Friday, April 10, 2020

Three Tips for Writing Teachers

Since the 2019-2020 school year marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays, I’m resurrecting and updating old posts that sparked a lot of conversation or that still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s essay originally appeared on November 14, 2016.

Recently, a teacher tweeted me with this question:

"When kids revise, their changes may not be improvements. How can we lead them to make their manuscripts better?"

That’s a great question, but it’s not something that can be answered in 140 characters. And in fact, I’m not sure there is an answer—at least not one teachers will like.

I think that the only honest answer is that revision is messy, and sometimes our attempts to re-envision our writing are complete and utter failures. That’s why writing is hard.

As I describe in this Revision Timeline, creating the picture book No Monkeys, No Chocolate was a 10-year journey. When I share this timeline with students, the first question the ask is: “Does it always take so long to write a book?"

No, it doesn’t. (Thank goodness) But for most of the picture books I write, the journey from inspiration to publication is far longer than most people expect. Here are some stats:

Can an Aardvark Bark? . . . 7 years

Feathers: Not Just for Flying. . . 8 years

Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs . . . 7 years

A Place for Butterflies . . . 5 years

Seashells: More than a Home . . . 6 years

Under the Snow . . .  5 years

For each of these manuscripts, I wrote draft after draft after draft. And I openly admit that some of those drafts were worse than the ones that came before them. 

When it comes to writing, not every attempt is an improvement. Not every idea pans out, and you know what, that’s okay. It’s part of the process. Like I said, writing is hard. 

But it’s also important. For more and more people, being able to clearly express ideas and information in writing is a critical job skill. And that’s why I think the best thing a writing teacher can do is:

Be a Coach
A good coach knows how to help players improve by giving them the right advice at the right moment. Writing teachers can do this by building a classroom collection of mentor texts and handing students titles that will address the specific writing elements they’re struggling with. 

For nonfiction, the collection should include books with:
—various formats and text structures
—different writing styles (narrative and expository)
—different voices (lyrical, lively, and various options in between)

—strong verbs
—rich use of language devices (alliteration, onomatopoeia, similes and metaphors, etc.)

Coaches also teach strategies by going over past games play by play. Writing teachers can use old student work to showcase how those writers chose a clever format or used voice well or included strong verbs.

Be a Role Model
Time and again, when I do writing workshops in schools, I see that the classes that do the best are the ones where the teacher participates. She pays attention to what I’m saying. She takes notes. She asks questions. And most importantly, she writes right alongside her students. 

As she writes, she verbalizes the things that are challenging her. She asks her students for advice and suggestions. She encourages them to consult with one another. She shows them that writing is a struggle for everyone, and yet, it’s something that is worthy of her time—and theirs.

Be a Cheerleader
When students feel frustrated or defeated, writing teachers can spur kids on. They can encourage young writers to keep trying by sharing examples of their own setbacks and successes. They can also share the trials and tribulations that professional writers discuss on their blogs or social media. 

When students see that the adults around them struggle with writing, that it's just part of the process, they can learn to move past the frustration they feel and experience their own successes.


  1. I'm needing encouragement. My story just needs to be told in a different way, which will lead me to more revisions. But right now, I'm healing a physical problem and thinking more on how I'll go about this. Thanks for this post. I needed to read it.

  2. I hope you heal quickly and can get back to writing, Virginia.

  3. This is so important for kids (and all writers) to understand. A manuscript can get worse before it gets better. Writing is not like a mathematical equation. It's more like messy chemical experiments. With each experiment you may (or may not) have a better idea for what will work next time. And with more experience, you can make educated guesses about what may work better next time, but there's never any guarantee.