[ Read length: 6 minutes approximately ]
I hate writing, but I love having written.
These words have been attributed to Dorothy Parker. Whether she is the one who deserves credit for them, as I have recently learnt, is open to debate. Be that as it may, they never fail to strike a chord with me whenever I read them.
Many of us seem to avoid having the task of writing a text. Others, the brave ones, take the plunge and sit in front of the computer wracking their brains in search of the perfect opening sentence. I have played both parts.
While pulling my hair out and trying to think of how I can continue the text, I can’t help but wonder why we don’t discuss writing more often. I think we can agree that in order to help learners develop their speaking skills, we should be proficient speakers ourselves. When it comes to writing, however, why do so many of us shy away from the challenge of honing our own skills as writers?
Villas Boas (2017) argues that we don’t give due importance to writing because we simply don’t write much. As a consequence, we may believe our students will not have to write much either. Without being aware of it, we may be contributing to the creation of a vicious cycle in which students don’t enjoy writing because their teachers feel the same way. The way I see it, our ultimate goal is to help other people become better communicators. Leith (2018) reminds us that
“our working lives and our working relationships are shaped by how and what we write. To write clearly is an essential courtesy, and to write well is to give pleasure to your audience. You are not only making a case or imparting information; you are cultivating a relationship.” (p. 4)
If this is true, we would be falling short of our target by not encouraging them to improve their ability to put ideas down on paper.
It appears that what prevents us from taking more interest in writing is the pressure we feel to produce a text from scratch. One possible explanation for this keyboard anxiety is that we tend to look at writing from the back end. We imagine the finished text while staring at a blank page on the screen. We often look for inspiration in other people’s texts and admire their work and think of how accomplished they are.
Hart (2006) illustrates it well when he compares a great text to a beautiful building – both are built one step at a time. By breaking down the process into small, manageable steps, the overwhelming anxiety is likely to be reduced.
Suppose you want to share your experiences using technology in the classroom because you’ve had great results with your students, how would you go about the process?
Rather than simply choosing an interesting topic, try to dig a bit deeper and come up with a question. For example, you could ask: how can students benefit from using their smartphones in class? Your text will then be the answer to this question. By sharing what you’ve done and the results you’ve had, you’ll be highlighting the importance of using technology in the classroom. You won’t be just telling people it is important, you will be showing them it is.
Once you have come up with an interesting idea – not just a topic to write about – then you will ask yourself what further arguments you need to support your view. These answers will guide you while you collect information. What books or articles can I read on the subject? Can I talk to other professionals who share my views? Or perhaps I could hear the other side of the argument.
This way of thinking supports the idea that when we write we enter a conversation. All too often, many of us seem to assume that expressing one’s opinion about an issue can be done by putting together a collection of smart ideas and send them out into the universe hoping for the best. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
We must remember, however, that we put forward an argument based on what has already been said about it. As Graff and Birkenstein (2010) explain:
“if it weren’t for other people and our need to challenge, agree with, or otherwise respond to them, there would be no reason to argue at all.”
Therefore, if we want our text to make an impact an encourage others to think about the issue, we need more than coherent statements and smart ideas.
Focus and organization
Now you have your idea and you have collected plenty of information to support your views. It’s time to draw up a rough plan of your text. By selecting and structuring the information you want to include, you’ll have an outline which will help you write your first draft. Remember: it’s just the outline, not the text itself. It is like you’re gathering the bricks, the cement, and the tools you need by your side. Having them close at hand, will prompt you to start writing with more confidence.
You can then move on to writing per se. And I say: just do it. Write like nobody is watching. Allow yourself to write more loosely now that you have a plan. You might leave blanks where you don’t know exactly how to connect the ideas or where you want to double-check a specific piece of information. The goal here is to keep moving. As you finish your first draft, you’re likely to have feeling of accomplishment, and that should be enough to keep you motivated.
At this point you can find your inner grammar sergeant and do what you haven’t done yet: comb through your text and include the missing information and find ways to make it pleasant to your target reader. You’ll be paying attention to lexical and grammatical cohesion, linking devices, references, spelling, punctuation, etc.
Another helpful tip to follow at the polishing stage is to read your draft aloud. This may bring to the surface any overly complicated sentences, which you can rewrite. For instance, a separation between subject and verb will sound awkward and help you notice it. Reading your text aloud is also an effective way to attend to its rhythm. According to Provost (2019), you can do that by varying the sentence length and writing with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences.
“This is a brief summary of my talk at the Southern Cone BRAZ-TESOL Conference 2019. My goal with this presentation was to encourage teachers to write more and share their experiences so we can all benefit from learning about different contexts and practices. I also believe that as you understand the process and follow the steps to produce your own texts, chances are you’ll feel more enthusiastic about writing. This enthusiasm will inevitably trickle down to your teaching of writing, and your students will certainly appreciate it.”
Leandro Zuanazzi has been an English teacher since 2011. Currently, he is working as a freelance teacher. He holds the CPE, the CELTA, and the TKT (Modules 1, 2, and 3). Leandro is passionate about professional development and has a special interest in writing skills as well as language development for teachers.