The Choices Writers Make (If Allowed)

I try to listen to my students.

This is what I hear: writing at school is largely an act of following their teachers’ instructions in order to earn points and pass the class. They do not see writing as a series of choices they make but as a series of instructions they must follow.

I wrote about this idea at Moving Writers in January of this year in a post titled “Tools Over Rules: Writing as Choice Making“. In that post, I told the story of my first major writing assignment of the year, in which I ask my ninth-grade students to write an essay title “My Education So Far.” They are frustrated by my lack of guidance, but all of them write dutifully. I did not mention in that post what I ask them to do next: I ask them to annotate the choices they made as writers. Students often find this even more difficult than writing the draft of the essay. They write things like “I wrote five paragraphs because that’s what my past teachers told me to do,” and “I used transition words at the start of paragraphs because my past teachers told me to.” Many of the annotations I read when I go over their rough drafts amounts to “I did this because teachers told me to.”

Most students are not able to articulate their writing choices because they are, sadly, not allowed to make choices in very many classrooms.

Despite trying to take my students beyond formulaic thinking and writing for many years, I hadn’t yet changed my own thinking to a model of writing-as-choice-making, which limited what I could do. Even with my own forays into writing comics strips, poems, op-eds, blog posts, novels, and plays, I didn’t really think about what I did as a writer as making a series of choices. I was too close to my own writing to see it.

And then I read Scott McCloud’s fantastic graphic non-fiction book Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. As a cartoonist, reading his book was a revelation – he explained things to me that I’d been doing for years without realizing I was doing them. I’d been writing and drawing instinctively, but was actually making choices as a cartoonist. He boiled a cartoonist’s choices down to five basic decisions: choice of moment, choice of frame, choice of image, choice of word, and choice of flow.  

After realizing that I had been making these choices all along, I immediately applied this idea to my writing, and then to my students’ writing. And I realized that these choices nearly always apply to all writing everywhere, more or less. I made my own list of choices. The choices a writer makes are:

  • Choice of topic/focus/main Idea 
  • Choice of audience and purpose 
  • Choice of form/format 
  • Choice of organization/flow of ideas/transitions 
  • Choice of opening and closing 
  • Choice of tone/voice
  • Choice of details/specific words  

Sadly, when I present these ideas to my students and ask the class who gets to make these choices, the answers are nearly all the same.

“Who gets to choose the topic and focus of your writing?” The teacher.

“Who chooses the purpose of your writing?” The teacher.

Teachers often dictate how students should write their introductions and conclusions, and the specific words students should use for transitions. If teachers are preparing them for Common-Core-style writing prompts, then details mainly come from “text-evidence” found in three articles chosen by the teacher (or possibly the district). The only acceptable level of formality in many English classes is formal. Who makes students’ writing choices for them? The teacher, the teacher, the teacher. Teachers all the way down in some cases.

In other words, in many writing classrooms, students are learning to write by not being allowed to do any of the things “real” writers do: make choices.

In some cases, students end up following their past teachers’ edicts about writing far past those edicts’ usefulness…

My students felt lost writing their “My Education So Far Essays” because all I gave them was a topic. I didn’t make any other choices for them. Left to their own devices, they fell back on compliance to the wishes of previous teachers. They were unprepared for a writing situation without clear guidelines. But in many real-life writing situations, there are no guidelines.

Of course, realizing that writing, and writing instruction should be all about making choices does not solve the problem of formulaic student writing overnight. It creates new problems. How do we teach students to make these choices? How do these choices apply to different modes of writing like fiction?

The reality is, if we want to teach students that writing is making choices, we must teach them about what those choices are, and what their options are when it comes time to chose. I have written here at Moving Writers about how to Focus a topic. But many students have never even gotten around to focusing a topic because they haven’t been allowed to generate their own topics – they have been what I call “prompted to death.”

In my posts in upcoming months, I’ll be examining ways to teach students to make choices at every stage of the writing process. I’ll begin here with a simple way to help students discover their own writing topics (Choice of topic): have them brainstorm lists or webs of their enthusiasms, frustrations, worries, and wonders (things they worry about, or that give them a sense of wonder). If you’d like more detail about how these topic generators work, here’s a link to a post I wrote for Middle Web not long ago about generating topics: Freeing Students to Write What They Know.

Teacher Clarity is all the rage as a catch-phrase in education these days. Unfortunately, I think there’s a danger that teacher clarity may reinforce student compliance. In our attempt to be clear, we sometimes tell our students exactly what to do, and then writing becomes following instructions, not choice making. The clarity students need if they are to be flexible writers is the clarity that comes from understanding the choices you must make when you write, and how to make those choices.

My students felt lost when I set them adrift with only a topic. My goal is that they will leave me understanding that the choices you make as a writer depend on the situation you find yourself writing in.

I want my students to be ready for anything.

Images via Created by David Lee Finkle

How do you give your students more voice and choice in their writing? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or engage on Facebook at to continue the conversation.  

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  1. I really appreciated this post. You helped me think through how to provide support for students when there are lots of choices. Often, this part is missing and your explanation was really helpful.

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