Jon Severs

Writing is hard. Pupils deserve our honesty about that

Schools need to create a culture that demystifies the writing process so that students can feel secure enough to expose their vulnerabilities on paper

Writing is hard. Pupils deserve our honesty about that

This is my 15th attempt at writing the opening of this leader. I have, for the past two hours, moved through my repertoire of opening moves and not liked any of them. Some just felt clunky; others felt forced. One was just awful.

I thought I had it right with an attempt that ruminated upon the perceived role of “writer” but I couldn’t get it to go anywhere; it drifted into a dead end and I went off to scroll Twitter for five minutes in a sulk.

Writing is, of course, a large part of my job. But I still find it hopelessly hard. A misconception about those in writing professions is that it comes easily; that our fingers dance across the keyboard, tapping out seminal sentences and grammatical sleights of hand. The reality is that it is a slog, even for us.

When I occasionally teach writing classes, it shocks people that there is not a moment when everything clicks and, suddenly, writing becomes easy. They have been led to believe – through a school curriculum that prioritises the logistical elements of writing – that if you learn the rules, then lifelong capability is guaranteed.

It doesn’t work like that, as this week’s cover feature explains. Research has consistently found that a technical approach to writing does not produce great writers, though it is a critical part of that process. As the academic Frank Smith explains, writing has two distinct aspects: authorship – the things a writer can work on before they put pen to paper (style, organisation, communication, development of ideas, creativity and consideration of the audience) – and secretarial skills: physically getting the ideas down in a way that can be clearly understood (spelling, punctuation, grammar and handwriting).

The former is the harder to teach and harder to measure. This is because to write well is to expose yourself – your tastes, priorities, views, opinion of the audience and more. How do you teach that? And when measuring, the reader judges on their own tastes, priorities and views, and there is little you can do about it if these don’t align with your own; wielding a fronted adverbial won’t help you.

The article discusses this complexity and tries to find a way through the research that leaves teachers with helpful advice on how to teach writing effectively. One part of that advice really stuck out for me: demystify writing. So many people struggle with the notion of themselves as a writer. They see it as a rationed gift, something only those at the very top of their game can lay claim to. And yet, the vast majority of us are writers: on social media, in emails, on a Post-it to stick on the fridge, in cards, on the backs of our hands and, most of all, in text messages. Most of us write every day.

You could argue that this writing is different, that it is transactional. But all writing has a purpose, it all requires vulnerability and it all exposes us to others. So, the only difference to school writing is the stakes: students see more threat in the latter.

Reducing the threat in school writing is about culture, not a grammar lesson. It is about creating a space where a pupil trusts you enough and feels safe enough to expose their creative side. I believe we can help create that culture by showing how writing is for everyone and by exposing our own vulnerabilities.

That’s why, in this leader, I am leading by example. Alongside the 15 introductions, there were countless attempts at phrases and paragraph arrangements and arguments. I chopped, I rewrote, I tweaked. I left it to rest and came back to it. I re-edited extensively. This is what writing is: an iterative attempt at clarity. Grammar and spelling get you only so far – it’s the hard stuff that takes you the rest of the way.

@jon_severs

This article originally appeared in the 21 May 2021 issue under the headline “Writing is hard – and we need to be honest with pupils about that”

Other articles in this issue