Why Writing Matters: Reaching Your Writers

Nov 19 Reaching Young Writers

This week, my wonderful co-authors at Two Writing Teachers will share various avenues and viewpoints that we hope will support teachers in working to reach every writer in their class(es). I hope you’ll all tune in and join this conversation this week since we always love to hear your thoughts about the ideas we present. But before we launch into this conversation about reaching all writers, let’s consider the ‘why’… in other words, why does writing matter at all? 

One of my favorite TedTalks, introduced to me a number of years ago, continues to be Simon Sinek’s now widely-known talk entitled, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” You’ve likely seen it, as it has now probably reached the category of “an oldie, but a goodie.” In his talk, Sinek posits that the way we think, the way we act, and the way we communicate all stems from our internal ‘why.’ What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief?” he asks. And it is the clarity and the action emanating from the answers to these questions that differentiate great leaders (teachers) from the ranks of mediocrity.

What's your purpose_ What's your cause_ What's your belief_

I find it interesting that this query around “why we do what we do” begins at a very young age. Think about it: Toddlers love to drill down to core purpose, as they begin asking ‘why’ sometimes as early as age two. But it’s also interesting that as humans we eventually transition to settling for answers like, “Because that’s just the way it is done,” or, “Because that’s what I was told,” or even, “Just because.” We lose sight of the original purpose that once inspired us; or worse yet, we never knew an original purpose existed.

Core purpose clarityKids need to know why writing matters. And we need to not only know, but presence that ‘why’, both for our students and for ourselves. For in a writing workshop, we are dedicated to teaching toward independence, toward autonomy. We ask, “What strategy will you work on today?” But if the core purpose of why do human beings write at all isn’t clear to our writers, then all the choice of strategies in the world will likely fail to engage them at the levels we truly strive for in our classrooms.

So allow me to share a few thoughts on why writing matters.

Academic Success

Teachers understand the need for strong writing skills in academia. We know kids will need to write a lot of papers, participate in projects that require writing, etc. But what we often overlook is the value writing provides in regards to analysis and growing ideas. It was novelist and journalist Joan Didion who once said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” Playwright Flannery O’Connor similarly once said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

The act of writing is, of course, an important means by which we communicate. Absolutely. But it can also be more than that: It can be a venue by which we can discover or clarify what we truly think or believe; it can provide the means by which we learn something we didn’t already know we knew; it can be a process that pushes us to think more, think differently, or put more words to what we thought already; and it can act as a powerful method for analyzing what we learn.

So, yes, we teach writing as an essential product-producing skill for academic success; but we also want to remember that writing can occupy a place in academic and/or personal examination, synthesis, and discovery.

Career Success

It’s an age-old question from kids: “When will I ever use this?” they ask us. And it’s likely that writing is not immune from such a wondering. After all, in a digital age where so much of our economy and interpersonal work relies on apps and artificial intelligence, kids may wonder exactly what place writing proficiency might have in their uncertain futures? The truth is that the need for strong writing skills doesn’t seem to be diminishing or going away any time soon. In fact, according to some sources, the ability to write clearly and effectively has taken on even greater importance in the modern era. Communication remains toward the top of any list of “21st Century Skills” with which I have become in contact.

According to an article published in the Huffington Post entitled, “Reasons Why Writing Remains a Critical Skill for Success,” by Tomas Laurinavicius (2017),

“…the importance of writing has perhaps increased in the last decade or so, thanks to trends in technology… In matters of business, when every second counts, strong writing makes the difference between smooth operations and clumsy footing.”

Strong writing skills equate to effective communication skills, which are likely critical to the success of any collaborative endeavor or career pursuit of any stripe. And not just writing skills, but writing for a particular audience. As Dr. Mary Ehrenworth from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project recently said, “The only audience [for kids’ writing] can’t be the teacher.” Kids need to learn from an early age that considering audience is part of the planning and revision process. For this will serve them well as they grow to eventually join the contemporary economy.

Personal Success

Writing can add meaning to life. Think of the toasts written for weddings, eulogies written for loved ones lost, poems written for children. As Anne Lamott once said, Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises.”

Anyone who’s ever made it in the world — that is, whomever has experienced great success — certainly did not do so without being able to tell their own story. Narrative writing, a type of writing downplayed by the early advocates of the Common Core Standards initiative, as well as other more current packaged writing programs, provides avenues to learn essential skills about story, which as Drew Dudley from Day One Leadership has deemed, “the basic unit of human understanding.” So as we strive to improve our standardized test scores by practicing things like “constructed response,” claim and evidence, and conveying information and ideas through the selection of relevant content, let us not forget the humanity that resides inside the ability to tell a story really well.

In Closing

Great power and possibility become potential reality for those who can write and write well. Consider some of the writers who changed the world in which we live today (a somewhat random list):

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose writing became influential in supporting anti-slavery activity;
  • The Founding Fathers, who drafted the Bill of Rights;
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., whose oration changed the course of history for the oppressed;
  • Charles Darwin, whose writing became foundational scientific concepts; 
  • Karl Marx, whose writings became a cornerstone political theory;
  • Simone de Beauvoir, whose writing laid critical foundations for global feminism;
  • Malala Yousafzai, whose writing and voice took a stand for girls’ education everywhere;
  • Temple Grandin, whose writings advocating for both the humane treatment of animals and the increased awareness of autistic communities have educated and inspired thousands;
  • Maya Angelou, whose written ideas changed the landscape of memoir and pushed our nation to think more and feel more;
  • Investigative journalists, who speak truth to power and whose writing enlightens the darkened corners of modern politics.

Think about yourself; think of something important you’ve written in your life and how that created more possibility for you or someone you know. Perhaps you got a job interview as a result of a great cover letter? Maybe you wrote a thank you note that made a real difference for someone else.  Maybe your child was accepted to participate in something meaningful. Or maybe you contributed a Slice of Life story that struck a chord with some of our readers. This is what writing is and can do.

Being able to put words to our hopes, dreams, and experiences has the power to change lives, to change history. So, as we work to reach our writers, let us not only communicate that belief to our students, but let’s internalize it for ourselves. For it is only when the light of our steadfast belief in the power of writing shines brightly from within us that our students will be touched, moved, and inspired to see themselves as powerful writers.

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This giveaway is for a copy of Every Child Can Write by Melanie Meehan. Thanks to Corwin Publishers for donating a copy of each of two books — one book for a primary educator and one book for a secondary educator. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)

For a chance to win this copy of Every Child Can Write, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, November 17th at 6:00 p.m. EST. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. Their name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, November 20th.

Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)

If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – EVERY CHILD CAN WRITE within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.