Here's how to help students improve their writing

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Students are heading back to school and many are dreading the writing assignments their teachers and professors will be giving them. That’s understandable, because most teachers aren’t preparing their students to succeed in writing in the classroom and on the job.

As a New York Times bestselling author and a former faculty member in the UCLA and New York University writing programs, let me offer a few thoughts about how teachers and their students can finally get writing … right.

Improving writing instruction and writing has never been more important. That’s because in just about all professions, if you can’t write you can’t work. Poorly written emails, proposals, resumes, tweets and posts get you ignored, laughed at, or even fired.

As journalist A.J. Liebling put it, “the way to write is well.”

The problem is that few educators know how to teach people to write well. Here are three ways they can do a better job:

First, stop correcting everything in sight.

I recently met with a successful businessman in his 70s who told me that he knew he couldn’t write because he had gotten a C on a writing assignment … in seventh grade. He’s not alone.

For whatever reason, most writing teachers have the inaccurate belief that they can correct, shame and otherwise bludgeon their students into writing better.

The problem is that students turn in writing assignments expecting a pat on the head and end up with a sea of red ink. Then they quickly become convinced they are and will always remain lousy writers.

Instead of correcting everything in sight, which depresses students and gives them the idea that they will never write well, do what I do. Find some sentences in your students’ work – there are always at least a few – that read well.

Maybe the word choice is intriguing. Maybe the musicality of the sentence is pleasing. Maybe the writer made a point firmly and succinctly.

Show students what they did right. Then let them consider the rest of their sentences and ask themselves what they need to do to make those other sentences just as good.

After that, ask students to write a second version of their paper and submit it, so you can see the improvement. This encourages them to review and rewrite their work – a key step to produce better writing.

Pointing out what works isn’t the same as giving out ribbons for participation. Instead, you’re giving the students a baseline for what good writing looks like. You’re showing them that they already have the ability to write well, and that some of their sentences are at a professional level.

This approach gives confidence instead of destroying the students’ self-image as writers. It works every time.

Second, stop giving grades for writing.

My biggest fear as a writing professor was that somebody would give me a Hemingway or Melville short story I hadn’t read and then stand back and laugh at me as I gave it a B-.

Grading writing assignments either depresses the students when grades are low, or inflates their self-image when the grades are high. Students often cannot distinguish between how an instructor feels about a given assignment and how an instructor feels about a student’s overall ability to write.

In other words, if you give a student a B- on a writing assignment, she will likely conclude: “I am a B- writer and I will always be a B- writer, because the teacher is never wrong.”

If you can show me one writer who became a better writer because his or her work was graded, I will give you my autographed edition of “The Sun Also Rises.”

Third, expose your students to great writing in a wide variety of contexts.

The best way to become a better writer is to become a better reader. But in today’s ephemeral, text-and-email-driven world, there’s very little emphasis on great writing and great communication.

Teach your students how to recognize great writing when they see it, and most likely some of that greatness will rub off on their own writing abilities.

You can find great writing just about anywhere.

When I was in law school, I would stand up in the law library while reading Supreme Court decisions written by Justice Robert Jackson because they were so powerfully written.

You can find brilliantly written business books, white papers, and speeches to share with your students. In other words, not all great writing comes from the fiction shelf. Show your students that great communicating can take place anywhere – even in the business world.

These three steps will make teachers better at teaching writing and enable them to turn average writers into good and even great ones.

Writing teachers have to step up their game. In a world where we communicate so much in writing, we owe our students nothing less.