Each year after holiday break I told my students their writing would change forever. It was simple statement, but most of them did not take it seriously. What ensued was “Writer’s Boot Camp”. A 10-day writing program I put my students through each year. It didn’t matter if I taught 8th graders or 11th graders, the rules and guidelines stayed the same. Each day we would cover a new rule. Each day they would write 250 words in class, and 250 words at home. At the end of writer’s boot camp students had to produce a piece of analytical writing, and they had to demonstrate an understanding of the rules.
What I loved about Writer’s Boot Camp was the simplicity…but also the feedback I received from students. They complained when I assigned the writing project, but as the days went on the complaining stopped and they realized that writing wasn’t all that hard, or all that boring! In fact, many students continued to write each day and keep the journal they had built through the boot camp.
I made it a ten day period because we often focus on writing “here and there”. By deliberately focusing my students’ (and my own) attention on writing, it became a challenge that we all had to overcome together. At the end of boot camp my writing had drastically improved…and my students felt a new confidence about their craft.
Here are my 10 lessons to make anyone a better writer.
Lesson #1: Behind every great piece of writing is a great story.
I don’t care if you are writing a letter, email, essay, book, or company memo…if it is boring, no one will care. Furthermore, it needs to tell a story. Human beings learn better through stories than anything else. If you want people to learn from your writing (however big or small the piece) it needs to be a great story.
Lesson #2: You become a better writer by reading. You become a better reader by writing.
This generation of students reads and writes more than any other before it. However, much of that reading and writing is text messages, Twitter/Instagram/Facebook posts, short blogs (like Tumblr), and other online pieces. The type of reading you feed your brain is also going to end up in your writing. If we want students to write analytical pieces, they must read analytical pieces. If we want them to write a narrative, they must read a narrative. Make sure you are on a good “diet” of reading, and try to read what you’ll be writing. It will make your writing better than you could have ever imagined.
Lesson #3: Vigorous writing is concise. Every word should tell. Make your point well and once. Then shut up.
Every word should have a purpose within the sentence. Every sentence should have a purpose within the paragraph. Every paragraph should have a purpose within the piece. It’s that simple.
Thanks to Strunk and White for that lesson!
Lesson #4: Learning to use words effectively will be the most valuable tool you’ll ever need.
Want to get a job? You are going to have to speak and write well to even get an interview. Want to ask that girl/guy out on a date? Make sure you use the right words! Want to be a better thinker? Build your vocabulary…we think in words!
My good friend Anthony Gabriele used to have this lesson hanging from various spots in his classroom. In fact, many students already know how to use their words to effectively persuade parents or friends…but they fail to transition this type of persuasive language into the classroom in their writing. My job as a teacher was to make that connection to “real world” language use, and how it applies to even the smallest writing task in school.
Lesson #5: Always be prepared to write. Always be prepared to think critically.
At this point of Writer’s Boot Camp I would give my students a Bourne Identity writing moment. What does that mean exactly? I’d quickly surprise them with a critical thinking scenario that require them to not only “think on their feet” but also “write on their feet”.
Why do I do this? Because you never know when you’ll need to use your writing skills for a specific moment. Prepare to write and think when you are unprepared. Success will follow!
Lesson #6: Style = Your grade.
Maybe you’ve got great content. Your structure and grammar are perfect as well. Yet, whether it is a teacher, a blog reader, or a boss…something is still missing when they read what you write. That’s because your writing style is what takes readers from passively absorbing your work, to actually believing in you.
Style is in short…your personal writing voice. It separates you from everyone else. In order to improve your style you must write, write, and write some more. Once you find it, you’ll know…because your readers will want to talk with you.
Lesson #7: Cheer up, great writing isn’t laborious, it’s tedious.
I used to landscape during my summers while I was in college. One of the first things I learned to do was mulch. Taking hot (and smelly) mulch from off the truck, into wheel barrels, and spread it all over huge properties was no fun task. It was a workout!
I also had the opportunity to do some gardening as a landscaper for a huge estate. I’d spend all day walking around the grounds picking a weed here or there, and pruning different plants. It took a lot of time, but I never broke a sweat.
Great writing won’t make you sweat. It isn’t laborious like mulching, it is much more tedious like pruning and weeding a big estate. Great writing takes time and you have to keep working at it. Think about writing as a journey and you’ll continually improve.
Lesson #8: Write to entertain, not to impress.
Big words, fancy sentence structures, and deep thoughts aren’t what writing is about. Writing is about conveying an emotion, and your focus as a writer should be to entertain the reader through your words. Many time we think about “entertainment” as something that is fun…but, in reality to be entertained is to care about what is happening and be connected to the words.
When’s the last time you read a book, watched a movie, or listened to your favorite song and said, “That was impressive writing…?” We don’t think about the actual writing, we think about how we feel and connect to that book, movie, or song. We’ll end up liking the book, movie, or song because we are entertained by the words and story. Aim to do the same with your writing.
Lesson #9: Know the difference between revising and editing. Then do both.
As a teacher I have a few opportunities to improve and change my lessons throughout the year. The recent snow days force me to make quick rearrangements of what I would teach, and cut out some of the content I would bring to my students. Various choices have to be made throughout the school year in terms of what I would teach, but I have to be flexible enough to make it work for the students and fit the curriculum.
During the summer I can look (often with a colleague) at the entire year. We can change and modify entire units and add or take away new projects, papers, assignments etc. The process goes back and forth each year as big changes are made during the summer months and small quick fixes are implemented throughout the school year.
Chances are you rarely edit…or revise. I’m here today to tell you that both are necessary! Editing your writing is similar to what we do during the school year as teachers or leaders. Changes sometimes need to be made. Cuts need to happen. And every once in a while we’ll add something new of value. Revising is similar to the work we do in the summer when we look at the entire structure and flow of the content and curriculum. In order to improve the teaching and learning, the changes made during the year and during the summer are necessary. In order to improve your writing, revising and editing are also necessary.
Lesson #10: If you want to improve, you’ll continue to improve.
In the end, it’s all about attitude.
For the final lesson of Writer’s Boot Camp I’d ask my students to write down the biggest challenge they ever had to overcome. For some students this was very personal, and for others it often was about a sporting challenge or related to one of their activities they do outside of school. The students were very open about this question and it sparked the same debate in class every single year.
Do your circumstances make you who you are? Or, does who you are impact your circumstances?
When it came down to it, every one of my students believed they had the power to improve their life in some way. Many didn’t know exactly how they would do it, but they had hope in their own individual power to move their life forward.
I left them with a simple message: Life, just like writing, is all about attitude. If you push yourself to constantly be better, then you’ll eventually get there. If you sit back and hope that you’ll improve, chances are you’ll never improve.
The Writer’s Boot Camp was about a lot more than just writing, and as a teacher it taught me that helping my students’ develop successful writing habits, is no easy task. But it can be done with the right attitude.