Responding to the Writer, Not the Writing

Lucy Calkins’ wisdom about teaching the writer (and not the writing) continues to reverberate decades after the publication of her book The Art of Teaching Writing. Yet many of us do not teach in a way that promotes writers. I know because I was one of them.

In the past, I taught writing one composition at a time, units with finite beginnings and endings. Each stack of papers collected was an island…I gave little thought to how one student’s paper fit into the larger scheme of her writing. Students received grades and feedback, and we moved on without much reflection. I taught writing in this way because I didn’t know any better. I had good intentions, but I didn’t know another way.

Until two years ago when a colleague put Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them into my hands, and reintroduced me to Don Graves and writing workshop through Penny’s work.

Writing workshop changed everything. It refocused my teaching and convinced me that teaching writing–even teaching writing well–is not enough. We have to teach writers.

But what exactly does that mean? Is there a noticeable difference? Here’s what I came up with:

Assigning Writing

Teaching Writing

Teaching Writers

  • Giving students a topic to write about

  • Asking students to write a paper for which there is no “real world” facsimile

  • Commenting only on the final draft

  • Covering a final draft in red pen

  • Requiring all the writing to be done at home without your tutelage

  • Assigning a grade to anything you don’t explicitly teach

  • Assigning a paper that must be written in a specific genre
  • Helping a student develop a topic for a specific assignment
  • Conferring with a writer about a specific paper
  • Guiding a student through on-going revisions of a specific paper
  • Finding genre-specific mentor texts that will assist and inspire a student to write a specific paper
  • Giving feedback throughout the process
  • Grading the skills you have explicitly taught for that particular paper
  • Helping a student publish his paper
●      Encouraging a student to make long-term writing plans●      Helping a student find a form or genre that fits her idea

●      Conferring with a student about his growth from paper to paper

●      Encouraging a student to revisit older papers and use her present perspective to improve and transform old work

●      Incorporating mentor texts that cut across genres and demonstrate skills that individual writers need

●      Incorporating self-reflection into the assessing of writing

●      Writing narrative feedback that requires the student to revisit lessons and learn something new

●      Assessing the skills you have taught from all the previous units of study

●      Helping a student build a writing portfolio

 Assigning writing is to be avoided at all costs. Teaching writing focuses on the short-term needs of a writer, and teaching writing, on the long-term needs. Teaching writing helps students write papers; teaching writers helps build writing lives. Both are necessary, but one is transformative.

As I prepare to hunker down and assess several class sets of editorials this week, I’m particularly interested in how the ways in which we respond to student writing can help improve writers in the long run. I have found the following four types of responses to be effective:

 Responses that

●      redirect the writer to previous lessons

●      show the writer his work is part of a larger conversation

●      encourage the writer to make plans

●      invite the writer to see the possibilities

Redirect the writer to previous lessons. Writing is recursive, yet students go through the motions of the writing process with little understanding of this. Brainstorm, draft, revise, submit. We have to un-teach the “one and done” mindset under which many of our students operate. Some writing calls for more revision while other pieces beg to be scrapped entirely. How can we help our students understand the writing process and make it work for them?

One way is to direct students to previous lessons that will help them hone in on skills they still need to master. Perhaps when they rewatch or review the lesson, they will see something they did not see or understand before. This redirection, coupled with the invitation to resubmit work, encourages a culture of revision, forcing students to take this step more seriously—to see revision as something that will boost their growth rather than their grade.

Show the writer that his work is part of a larger conversation. When I can, I try to make connections between the student’s writing and the mentor texts we’ve studied in class–or even something I’ve read on my own that I see as somehow “talking” to my student’s writing. Sometimes just pointing out to writers that they are behaving like other writers can make all the difference.

Other times I will direct the student to a relevant article or other published piece.

I want students to view themselves as writers who are making important contributions to a large corpus of work rather than teenagers who are writing for school.

Encourage the writer to make plans. Good writers have plans. We must invite students to think about writing they’ve started and want to finish, writing they have yet to begin, and audiences they want to write for. We must ask them to think about how each piece fits into the larger scheme of their writing. Here are some of the questions I have posed to students in the margins of their paper and encouraged them to respond to:

  • What other topics might come out of this paper?

  • How does this paper fit into your writing plans?

  • How would you rank this paper in terms of its effectiveness? Compared to the other papers you’ve written this year?

  • For whom did you write this piece? What other pieces might you write for this audience?

  • How does this piece demonstrate your overall growth as a writer this year?

Invite the writer to see the possibilities. Writing is about discovery, yet many students believe that their initial idea is the one thing they need to communicate through to the end. Good writers often begin without a clear picture of where they are headed, and this uncertainty excites them. Good writers understand that the process leads to meaning. To help our students realize the potential in the process, we must share what we notice while refraining from telling them what to do with it. We must help them see that their writing is a rubik’s cube with a thousand combinations. Success comes from noticing possibilities and running with them until they lead somewhere or don’t, so when I notice something interesting in a student paper, I share it with them.

Good Feedback is a Two-Way Street

You’ll notice that all four types of responses require the writer to do something more: to revisit an old lesson, reread a mentor text, respond to his work. Narrative feedback–especially when provided on a final draft–can breed passivity. Students read–or don’t read–the comments and move on to the next thing. But narrative feedback, when done right, can spur action. We must invite students to join the conversation about their writing and continue the process, or they’ll miss out on a powerful opportunity for growth.

How do you assess writing? How might we tailor assessment to have a greater, long-term impact on the writer? Feel free to leave a comment, or better yet, join us next Thursday, February 13 at 7:30 EST for a chat about Assessing Writing. Use the hashtag #movingwriters.


  1. Thank you for this post. This makes me rethink some of my current writing assignments. In this process it seems like the writing is all connected in the revisit, reread, respond process. I also like the idea of a calling a model a “mentor text” not an “example.” I completely agree that we need to invite students to the conversation about their writing–so often they just turn it in, want our results, and are done with it. Your post suggests not only making it more meaningful for the writer but also for the reader. Win/win. Thanks for posting. I’m already thinking revisions to writing assignments!!

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback. I’m glad you found my post helpful! “Mentor text” is a concept I discovered while reading Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. I like it because “mentor text” seems friendlier and begs the question, “What can I earn from this text” rather than “How can I make my writing exactly like this example?” Thanks again for reading.

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