One of the most important accomplishments of high school is for students to become comfortable with writing and to find their voice. This isn't a subject that can be memorized or mastered, but through repeated exercises and practice, students can develop writing skills that will carry them in multiple job settings and throughout life. However, it can be hard to keep this perspective during high school, when students are rushed, stressed, nervous about making grammatical and spelling errors, and sometimes assigned topics that aren't of interest to them.
Instead of procrastinating, here are some tips to help high school students get their ideas and interpretations on paper. By having an organized approach to the assignment, they can make the most of the time available and become more fluent over time.
Write for expression, not perfection.
Many students start by thinking they have three blank pages to fill with at least five paragraphs. With this mindset, it's easy to waste time adjusting the margins and selecting a font. Instead, start with the big picture – what should be conveyed to the reader? Depending on the type of writing that has been assigned, students may be explaining, describing, analyzing, and persuading. Decide what is the key takeaway, and this will become the thesis or topic statement.
Once a student has settled on a position, they should write with that mindset and only for the purpose of expressing that position. Ignore grammar, spelling, and anything that might pull them away from expressing the topic. It is perfectly acceptable to write placeholder notes, such as, "XXXadd a quote hereXXX" or other notation to remind them to look up a fact or supporting evidence later. At this stage, it is more important that they continue the flow of expressive writing rather than capture completely accurate details.
The draft is complete when a student can read back with confidence that it reflects what he or she intended to say, no matter how clumsily.
Focus on proofreading only after a full draft has been completed.
Students will interrupt their ideas and flow of writing if constantly stopping to check a spelling or backtracking to ensure the sentence is complete. However, once the initial draft is done, it is essential that they go back to fill in missing details and make corrections. This can quickly become overwhelming, which is why many students skip this step and turn in a rushed first draft.
Once the student has captured the content they want to share, best practice for proofreading is to focus on only one key area at a time, and make multiple passes. Rather than slowing down the finished product, this actually increases efficiency and accuracy. Students can quickly go through looking only for one type of error, which can be spotted more easily when that's the only thing they are looking for. For example, the anagram COPS allows for four revisions, each one focusing on a key area:
C – Capitalization. Make a quick check that the first word of each sentence and proper names are capitalized.
O – Organization. Does the flow make sense? Is there a thesis in the introduction, and if so, does the evidence in the body support this thesis? Does the paper have a conclusion?
P – Punctuation. Every sentence should end with some type of punctuation. Also check for appropriate use of commas and that quotes are properly punctuated.
S – Spelling. Spell check will clear most errors, but also pay attention to misused words (ex. too/to/two, their/there/they're) that often creep into writing when rushed.
Don't skip the prewriting.
It's tempting to skip over writing an outline or mind map when these won't appear in the paper the student is required to turn in, but this is an essential step that will actually save time overall. By taking a few minutes to ensure that there is a solid thesis as well as evidence to support that position, the rest of the paper will move forward more quickly and smoothly. Sometimes, a student will need to change directions, and it's best to find this out before he or she is already halfway through the paper and more than halfway through the allotted time.
Just get started.
One of the hardest pieces of writing, or any task for that matter, is simply getting started. It can be as simple as taking a deep breath and deciding to "go." Sometimes, negotiating with a student so that there's a deadline for independent work, after which time he agrees to work with a parent, friend, or tutor to redirect and help keep him on task. Some students find a timer helpful to cue them not to shift to any other activity, including revising and editing, until the first draft is written.
Karen Lynn Maher of Legacy One Writers sums up how common it is to procrastinate on starting an assignment, but also provides inspiration to push past this tendency to delay, "The great obstacle to writing is the gap between intending to write and writing the first words. Breaching the chasm requires action—a choice to start. Failure to do so keeps our ideas, our expertise, our story hidden. We remain invisible, our story left untold."
No story should remain untold. Every assignment is an opportunity for the student to express him or herself, and to develop a voice in writing. Don't let time interfere with the ability to share ideas; help students develop an organized plan for getting ideas onto paper.