How can we make students write shit that’s worth reading?

Responding to Steven Pressfield's blog writing lesson ("Rule #1: Nobody wants to read your shit") Ben Casnocha notes:
In school anything you write or do will be read and graded by a teacher paid to do so. In the real world nobody wants to read your shit, and you have to earn their attention every single day. Last year in a post titled You Have to Make People Give a Shit, I extolled blogging as a way to learn this value.
Teachers can't just give a 0 to someone because their writing is boring, even though in real life, that's what happens when you send in a crappy cover letter, and even though the goal of most educational writing is to prepare for real life writing. This means that students don't really have an incentive to be interesting. When we're told our writing needs a rewrite, often we just slap a few changes on the old piece, maybe Thesaurus a few words, and send it back in. It's tough to grasp the concept that no one wants to read your writing, especially when you know the teacher's going to read it, and you've spent the last ten hours writing it; it feels like your baby, even though your feelings about it are better than anyone else's. And it shows; former college admissions official Michelle Hernandez admitted that 90% of student essays that she read didn't make an impact. It's probably true that teachers give better grades to interesting papers, because after reading 20 boring ones, it must be nice to read a paper that reads smoothly. But this isn't an explicit part of the grading rubric. How can we make students' writing more interesting? Ben recommends blogging, as do I, except it's a lot of work for many students. The two things that will make anyone's writing better - read more and write more - require a large time investment. Here are simple changes to the class incentive structure that could work. Students are too accustomed to writing for an audience of one; get them to practice writing for a wider audience. Turn papers into competitions, where the winning piece gets published on the school's website, or read aloud to the class, or published in the local newspaper. This could be pretty easy; if you have kids write every day, just set up a class website and post "only interesting pieces" there. Unlike parents and most people in academia, I tend to regard competition as a good thing. One winner out of 20 is about right; think about how many applications employers get vs. how many applicants they end up hiring. Another alternative is to make a small part of every writing assignment - say, 5 points out of 100 - based on its interestingness. This is a simple exercise; the teacher simply flips through every paper and discards the ones that don't grab her right away. The ones in the discard pile get a 0 for interestingness. It's tough to peel away the layers of hackneyed phrases and tricks that accompany bad writing, to get to the interesting substance. Only recently have I started looking at whole paragraphs and pieces I've written and deciding that they need to be entirely rewritten. At the margin, if students spend more time writing (and more time writing interesting things) they will be better off, as will our society.

Liked what you read? I am available for hire.

3 thoughts on “How can we make students write shit that’s worth reading?

  1. Andy McKenzie

    I think teachers already grade on this. I’ve had teachers tell me that basically I can write about anything I want as long as it’s interesting. They just don’t tell most students this because students prefer a more objective rubric.

  2. Chris Reichow

    I wish that teachers did this more often. In my eighth grade year, I specifically wrote the most mind-numbing papers that I could, in an attempt to put my teachers to sleep. I actually succeeded twice, once on a paper on digital circuits, and one on westward expansion in America. The result, the teachers gave me “A”s because they didn’t want to read the rest/fell asleep. I was amused, but it’s not a good way to get constructive feedback.

    Great article, and I’ll be passing it along.


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