By Sarah W. Beck
In Richard Wilbur’s poem “The Writer,” the narrator describes his daughter at work at her desk, typing a story. Passing by her room he pauses, “hearing/from her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys/like a chain hauled over a gunwale.” The nautical metaphor continues as he thinks, “the stuff of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy;/I wish her a lucky passage.” (Wilbur, 53) She appears to write in fits and starts and he chooses not to intervene.
Many times in the last two years, I have found myself in a similar situation. As my 14-year old son progressed through middle school and tackled increasingly challenging writing assignments, I overheard him verbalize his writing struggles. There were more fits than starts, as he gouged holes in his desk with his pen, and pounded the keyboard with his fist. Unlike Richard Wilbur’s narrator, I chose intervention. This meant I was forced to test in the crucible of mother-child emotional dynamics my belief that strategic and responsive dialogue with a stuck writer can help to unstick them, and can also give some insight into what causes the sticking. This is a belief that I have explored with teachers in a recent book (Beck, 2018) that describes what I call dialogic writing assessment. Though “assessment” is in the title, it’s not the kind of assessment that involves tests, quizzes, rubrics or scoring. It’s a kind of assessment that is also instructional, a way of conversing with writers during their writing process in order to identify the obstacles in the process and finding ways to overcome them.
In my son’s case, what caused him to be stuck was a lack of confidence and fluency in generating ideas. His teacher would write comments like “explain” and “elaborate” on the drafts of his essays, and his reaction would be, in so many words, “I already said what I meant! What else can I say?” My strategy was to ask a question and pause; if the first question fell flat, then I would ask another. More often than not he outwardly balked at these questions, answering “I don’t know” or “that doesn’t even make sense.” But then, after a few rounds of this, the chain would move through the gunwale, he would apply himself to the keyboard and type a few sentences in a burst. I would praise the emerging idea and explain how it fit, or could fit better, with what was already on the page. After a few of these sessions, he asked me only to sit with him when he was writing a paper, to be present and available in case he needed help, as he sometimes did, finding the right word. For him, the most terrifying thing about writing, seemed to be doing it alone.
Writers Are Never Alone
While working on my book, I read an article about Aleksander Doba, the 70-year-old Polish man who made multiple solo kayak trips across the Atlantic Ocean. Such an undertaking aligns with popular depictions of a writer at work, which typically involve a lonely individual staring out a window, ruminating, or bent solemnly over a desk, or even standing at a desk. Olek Doba had to improvise tactics to deal with storms, physical illness, the need to sleep and eat, pirates, and sharks, and fatigue. In the same way, writers are assumed to devise their own tricks for wrangling complex ideas, to struggle singlehandedly to locate the exact right words to convey an intended meaning, and to fend off internal and external distractions, doubts about one’s competence and ability to succeed, and also fatigue. Few people would willingly sign up for such effort.
In fact, the singlehanded analogy obscures the many ways in which writing depends on conversational interaction with others. Of course, many professional writers have routines of enforced isolation and dedication to the effortful labor of composing. But even in that physical solitude the writer’s mind is awash in words, as fragments of language one has heard or read and remembered offer themselves up to describe a scene or image or to capture a fleeting idea. The goal of getting developing writers to the point where they can effectively harness this abundance may be why James Britton, one of the founding figures of classroom writing research, said that children’s writing should “float on a sea of talk.” But as children become adolescents and enter middle school, floating is not enough: we need to help students master strategic navigation. And for this we need to exchange the solo voyager analogy for that of a ship’s crew. Distributing the mental labor of writing across multiple crew members, including parents, teacher and peers, helps the student focus on one problem at a time while setting others aside.
Complex Writing Tasks Require Structured Conversation
As students move from teacher to teacher and from subject to subject across the school day, each one has different expectations and formal requirements. At the same time, writing becomes more consequential for students: it becomes a way to demonstrate their understanding of content knowledge and their evolving academic identities. Students become increasingly aware of the ways in which each new writing context they encounter espouses different expectations for structure, vocabulary use, length and form of sentences. Writing becomes not just a means for self-expression and description, but a way of gaining mastery over all kinds of knowledge sources.
For example, when writing a literary analysis paper, a student might be blocked because they haven’t had sufficient time to think through their interpretation of a character’s actions in an important scene. When writing a persuasive essay, a student may be blocked because they haven’t been able to think of a counterclaim. A dialogic assessment conversation can help a student work through these problems and steer them away from fixating unproductively on unrelated issues.
One function of questions and suggestions from supportive thinking partners during the writing process is to silence, or at least speak louder than, the negative voices that plague all writers — even successful, published ones — and obstruct their thoughts. The writer Anne Lamott (1995) endearingly personifies her own version of these voices as “emaciated German male” “vinegar-lipped Reader Lady” “William Burroughs” and “crazy ravenous dogs.” “Quieting these voices,” she says, “is at least half the battle.” (p. 25-26). In my work as an English teacher educator I regularly ask my students about their own experiences of writing and the obstacles that have stood in their way. Alarmingly, some have told me that their internal negative voices are those of former teachers who scarred their papers with red pen, sarcastic rhetorical comments and cryptic proofreading symbols.
What A Writing Crew Can Do
No teacher aspires to speak in the kind of voice that Anne Lamott describes. We may be tempted to try to steer the ship because time is limited and we generally have more knowledge about writing than the students do. But this is not the best use of our expertise. Nor do teachers have to be the only ones who support writers as crew members; parents, siblings, or peers can also assist. Here are some tactics for sustaining conversations that will help students navigate through the most turbulent straits:
- Ask the writer to explain the task or prompt in their own words, and if they have a draft partially completed, ask them to explain how what they’ve written does, or does not, address the prompt.
- If they have written nothing, ask them to talk to you about ideas that they think might be related to the prompt. Emphasize that this is exploratory talk and encourage them not to self-censor.
- Reflect back to them anything they say that seems particularly important or relevant to the prompt.
- If they are writing about a text or set of texts, ask questions to elicit their understanding of the text. Listen for statements that relate to the prompt and probe for more. This can lead to original analysis.
- If the writer has plenty of ideas but is struggling with how to organize them or put them into academic-sounding language, use a favorite strategy of language teachers and speech therapists: the recast. Choose a promising idea that the writer expresses in colloquial language and say it back in a more academic way.
Giving students time to think aloud with a partner who listens and asks questions, can help students whose whose writing process has run aground and empower them to take the helm.
Beck, Sarah. A Think-aloud Approach to Writing Assessment: Analyzing Process and Product with Adolescent Writers. Teachers College Press, 2018.
Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Shambala Books, 1986.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. Anchor Books, 1995.
Wilbur, Richard. “The Writer” in New and Collected Poems. Harcourt Brace, 1988.
Sarah W. Beck is a teacher educator at New York University. She formerly taught high school English and college-level writing, and now works with teachers to enhance writing instruction and assessment.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.