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.

13 thoughts on “School Writing vs Writing for Publication

  1. Sally Quon says:

    I recently took a course in business writing and the two most important things I learned were:
    a) Business writing isn’t that different from creative writing.
    b) Like everything else, there are trends you must keep up with. Things I thought I should be doing went out of style 20 years ago.
    Any curriculum needs to be updated on a regular basis in order to prepare someone for real world experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • norma j hill - penandpapermama says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Sally. You are correct: curriculum does need to be updated regularly to prepare for real world experience. That said, I still think that having real-world people (employers who require writing skills, employees who write as part of their job, free-lance writers, novel writers, website designers and writers, bloggers, university departments beyond the Dept. of Education, etc., etc., etc.) involved in the updated planning is essential. Curriculum planning seems to mostly involve people from the Ministry of Education, some teachers, and people from the Dept. of Education itself. I wonder what might change in the curriculum if people outside “the ivory tower” were more involved in planning and development of curriculum?

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  2. Faye Arcand says:

    Hi Norma. Great article. Really well thought out. I remember way back when I was a kid we had to write our own newspapers thus learning the 5W&H; that has been invaluable and never left me. I do wonder tho if I’d have pursued writing earlier by being more exposed. I do think the schools should invite more in and grow the curriculum. It’s not for all. there’s also the tech that’s taken over and new vocabulary etc. So much to consider.

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    • norma j hill - penandpapermama says:

      Thank you for the comment, Faye! As I read the comments, I’m realizing that with English/ Language Arts being such a basic part of education and literacy (along with Math), there really does need to be (IMHO) more time spent on those than on other subjects. Without basic literacy skills, students will struggle with other subject areas. Of course, students love to have lots of choices in the arts, technology, etc., all of which they can make practical use of in future life, and Science and Social Studies are also really important. Then, schools nowadays are also expected to provide training in many areas which at one time were considered the realm of family, religion, etc. And with special needs students integrated (as much as possible) into regular classrooms, teachers also have less time to deal with regular teaching (and unfortunately, there is a lack of funding for special needs teachers/assistants). But … and this is a big but … it seems to me that the core literacy subjects should receive at least 1 and a half to 2 times as much time in the curriculum. Big question is, of course, how to fit it all in. And pay for it. Yes, definitely invite people in from the real world (but how to do that when the curriculum is already so large and time is so limited?). Indeed, as you said, “So much to consider.” You and I have talked in the past about having a writing club in local schools, and Julie mentioned that in her comment, too. Maybe once COVID is over, it’s something we should look at (beg for!) once again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Faye Arcand says:

        interesting convo happening here with Julie. We did talk about clubs didn’t we…ugh then life took off in different directions but can always come full circle too.
        I don’t look at high school kids as having to publish or cleanly edit or peer edit (omg..I can see that nightmare already) so much as providing the tools to move forward in the creative writing world.
        I had no idea about how to “show” something for example.
        or “passive voice”…
        fundamental skills of a writer.
        Now that being said doesn’t mean that you need to fit a square student into a round hole but instead help them find their voice, the ability to use it without too much self editing, a confidence to believe in him/herself, and a willingness to share and uphold others.
        So maybe after covid I could talk to Maggie and PenHi and see what we can do.
        I know when I was PAC chair at Maggie I secured $1000 of PAC monies to run a Creative Writing Contest with prizes like a computer etc. Couldn’t get the frikken teachers to get their act together and I ended up stepping back.
        In the schools you’re not only up against the time and limitation you’re also up against unions and “not doing that” mentality and that’s the teachers–not the students. (not all I know….)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Julie H. Ferguson says:

    Well conceived post. What most of my emerging writers complain about are the style guides for publishers are totally different from what we all learned in school or uni.
    If you want to get your books published traditionally, you simply have to follow these different rules. They are different from academic writing, from newspapers and magazines, from scientific and technical writing. It’s hard but any aspiring author must do it.
    I used to go into many schools with “Off the page” and “Raise a Reader” — grade 5 to 12. I also taught teachers how to teach creative writing. Editing in the classroom is fraught with problems — mostly the blind leading the blind — but there are effective ways to do it.
    I’d love to see more writing clubs in schools for those students who really enjoy it. I coached several in my time, and it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my writing career.
    Onward, Norma!

    Liked by 1 person

    • norma j hill - penandpapermama says:

      Thank you for your comment, Julie. It is so true that for writing in the real world (whether books or other forms of media), the rules must be followed. I think schools should include, in their curriculum, especially at the senior secondary level, an introduction to the different forms of manuals (CMOS, MLA, APA, etc.–they do teach MLA but generally not the rest) and why they are so important. I agree that clubs are a great idea–I’ve actually offered in the past to run writing clubs in schools, but have received a less than enthusiastic response from the schools themselves (and of course COVID has really thrown a wrench in the work). I hadn’t thought of teaching teachers: perhaps it would be a good ProD activity! Speaking of the “blind leading the blind” with editing, my feeling is that if teachers are going to encourage “peer-editing” they first need to teach editing very clearly, which doesn’t always happen. Also, there is a big need for understanding of the different levels of editing; it seems many teachers (and thus students) are only aware of basic proofreading…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Julie H. Ferguson says:

        After all my years teaching teachers to teach creative writing, I came to the conclusion that peer editing was impossible at all but the most senior levels, Gde 11 and 12. Even then it was tricky.
        Calll me if you want to know more!! But one big reason was the students inability to put emotional agendas to one side and the lack of knowledge of what was correct and therefore how to fix something. Just doesn’t work.
        One teacher told me I was preaching heresy but to continue!!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. norma j hill - penandpapermama says:

    Faye: Yes, I’m still interested in helping out with some kind of youth writing group–just not sure, with my experiences, if schools are the places for such a thing. Back in the day, schools were big on clubs, and also welcomed in “outsiders” as long as a teacher would agree to be a “sponsor”. Not so much now. Still, miracles happen 🙂

    Julie, I am in agreement about “peer editing” … and yes, at pretty much every level. You are right that between emotional agendas (it’s hard to critique a friend … or a not-friend!) and lack of knowledge, it really doesn’t work very often. Good for that teacher’s comment 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Julie H. Ferguson says:

    Norma, with regard to teaching the teachers, I used to be booked solid for ProD days throughout BC for over a decade.
    But what was the best way to start this off was to take one of their classes (Gde 5-12) and actually show the teachers how to do it.
    I also taught “Bright but Can’t Write” to boys and I could guarantee their teachers that I would have them writing in one hour and enjoying it. Enormous fun was had by all and some amazing results came out of it. When teachers saw that, I was deluged with offers to visit schools and do the ProD stuff.

    Like

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