School Writing vs Writing for Publication

Have the writing skills you learned in school been useful in your life since then? What do you wish school English and writing classes would focus on more? Is there anything you feel was a waste of time in the school curriculum you experienced as a student?

I am a former schoolteacher who spent a lot of time teaching writing skills (in English and Social Studies, especially, and as a teacher-librarian), and I currently tutor students who have writing difficulties (from primary grades through to college-level). I also write and publish in magazines, newspapers, blogs and other media, and am a professional editor. From these perspectives, I have concluded that educators who develop writing curriculum would do well to interview people (other than other educators and curriculum developers) who regularly use writing in their careers and personal lives. So much of writing-related curriculum unfortunately seems to be unaware of the realities of real-world writing and publishing.

For several years, I edited stories, articles, and poetry written by enthusiastic young people who attended an annual summer Youth Writers Camp. These were students (ages 8 to 18) who were looking forward to becoming writers someday, and the pieces they submitted to the yearly camp anthology was, for many of them, their first exciting opportunity to be published in a book. One goal of the camp was to prepare these youth for the real world of writing. We had carefully laid out the requirements for their submissions, including such basic standards such as double-spacing, Times New Roman 12 font, and the maximum length of the piece.

Sadly, many of the students were shocked—and even in tears—when they received the editor’s kindly and carefully explained comments, with a requirement for further self-editing prior to being accepted for publication. They would often submit pieces they had written in school, for which they had received A+ grades. The pieces were often rambling (up to 4 times the maximum length), single-spaced, full of spelling and other basic grammar errors, lacked a central theme or idea, had multiple plot holes, and so on. Many of these students were in senior secondary school and were being encouraged by teachers and counsellors to become professional writers. The most common response I received was, “But my teacher gave me a great mark because my story [or poem] is so creative!” It appeared creativity was all that counted; the students were under the impression that as long as the story was creative, every traditional publisher would jump at the chance to publish it, and would fix the grammar for them, but not mess with the story itself, no matter whether it followed publishing requirements, since it was so creative.

Other students wrote nonfiction articles; one I remember was on how to write an essay. While the student explained the general basics of essay writing, his submission did not follow any of those basics he laid out—and yes, he had received an excellent mark from his teacher for his effort. Since he was heading off to college that fall, and no doubt expecting excellent grades for the English courses in which he planned to major, I took time to carefully explain to him what he needed to do to write good essays. Unfortunately, he was not happy with my suggestions.

Having been a teacher, I totally understand how exhausting it can be to mark two or three dozen essays, stories, poems, or plays written on a similar topic. If a teacher has half a dozen classes, each with a couple dozen students, marking those pieces can be daunting, and it is not surprising when teachers skim through a written piece and end up just putting a letter grade at the top and perhaps a short comment at the end. If a given piece is in some way more interesting that most of the others (“creative”, that is), the teacher may give a high mark for that reason. So what can teachers do when faced with so much marking, so little time, and a curriculum which seems to constantly increase every couple years?

SUGGESTIONS!

One suggestion I would make is for curriculum designers to themselves become less creative! In other words, in a single course, focus on a few basic concepts which are really important, and have teachers focus on those in-depth, instead of having to provide dozens of “fun and creative” assignments which end up being taught in a cursory fashion to try to complete the curriculum requirements.

Another suggestion would be to invite actual writers, editors, and publishers into the classroom to explain the realities of the writing world. I have seen this in action in schools through our local “Raise a Reader” program some years ago (though unfortunately, that very successful in-school program was discontinued). Students loved meeting writing professionals and learned so much about “real writing.” The program also provided a copy of one of the writer’s books to each student, which was a great motivator to young writers and readers.

Writing “basics” is another area in which curriculum requirements need reconsideration. A few decades ago, new educational approaches such as the “whole-language” method, and a focus on “self-esteem” and “creativity”, meant the setting aside of old-fashioned basics like phonics, spelling, and grammar in favour of … well, yes, creativity and self-esteem! There was definitely a need for some change, I’ll agree, but it has often been taken to an extreme. So many students have graduated from school with great self-esteem—and high expectations that employers will love them even if they don’t have the basic knowledge required for the job or the post-secondary education to which they are looking forward. I have tutored so many students who have been labelled as having learning differences or disabilities—and while it is true some of them do (and deserve more one-on-one help than schools may provide), there are a significant number who simply are missing basic reading and writing skills. With a bit of training, these students quickly catch up. A combination of more curricular focus on writing basics from early grades—plus more help by qualified teaching assistants who can help fill in gaps, and/or recognize and deal with true learning differences—could really make a difference.

These are just a few suggestions on how changes in school writing curriculums and approaches could much better prepare young people for writing in their future—whether that is post-secondary, writing as part of future jobs and careers, or becoming writers (whether professional or for enjoyment). I know full well that changing the educational system is very complicated, but I think it would be great if “real-world” writers, editors, and publishers could be included in future curriculum planning and design.

What do you think? What changes would you like to see in how schools prepare young people to write well? Would you, as a member of the writing community, be willing to become involved with curriculum planning? If schools are not willing (or able) to make these kinds of changes, what could members of the writing community do to offer students opportunities to learn more about real-world writing outside of the school system? (Hmmm… that last question sounds like a good topic for another blog post!). Please share your thoughts in the comments. Thank you!

UPDATE!

This post has received some very interesting and useful perspectives, both in the comments section, and where a link to it has been posted on social media! Great conversations! Do be sure to read the comments and discussion.