflect on what they've written and write down one thing they like and one thing they want to improve upon in their writing.

  • Objective: Reflection is an important part of learning, and can also contribute to building meta-cognitive awareness and lowering negative affect. Many students tend not to focus on what is good about their writing; moreover, even when they are critical, they don't articulate a specific point of improvement, so I want them to build this kind of reflection into their writing process.

Email me!

  • At this point, I ask students to email me both what they've written and their reflection on their writing. I check my email immediately to ensure that I receive them at that point (and not later, when they might have attempted to polish them).

  • Objective: Many students don't want someone to read their rough writing, but getting feedback early and often is really important. I do not give detailed feedback, but I want students to realise this is "no big deal", and so I make sure to let them know that I'm fully aware that I'm getting rough writing.

Work time: Option to discuss or write — Rest of class

  • I give students the option to write independently or get into small groups to continue discussing their papers for the rest of the class.

Day 2

Day 2 is all about the Declare/Assess Pomodoro Method described above. I ask students to refrain, as much as possible, from using the time to do additional research, and instead focus on the writing. If they must do additional reading, I ask them to declare what, specifically, they need to read about, and to incorporate what they read into their writing as soon as they can.


I am, so far, pleased with this approach. I don't yet have any data on its effectiveness, but students seemed to enjoy the activity, and appreciate the dedicated time to writing and getting feedback early on. As you can see, the entire activity is designed to implement the three strategies (creating support; writing to think; writing through writer's block) that I have found to be helpful in getting students to be writers, in the sense of getting words on the page.

If you try this approach, please let me know how it goes for you!

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