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The Art of Teaching Others to Write

Posted on Monday, March 30, 2015 at 11:40 AM

A review of Marjorie Frank's classic, If You're Trying to Teach Kids How to Write, You've Gotta Have this Book!

By Peter Jacobi

Back in 1979, Marjorie Frank, a teacher of writing, wrote a book, If You're Trying to Teach Kids How to Write, You've Gotta Have This Book! She revised it in 1995, and it is still around thanks to Incentive Publications in Nashville, Tennessee.

Maybe your reaction to this, in case you haven't previously come across the book, is, "So what? My job doesn't call for me to teach children, and I'm not a child but a seasoned veteran of the writing/editing profession. I have no need for such a book. What's more, I don't have any children in my home to benefit from Dad's or Mom's writing lessons. They're all grown up."

Well, OK. However, I'm telling you there's a world of information and inspiration in Marjorie Frank's You've Gotta Have This Book! I can't say you "gotta," but there are benefits from reading it and accepting the techniques and advice generously offered. The ideas she's thought up and/or gathered are huge in number and, often, amount to delicious food for your thought.

What It Means to Teach Writers

Early on, Frank addresses a central question: "What does it mean to teach writers?" Surprisingly, part of her answer says, "I doubt that any person can actually TEACH another to write." Huh? She's written a book on how to teach something you can't teach? No, she hasn't. Note the rest of her sentence; it goes this way: "As teachers, we can only..." Following those three dots, she provides a list. "As teachers, we can only...

"...unleash the forces of expression.
"...awaken sensitivities to the world, to selves, and others.
"...prod awarenesses of feelings, ideas, sensations.
"...offer forms for combining words and putting ideas together.
"...expose and demonstrate a process for gathering, organizing, and expressing those ideas.
"...show them how to use tools for saying things clearly.
"...consistently expose them to good, effective, interesting writing."

That is a darn good list of what we, as editors or teachers, need to do for and with our writers, to give them purpose for writing, to merge technique with content in the process of writing. Come to think of it, it's a darn good list for me (and you) to remind myself (yourself) why I (you) bother to write. The list is reason oriented and potentially most valuable in forging a writer's path from assignment to accomplishment, from getting started to winding up. And let me assure you, Marjorie Frank doesn't just give you a list like that; she follows through with explanations.

Establishing a Writing-Friendly Environment

She is concerned about the environment in which writers write. As teacher of children, her immediate goal, of course, is to free the classroom from unnecessary tension. I say, your place of work, whether an actual office or a virtual one, should be as tension free as possible. Frank suggests that you share your own excitement about writing, that you openly respect the written word, that you remove obstacles to writing (competition, comparison, judgment, over-analysis, etc.), that you encourage carefree inventiveness, that you provide directions that challenge, that you make a way to share writing.

The process of writing gets considerable attention. "Writing is a thinking and doing process," she tells us, "a process with many phases, all of them related and intertwined. It is one of those processes that is a vital tool for life. If students are to use this tool with dexterity, they need to learn an approach to the whole process that can be applied over and over again whenever they write."

The Four Stages of Writing

Frank divides the writing process into four kinds of stages: "Romance Stages" (motivation and collecting impressions), "Draft Stages" (organizing and the rough draft), "Response-Revision Stages" (author's review, sharing for response, editing and revising, and the mechanics check), and "Back-to-Romance Stages" (polishing and presenting). She thoroughly explores them all and even adds "ifs, ands, and buts" to her rundown, "cautions, recommendations, and elaborations about the use of the plan that are just as important to its workings."

She argues that all writing is creative because to write is to create. But she's also on the side of those in our profession who preach the importance of creative writing, writing that compels attention for the ways it teases or excites, making adroit use of the language and the gathered information, how the what is delivered to the reader.

"Originality ... creativity ... whatever you call it ... goes hand in hand with the technical skills of writing," Frank argues. "Creative thinking is a component of most writing skills. And it takes technical skills to be able to bring a creative idea to life in words." So, she adds, "the tools are not the writing.... It is the way the tools are used by the writer that makes the message clear or powerful. Teachers and students must take care not to confuse the tools with the writing."

I'm just skimming the surface of what You Gotta Have This Book! includes. There's a treasure chest of counsel in its 250 pages. My belief is you can benefit from reading and using it. Don't be frightened off by the presence of "Kids" in the book's title. For the sake of learning, accept that you and your writers are kids, and no disparagement meant.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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