School Writing Vs. Authentic Writing

by Ken Lindblom

Many students dislike writing in school, and it’s no wonder.  Five-paragraph essay formats, predictable essay questions on books they didn’t choose to read, all written for a teacher (or faceless exam scorer) who knows more about the subject than they do.  Who would find this “schoolish writing”–as Anne Elrod Whitney has called it–appealing? Certainly not Tim Dewar’s daughter, who has “better writing to do”! No where in the world outside school is writing expected to be formulaically written without a real purpose and without a real audience.  As noted educator, Grant Wiggins, has put it:

The point of writing is to have something to say and to make a difference in saying it. Rarely, however, is impact the focus in writing instruction in English class. (29)

While many students claim to dislike writing, according to a PEW Report, today’s young people actually write a lot more than young people of decades ago.  But what they write are texts and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms.  Kristen Hawley Turner agrees, as she points out in her blog post earlier this month. Some may scoff at the significance of social media writing, but when students write on social media they are devising something to say, considering how to best say it to their intended audience, and they engage the results of their writing (that is, they either see that they are understood or they must rewrite it, so they are understood). This is real writing.

Authentic Writing as an Alternative to School Writing

If we want all students to learn to write to the best of their ability we must design writing assignments that excite their interests: assignments that allow students to select topics that they are interested in and that allow them to write to real audiences that they truly want to speak to.

The advantages of authentic writing go far beyond simply motivating students.  They also help students develop real-world writing skills that they will need when they’re no longer writing for teachers.  Skills such as:

  • analyzing audiences;
  • writing in formal and informal registers;
  • analyzing and understanding the different conventions required for different genres (such as letters to the editor, business report summaries, and blog posts);
  • and, writing for practice audiences (or peers) to see how real readers will react to their writing before they release to the world.

Because young people are now constantly engaged in real-world, social-media writing, it’s more important than ever that they learn how to write effectively, intelligently, and ethically.

The Authentic Writing Effect

It’s pretty easy to tell whether students are engaged in schoolish or authentic writing.  Students asking questions like these are working on school writing:

    • Does spelling count?
    • How many sources do I need in my works cited?
    • How long does this have to be?
    • Can I use the word I?
    • Do I have to write in complete sentences?

You’ll note these questions are all asked to a teacher, and that the teacher determines what the correct answers are.  In school writing the teacher determines what counts as right and what counts as wrong.  Imagine how exciting it is to write for someone who always knows more about the subject than you do and who gets to determine what in your writing is good and bad.  I’ll give you a hint: It’s not.

Authentic writing, however, elicits very different kinds of questions from students:

  • Can you help me make sure I get the spelling right?
  • Will my audience think this evidence is convincing?
  • Will my audience be willing to read this much or should I make it shorter?
  • Would using the word I be too informal for my audience?
  • Would this sentence fragment be effective for this audience, or should I write only in complete sentences?

While these questions cover much of the same content as the previous questions, they come from a different sense of the writer’s authority.  In these questions, the students are asking the opinion of a teacher (or a peer, perhaps).  They are not asking for the right answer; they are asking for advice.  Then the students will determine what they want to do regarding the advice.

When a writer makes his or her own decisions about the writing, that gives the writer real authority.  That word itself shows how important this is:

Photo reads, "Author-ity"

When students take responsibility for their own writing and its effect on their intended audience, they are truly authors.  And when students write for a purpose they care about, they learn an important lesson about real-world writing: “[T]here are consequences for succeeding or failing as a real writer” (Wiggins 30).

Examples of Authentic Writing

There are many ways to incorporate authentic writing in schools, and they can be used at all levels from early elementary through graduate school.

Constantine Christopulos at William V. Wright Elementary School allowed her students to use class time to write letters encouraging a change in the cafeteria menu.  Not only did the students’ writing get the attention of lunchroom menu planners, their successful letter-writing campaign was also covered by the local newspaper!

As part of a graduate course in Composition Theory I taught in Fall 2010 at Stony Brook University, my students and I created a website called “Improving Academic Writing: A Guide for Teachers and Students”. We all worked hard on this site because we knew it would be available for everyone to see, and it had our names (and reputations) attached to it.  It still does!

We can also take suggestions for real-world writing from the workplace. For more information on authentic writing and examples of real-world writing assignments, please see an article I wrote for the National Council of English Teachers’ English Journal called “Writing for Real.” See also, a more recent English Journal issue devoted to “Authentic Learning and Teaching,” which also includes Wiggins’s “Real-World Writing: Making Purpose and Audience Matter,” from which I quoted earlier in this blog post.  Also check out Grant Wiggins’s wonderful blog on authentic teaching.

Authentic writing not only helps students learn more about writing in the real world, it’s also more fun for them, for their teachers, and for their families, who can appreciate seeing their children making a difference in some aspect of their world.

Every time I assign authentic writing to my students, I find myself actually looking forward to reading and responding to the stacks of papers that end up on my desktop.  If that miracle can happen for this 25-year veteran teacher, it can happen for you.

Ken Lindblom is Associate Professor of English and Associate Dean for Academic Programs in the School of Professional Development at Stony Brook University.  From 2008-2013, he was editor of English Journal, and he is co-author with Patricia A. Dunn of Grammar Rants (Heinemann 2011). He would like to dedicate this blog post to the enduring legacy of Grant Wiggins, who passed away very recently and suddenly at the untimely age of 64.  His work promoting authentic learning and teaching continues to improve the lives of countless students and teachers.

Need some talking points or references for genre study?  Check out the research brief we have posted.



49 thoughts on “School Writing Vs. Authentic Writing

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  21. Hi, Ken, May I ask if the Stony Brook University website on improving academic writing is still active? I am writing an article on authentic academic writing activities for non-native English speaker teachers, and I would be interested to know. Thanks, Elizabeth

    • Sorry, Elizabeth, I think that site has now disappeared. Stony Brook migrated to a new server/platform (or whatever) so I can no longer get to those files. Thanks for your interest. -Ken

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