You Can Teach Writing

Teach one writing process fitted to expository writing. 

Teaching a writing process which mimics workplace writing makes learning to write easier and more relevant for students than a "writing is rewriting" process.

Most writing that people do at work is first draft writing. In most offices, the first draft has to be good enough to publish with no more additional work than a careful reading to catch factual inaccuracies and serious mechanical errors.

Journalists call this a clean first draft.

Employers call it competent writing.

All you need to do to provide a workplace writing simulation is to give students authentic, expository writing prompts on topics within your curriculum. That's not too hard, is it?

The writing process isn't steady.

You must teach the writing process sequentially so students grasp the concept, but they need to learn — from you and from experience — that their planning is not going to proceed neatly.

The real work of writing is the planning that precedes writing any paragraphs. Planning is a messy business full of dead ends, backtracking, and different approaches.

Because of that messiness, I suggest you talk about the writing process in terms of its stages or phases. Those two terms suggest a process that's less linear and more recursive than one that proceeds step by step.

That said, however, we can discuss the process of writing in terms of three stages that each end in a distinct written product. Pages on this site specifically about one particular stage of the writing process are identified by one of these stage markers:

Curtain rises to reveal planning stage of writing process.
Stage I: Planning
Curtain rises to reveal drafting/composition stage of writing process.
Stage 2: Drafting
Curtain rises to reveal third stage of writing process: repairing.
Stage 3: Repairing

On pages about instructional strategies, like the one you're reading, the stage marker is in the right hand column. On pages about writing strategies for students' use, the marker is in the page header. 

Make your writing process encouraging.

The writing process I teach my students and which I hope you'll teach yours is deliberately designed as an instructional process. Students will not work at learning to write — and learning to write is work — unless they believe they can learn to write.  I've built the earliest learning tasks so students are pushed a bit beyond what's easy but not so hard that students can't complete them successfully.

In my instructional process for expository writing, each task is somewhat longer and somewhat more difficult than the previous one; however, the new task always builds on the previous one. Students aren't left feeling that their efforts are wasted.

Planning a text and repairing a text are the two most difficult and frustrating parts of the entire writing process. For that reason,  I arbitrarily divided the planning process into four separate tasks and the repair process into two tasks.

Completing a task makes students feel successful; success breeds continued effort.

Stage 1 ends with a complete plan.

As instructional strategy 5 explains, the thesis-and-support pattern is the best training device for learning the expository writing process. All the instructional strategies and writing strategies on this website assume you're using that pattern.

Curtain rising on stage 1 of the writing process.

The first stage of writing is planning. It is the part of writing least often taught and rarely taught well. The poorest writers do the least planning, and it shows.

Even poor writers can learn to plan well — planning requires little actual writing — and with a good plan they are free to concentrate on the parts of writing that are hardest for them. The combination of being able to plan well and being freed to concentrate on their writing at the composition stage enables even poor writers to see measurable progress relatively quickly.

Stage 1 involves four distinct planning tasks.

For the writing proceed to proceed efficiently so that students can get enough practice to actually become competent expository writers, writers need to accomplish four tasks during the planning stage:

  1. Secure a topic and find something to assert about that topic.
  2. Identify at least three reasons to believe that the writer's assertion is true.
  3. Identify at least three potential sources of evidence that each of the three reasons is true.
  4. Secure and record information from those sources to show that each of the three reasons is true.

Those are the same tasks that workers need to do when given an on-the-job writing task. Your job, boss, is to assign expository writing tasks authentic to your curriculum.

Stage 1, planning task 1: Make a working thesis.

With the directions in mind and based just on what they know before they've done any serious thinking on the topic, writers guess a working thesis statement. A working thesis is a short, single-sentence statement of an opinion that fits the assignment.

Tunnel icon represents the working thesis statement in the writing process.
Icon for the working thesis

The working thesis narrows the writer's focus, speeding the writer into examining the available data in a structured way. The working thesis may change significantly once that examination begins.

If you are giving students authentic writing prompts prepared as instructional materials, they should be able to pick a working thesis without any research and with scarcely any thought.

Stage 1 planning task 2: Make a writing skeleton™.

The next step in the expository writing process is to prepare a writing skeleton™ to reveal whether there is likely to be enough evidence to support the working thesis.

Fish skeleton is icon for writing skeleton™ in the writing process.
Icon for writing skeleton™

A writing skeleton­™ is a type of sentence outline in which each of three points supporting the working thesis contains the working thesis plus a reason for believing the working thesis to be true.

The skeleton's "bones" will become the topic sentences of the writer's body paragraphs.

If they can't find enough good evidence, or if the evidence indicates the working thesis is wrong, writers can change their writing skeleton or start over with a different working thesis.

Stage 1 planning task 3: Find information sources.

The third task of efficient writers is to identify potential sources of evidence for each of their topic sentences from the writing skeleton™.

Rippling is a planning strategy for the expository writing process.
Icon for ripple strategy

Ripple strategy provides a simple method for systematically thinking through the sources the writer already knows have relevant information and identifying other sources that:

  • might be accessible, and
  • might have relevant information.

If students writing on authentic topics can't identify at least three potential sources early on, they may not know enough to write on their chosen working thesis.

Stage 1 planning task 4: Make a complete plan.

Using a template, writers expand their writing skeleton™ into a complete plan.

A complete plan is the final planning task in the expository writing process.
Icon for complete plan

The complete plan is both an outline of the planned document and a parking place for the evidence and source origins for all the writer's evidence.

The complete plan puts into one place all the information the writer will need, ready to be transformed into a document.

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If you find you need inspiration or teaching tips between professional development workshops, my blog posts going back 10 years can be searched at PushWriting.com*. You can also sign up there to get new posts as they are released each Friday.

*You'll leave this site to visit the PushWriting site. Not everyone is as clever as YCTWriting visitors, so I'm supposed to say this.

Stage 2 ends with a legible draft.

Rabbit is icon for speed drafting during the writing process.

The second stage of the writing process is speed drafting. Its icon is a rabbit because students are required to write their drafts in no more than hour without referring to their notes.

Waltzing couple represent a paragraph development strategy for the writing process.

During speed drafting, students use the evidence waltz strategy to prepare for, present and explain the significance of their evidence. (Writers use evidence waltz strategy as they write their drafts, but you should teach it when you're teaching planning strategies.)

Curtain rises to reveal stage 2 of the writing process.

Before they call their stage 2 composition work done, writers must make sure they can read their work, if they are handwriting, or that they have saved their work where they can find it again, if they are keyboarding.

Stage 3 ends with a clean first draft.

Brush and dustpan represent clean first draft goal of expository writing process.

Stage three is the repair stage of the writing process. It has two tasks: revision and editing. They are very different activities. You'll need to teach them separately and have students do them separately.

Definition of a clean first draft.

A clean first draft built on the thesis and support pattern:

  • has a clear point that's backed up with evidence,

  • is factually accurate,

  • is tied together with linking devices and transitions, and

  • has been edited to reduce serious mechanical errors to near zero.

Although a clean first draft could be improved, in many situations it is good enough to be delivered, submitted, or sent.

Stage 3 repair task 1: revision

Writers revise to add missing information during last stage of writing process.
Missing piece requires revision

Revision literally means re-seeing. Writers look at their draft alongside their complete plan to see whether the draft looks substantially like their plan.

If writers have prepared their plans well, there shouldn't be any evidence in the draft that's in the wrong place. There might, however, be something missing.

If they find anything missing, anything unclear or illogical, any factual errors, writers revise those sentences immediately.

Stage 3 repair task 2: single-error editing

Magnifier represents focused single-error editing during the writing process.
Icon for editing 1 error at a time

When revision is finished, writers edit for errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation before formatting the work for delivery.

An individual mastery plan, which gives each writer a list of his/her most serious habitual errors, makes it possible for every student to remove most of their most serious habitual errors in three readings of their document.  Each time they read, they look for a different one of their most serious errors.

What to read next

The next new instructional strategy that you'll need to learn is the Individual Mastery Plan. After that we'll look at strategies that may feel somewhat familiar to you.

If you reached this page via a search engine, you may wish to start from the beginning to see what you missed. Here are your choices:  HOME page. Instructional strategies. IS1 Teach required writing. IS2 Aim for competence. IS3 Align objectives to goal. IS4 Plan 3/4 point finish. IS5 Teach 1 writing pattern. IS6 Teach 1 writing process. IS7 Individualize remediation. IS8. Do daily writing practice. IS9 Give fast feedback often. IS10 Require full documents. IS11 Assess for competence. IS12 Wait for writing skill.

Content on this page was first posted at you-can-teach-writing.com on 2008-07-05 and updated there 2011-12-23 by Linda Aragoni. She posted this version to yctwriting.com on 2018-01-01. 

Stick figure striding forward

This page marks the half-way point in the instructional strategies you need to understand in order to teach expository writing to teens and adults so that they actually learn to do expository writing.

From here on, the territory will probably feel a lot more familiar.  Keep moving forward!

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