You Can Teach Writing

Eight writing strategies your students should use. 

Professional writers have writing strategies that fit the kind of writing they do and their personal work preferences.

By contrast, student writers rarely have strategies for writing or for most writing-related activities. As a result, even a short text is mega misery for novice writers. For already struggling writers, a short text is mega misery cubed.

Strategies allow people to draw on past experience when they encounter a new problem. For students who lack such reusable problem solving strategies, each new writing assignment is a new nightmare.

Students need the equivalent of a scaffold that supports their efforts to do the expository writing job but disappears from view once the writing is done.

Writing strategies provide that kind of scaffolding for students.

Strategies tell concisely what to do. 

A strategy is a procedure for achieving an objective. These clear, concise statements pack a lot of information into a few words. They tell what to do but not how to do it or why to do it. 

To help you understand strategies, think about a strategy you probably learned as young child: Brush your teeth. 

Writing strategies are as basic as tooth-brushing is for health.

Strategies don't state their objectives; it's assumed that the user will have been taught the objective. Although unstated, the objectives are very important. Users who don't like the objective ("I don't care if my teeth do fall out.") are less likely to attempt to use a strategy. 

Strategies are valuable only when their users have been so well trained that they use them automatically. Strategies are valueless if users have to refer to their notes or stop to think what to do next. 

Getting to the skill level at which users automatically use a strategy demands repeated practice performing the entire procedure, plus concentrated hands-on practice doing the trickier parts of the procedure.

By the time users have mastered a strategy, they can be expected to troubleshoot unexpected problems and find a way modify the standard procedure so as to accomplish the objective.

Having too many strategies is worse than having none.

Too many writing strategies are as helpful as a two-top umbrella.

Imagine that your mother had  taught you a different strategy for brushing incisors, canines, premolars, molars, and wisdom teeth. Do you think you'd still be following your mom's strategies now? 

I don't think so.

To be worth memorizing and practicing to the point where you can perform a strategic process in your sleep, a strategy has to be broadly applicable.

Writing strategies are worthless if they fit: 

  • just one type of writing, or
  • just one percent of writers, or
  • just a one-time-a-year situation

As you'll see, the eight writing strategies I teach are broadly applicable. Writers can use for all permutations of informative or explanatory texts and for arguments and narratives, regardless of the length of the finished piece or the mode in which it's presented.

Writing strategies must fit students.

All too frequently, writing strategies taught in middle and high school English classes are based on the experiences of professional writers — usually novelists — with gray hair and children older than the students on whom their strategies are imposed. 

If we're teaching expository writing to teens and adults, we need writing strategies for

  • novices, not for professional writers
  • expository nonfiction writers, not novelists
  • writers by compulsion, not writers by choice.

I know you'd like to think your students are all embryo Pulitzer winners waiting for you to inspire them, but my college students (they may have been students you taught in high school), are in my class only because they have to be, and they plan on doing the very least that have to do so they don't need to take the class a second time.

It's a cruel world, folks.

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Help students master writing strategies.

If students are going to become writers who can work in the twenty-first century, we have to equip them with tools, skills, and attitudes that enable them to adapt to rapidly changing requirements. 

The "writing-is-rewriting" approach to teaching writing is decidedly last century. Our students in this century must not only think well, but also put their thoughts into clear prose fast.

We can help students meet twenty-first century writing requirements by teaching a few, broadly applicable, writing strategies — and teaching those few strategies very thoroughly.

1. Teach writing strategies until students use them automatically.

You cannot present a strategy and expect students to use it. 

Teaching must include monitoring students' use of the strategies and reteaching them again and/or differently if students' didn't catch on the first (or fourteenth) time.

2. Teach writing strategies as part of a writing process.

You will not be successful if you attempt to teach each strategy as a self-contained unit. Strategies are designed to function as an entire writing process that involves:

  1. planning a first draft 
  2. composing a first draft 
  3. repairing a first draft. 

3. Students must learn writing strategies as part of a writing process.

Students must learn writing strategies through repeated practice using an expository writing process that involves:

  1. creating a plan for expository writing
  2. composing an expository document,
  3. repairing the document to clean first draft status.

Without practice, students won't become competent writers, regardless of how well you teach the writing strategies.

I pack the least students must know to become competent expository writers  into eight sentences totaling 35 words. 

The writing process I teach begins with strategic planning, a process consisting of four writing strategies. Then it adds two drafting/composing strategies and two repair strategies. And my strategic writing process builds in rest breaks for students.

Having a strategic process enables the least creative and least motivated students to master the basics of expository writing in no more than one academic/school year with a minimum of misery for themselves and their writing teacher. 

Students can learn to write competently simply by plodding through the expository writing process enough times. No creative genius is required.

After doing the process becomes automatic, students will realize that one thing they learned in English class is actually useful. Will wonders never cease?

1. Working thesis strategy

A working thesis applies tunnel vision to a writing task.

A working thesis is a single-sentence guess about what the answer to a writing prompt might be. It combines the topic from the prompt with some assertion about the topic. As long as you give students authentic writing prompts, guessing at an answer does no harm.

Writing a working thesis statement applies tunnel-vision to a student's writing project. Once a working thesis is selected, the rest of the expository writing process is applied to that thesis statement.

It's difficult for students to get off track once they have working thesis statement.  Read more about the working thesis statement, which is writing strategy 1.

2. Writing skeleton strategy

The writing skelton writing strategy has three bones to define its body.

When they compose their documents, novice expository writers have a tendency to lose sight of the point they intended to make. A writing skeleton™ is a special kind of sentence outline designed to keep that from happening.

The writing skeleton™ takes the working thesis and adds to it a statement containing one reason for believing the working thesis is true. It repeats that procedure twice, producing a three-point outline, the backbone of the planned document: three topic sentences for the body paragraphs.

The writing skeleton™ is awkward and ungainly, but that doesn't matter. Its entire purpose is to test whether there are at least three non-overlapping reasons for believing the thesis the writer picked is true. Read more about the writing skeleton, which is writing strategy 2

3. Ripple strategy 

Water ripples are an analogy for a writing strategy guiding wr

Ripple strategy is a type of focused brainstorming that gets its name from the way water ripples spread from an impact point.

Ripple strategy produces a list of information sources who may have evidence to support the three points of the students' writing skeletons™.

In expository writing, the ripples begin with the writers themselves. The next ripple in the strategy is people the writers know personally or could contact through someone in their personal networks.

 The final ripple in the systematic search for sources of evidence is "traditional" research.  Read more about ripple strategy, which is  writing strategy 3.

4. Complete plan writing strategy

Full plan writing strategy identifies evidence sources to support each point of the writing skeleton.

The complete plan is built from the work of the preceding three writing strategies. By this time, the working thesis and writing skeleton will have been placed into a writing template. The template contains holes where writers note what support they have for each of their points and where they found it.

When completely filled out, the template will contain all the points and all the evidence needed for the document, with each item written as a complete sentence.

The draft document will need a beginning and an ending, but the toughest part of writing is done when students finish their plans.  Read more about the full plan, which is writing strategy 4.

5. Speed draft strategy

Rabbit icon represents speed drafting writing strategy.

Speed drafting means just what it sounds like: Students compose their document in a deadline setting without referring to their notes. Ideally, speed drafting is done in the  classroom as the teacher observes.

Besides getting the actual document written quickly, speed drafting also helps prepare students for writing at work, where a draft often must be written very quickly.

Beyond checking to be sure handwritten drafts are legible and computer drafts are saved where they can be found, novice writers shouldn't attempt any revising or editing at this point. They'll need a break before they can tackle those tasks. Read more about speed drafting, which is writing strategy 5.

6. Evidence waltz strategy

Waltzing couple remind of 3-step evidence waltz writing strategy.

The evidence waltz is a simple, unobtrusive three-step process for inserting evidence into a document.

Even though the evidence waltz isn't used until students actually draft documents, it is best taught along with planning stage strategies.

Students can't do the evidence waltz unless have a complete plan that includes specific bits of evidence uncovered while deploying the complete plan strategy. If students know why how they'll use the evidence waltz later, they can see why they need complete plans.  Read more about the evidence waltz, writing strategy 6.

7. Revision strategy

The missing puzzle piece symbolizes the writing strategy revisioning used to spot omissions.

After a break to relax, students need to look at the speed-drafted document to see if what they wrote substantially matches their complete plan.

This process is revision — re-seeing — and repairing rather than rewriting.

Students check their documents to see if they made their original vision clear. Students are just as likely as we are to have omitted necessary material under the pressure of a deadline. 

Fortunately, if they students have complete written plans, those plans become revision checklists. Read more about strategic revision, which is writing strategy 7.

8. Single-error editing strategy

Magnifier represents the ingle-error editing writing strategy.

Writers examine their revised documents drafts using their Individual Mastery List of serious, habitual errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. They look for one error at a time, beginning with their most serious, habitual error, which will be the first error on their IMP lists.  

Next, writers read carefully looking to see if they made their second most common, serious IMP error in any sentence. They repeat the process looking for their third IMP error.  Read more about single-error editing, which is writing strategy 8.

What to read next

The writing strategies (WS) for students use are best read in the order in which you teach them and students use them. Begin with  WS1, Make a working thesis.  The other writing strategies are WS2, Make a writing skeleton; WS3, Ripple for sources; WS4, Make a complete plan; WS5, Speed draft; WS6, Do the evidence waltz; WS7, Revise to match the plan; WS8, Do single error editing.

If you don't think you can fit teaching writing strategies into an already-full curriculum, click over to the Start Here thread to learn instructional strategies that allow you to teach writing without sacrificing other content.

Content on this page was published 2010-10-15 and updated 2011-12-09 and 2011-12-30 by Linda Aragoni at you-can-teach-writing.com. She published it to yctwriting.com 2018-01-01.


The eight writing strategies fit the thesis and support pattern.

The writing strategies that I use and that I teach my students guide us in using the most common expository writing pattern, thesis and support. The pattern can be adapted to all kinds of informative and explanatory (I/E) texts, and to arguments and narratives.