The secret is simple. It’s not even a secret, really.
The secret to writing is writing.
But what about starting? That’s the hard part.
Teachers who participate in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project’s (SVWP) Summer Intensive Institute talk about the subject each year. They challenge themselves as writers and teachers, offer instruction to each other, and think about how they can encourage their students to write well in a world in which communication is EVERYTHING.
While the project has existed for 10 years in the Shenandoah Valley, 2015 marked the institute’s first in a new official SVWP site — the School of Education and Human Development at Shenandoah University. There, over the course of four weeks, 14 teacher fellows immersed themselves in understanding more about writing for themselves and their students. The Shenandoah Valley Writing Project has partial funding support from a SEED Teacher Leadership Development Grant from the National Writing Project and the US Department of Education.
The tips the educators picked up work well for ANYONE, young or old, who wants to write but might be a bit intimidated by the process. Here are a few of the best.
Six Awesome Tips to Start Writing and Keep Writing
Play with writing ALL THE TIME. Chris Humenik, an 8th-grade English teacher at Warren County High School in Virginia said that writing gets better if it’s repeated, and grows through exploration and volume. For kids or adults, the key is to write, and write, and write.
With information he picked up with the summer intensive, Humenik plans to have his students undergo a self-selected research process once a quarter for three quarters, in which they settle on a non-Google-able question they’re passionate about and create a presentation about it. If a child likes drama, they can write a play. If a child likes poetry or music, they can produce poems or lyrics. For the remaining quarter of the year, his kids will likely do a multi-genre research paper that can include a variety of communication methods, from lyrics to poems to art. “Kids want to write with passion and purpose,” he said.
He can anticipate questions about how these projects play into student preparation for his state’s Standards of Learning tests, and his answer is, “the fact of the matter is, they’re writing.”
Engage in a lot of low-stakes writing. There’s an idea out there called “beautiful words” that helps kids (or adults) start writing. The instructor shares a piece of beautiful writing, or even an evocative photo, and then everyone writes about it. “You can’t do it wrong,” said Sarah Schaivo, an 8th-grade English teacher at Harmony Middle School in Purcellville, Virginia. The process eliminates the terror many people have when they see a blank page.
The “beautiful words” concept came back to her school in 2014 after a colleague attended the intensive program. Such quick writes and reflections can help anyone organize their thoughts and find their voice, she said.
Write to find your voice. You can enhance your speaking abilities, improve the works you publish in your field, or even write a novel. Writing is about much more than fiction, Schaivo said.
All kids can write, said Mary Tedrow, a 12th-grade English teacher at John Handley High School in Winchester, Virginia, and a director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project. Not every child will be a poet or a novelist, and neither is a necessary outcome of writing, she said. Writing is so vitally important that “ideally, you want kids writing all day long,” in all content areas and grades.
Write to get better at EVERYTHING. Even math. Rosella Fonte, a math teacher at Douglass Alternative School in Loudoun County, Virginia, said her students often have mental blocks when it comes to numbers. However, if they write out the process they use to solve a math problem, both she and students can more clearly see where issues lie. She said she intends to liberally sprinkle lessons gleaned from the institute into her lessons once the new school year begins.
Find your audience and write to it. Think about it. When you write a letter or presentation or a Facebook status, you know your audience. You understand who you really want to “hear” and process your words. The same goes for students. And often, the person they REALLY want to talk to is NOT their teacher. It’s easy for a child to dismiss a teacher as an evaluator of their work, Tedrow said, but when students share their work with each other and can hear what other students can do, they may find writing more important.
Understand that for anyone, writing can be nerve-wracking. Schiavo wrote a novel during National Novel Writing Month but never shared it with others until the 2015 intensive. She said the writing groups were fantastically helpful to her, but she acknowledges that putting her work out there was tough, and now she can empathize with her students when they’re in a similar position. She said she can say, “This is scary for you. I get it. I was there.”
So what are the REAL secrets to writing anything?
Think of yourself as a capable writer.
Find a topic that resonates with you and start writing about it in any way that works best.
Write with passion and purpose.
Play with different language and communication forms. Have fun and keep the stakes low.
Write for your preferred audience (if you’re a student, think of writing to a parent, or a college admissions counselor, or a friend).
Write within a group where everyone shares work and strengths. Let people comment on what you’ve written and offer your thoughts on others’ work. If one young writer understands grammar better than the rest, he or she can help everyone else in the group learn. If another is an idea machine, let that student riff away.
So now you’re ready to begin. Find some beautiful words or images, sit yourself down and start writing. Enjoy yourself and the words you use. Your voice is ready to be heard.