Mentoring Writing

by Lind Williams

These six characteristics of an effective writing mentor come from the book What a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher (Heinemann, 1993). However, the text that follows each bold-faced heading is an amalgam of Fletcher’s thoughts and my own.

A Mentor Has High Standards

An effective mentor has a mental picture of what a good piece of writing should be. At the same time the effective mentor has a realistic picture of where the writer actually is. The mentor cannot make a Pulitzer Prize winner out of a basic writer in a single sitting. Still, one needs a picture of what the eventual goal is over time. We can never be wholly satisfied with below standard work. The place to start is in the “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky). What does this writer seem to already understand about writing?

What is the next step for this particular writer? Where can you nudge him/her next to extend their understanding? The Vygotskian principle is that what the learner can do with assistance today, he/she can do alone tomorrow.

The Mentor Builds on Strengths

As mentors of student writers, we tend to start looking at a piece of writing as if we are on an error hunt.

Our “teacherly” impulse is to get in there and root out the mistakes. It’s a well-meaning impulse. But first, we need to look at what is already working. Like a good music teacher, the writing mentor has to learn to endure some bad melodies and shaky rhythms and acknowledge what the learner is already doing well and make the learner feel that he/she is making progress. A story is told of a man who wanted to teach his cat to chase mice. So whenever a mouse was around and the cat failed to give chase, the man hit the cat. Well, as the story goes, the cat never did learn to chase mice. It did learn, however, to run and hide whenever a mouse showed up. The same principle applies to mentoring writers. If all we do is point out is what the student can’t do, then he/she never starts to think of himself as a competent writer. We have to call attention to the progress being made and the things that are working before we attack the things that aren’t. Don’t overstate the good things, however; a false sense of competence sets them up for disappointment later.

A Mentor Values Originality and Diversity

Kids aren’t carbon copies of each other nor do we want them to be. In most types of writing, kids can and should develop their own voice. This is liberating to a beginning writer. They always seem to think they need to sound like someone else in their writing (the teacher? Shakespeare?). When we get them to trust their own voice and write as if they are speaking to a friend, we begin to make progress. As you mentor a young writer, and you are trying to get them to produce more detail or delve deeper into the topic, get them to talk it out first. Then just tell them: WRITE THAT DOWN. They’ll say, “Write what down?” and you say, “Just what you said.” Then make sure they do it, even if you have to remind them what they said or help them transcribe their speech into writing. The poet Leslie Norris said, “Writing is just talking to other people. You put it down on paper, but it’s still just talking.” Let’s help the kids discover their own original thoughts and voices. Of course, it’s true that many of our kids need to extend their voices into more acceptable forms. But let’s start with their own voice and then teach them to adjust that voice to suit the appropriate audience.

A Mentor Encourages Students to Take Risks

One reason beginning writers write so little is that they are trying to play it safe, but Bill Strong, the director of the Utah Writing Project used to say, “Playing it safe is playing it stupid.” Students subconsciously know that when they take risks, they are more likely to make mistakes. They don’t want to do that. However, that’s exactly what good learners have to do. A figure skater who is learning a new move is bound to fall many many times until he/she learns to do it. It is to be expected. Somehow in school, though, we have this notion that making errors is to be avoided at all costs. That’s a wrong notion. When it comes to writing, we ought to encourage errors in early drafts. It merely means the learner is trying to do things that he/she has not yet perfected. Of course, we don’t want errors to persist. But we can deal with those errors at the appropriate time.  First, we want to get them beyond their safe, dull writing routines. First build fluency, then work on correctness. 

A Mentor is Passionate

When you look back on the teachers you most looked up to, it wasn’t necessarily because they knew the most, or even because you remember everything they taught. Above everything we remember their passion, their excitement about what they taught. You’ve got to love writing to teach writing. One of the greatest feelings for you as a mentor is watching someone else start to enjoy what you love to do yourself. You want to give them a hug and welcome them to the club. I’ve always thought that the affective part of teaching and mentoring is more important than the cognitive part. If I can get a student to have fun with writing, then more than half the battle is won in teaching them how to be a better writer. Of course, all of this means that you might need to do a little more writing yourself in order to think of yourself as a writer. Otherwise, you’re just faking your enthusiasm. They won’t buy it.

A Mentor Looks at the Big Picture

Today may be a tough day for the writer you are mentoring. There will be other days. All writers have off days, get bored, get silly, get blocked, get lazy, etc. We need to be very understanding about that. On the other hand, all professional writers know that if you are looking for excuses not to write, you’ll always find one. So, we need to be sympathetic, but at the same time acknowledge that the only way for a writer to get words on the paper is to get the pencil moving. All writers, not just struggling writers, experience anxiety at times about writing. The mind is a hard beast to tame. It’s hard to settle down and get the ideas flowing productively. By dealing calmly with the struggling student we may be more likely to bring on the state of mind necessary for the ideas to flow. It is sometimes necessary to lower anxiety, not increase it, to get ideas going.

Another way we need to look at the big picture is to realize that significant improvement will take time. This is not an excuse for doing nothing, but as you help a student with his writing, don’t deal with everything all at once. Figure out what you can teach him/her today that won’t overwhelm.

Separate in your mind the difference between teaching the student and editing the paper. You can actually fix some errors for the student without making a teaching issue out of every one. Choose only one or two things on each sitting to teach. Pick the ones that the student seems ready to learn.

Selected Quotes from Clearing the Way: Working with Teenage Writers, by Tom Romano

In the Prologue of his novel Slapstick, Kurt Vonnegut recommends that people start treating each other with common decency. This advice is also the basic rule for conducting writing conferences with teenagers. There is no room for disrespect. Humanely conducted conferences begin relationships of trust, understanding, and support, which nurture and seal positive bonds between teacher and students. When such relationships develop, communication lines clear; student and teacher are receptive; learning is ready to happen for everyone. … The initial job of the teacher is to make the student feel worthy, comfortable, and accepted. (p. 86)

The teacher must listen and take cues from the student. Opening with a broad question, such as “How’s the writing going?” or “Where are you now?” enables students to bring up their primary concerns. (p. 87)

Many researchers recommend that a teacher’s initial response give back to the writer the words, information, and ideas that got through. Peter Elbow has called this strategy “pointing.” By telling the writer specific things he remembered from the text, the responder, in effect, points to them. Donald Graves and Jane Hansen call the same technique “receiving.” The responder tells the writer what [he or she is getting from the text) and thus acknowledges its reception. (p. 87) [This helps the reader know if the text is working, if the message is coming across].

I cringe when a student asks, “How do you want me to write this?” or “What do you want me to do now? All too often I have the answer, or, I should say, an answer. And the temptation is great to say, “Do this, this, and this.” I must fight to hold back, to remain ethical, to let the writer maintain control. (p. 92) Instead, ask questions of the writer, explore options, turn the question back on the writer and help them figure it out. Don’t write it for them and don’t be so directive that you are, in essence, writing it for them.)

In our haste to tell young writers how to do things we forget that merely telling of new concepts doesn’t usually lead to learning, and that students learn best what they are ready to learn, itching to learn. (p. 100)

I have to work hard in my conferences to keep my directives fewer than my questions…. We ask the questions that writers can answer, and gradually they learn to ask their own. (p. 101, 104)

We speak a word of praise or criticism, and someone we’ve known only weeks may be permanently changed in some way…. Like it or not, we teachers must live with our influential role. And more importantly, we must live up to it. (p. 103)

Our responses to particular pieces of student writing have far reaching effects on students attitudes toward writing, on their willingness to write in the future…. I want the writers I teach to feel good about their writing, to want to write again. (p. 112, 113)

Our responses should nurture. This does not mean we deceive students about their writing skills, offering overexuberance and undeserved praise. On the contrary, we owe them honesty. We must humanely discuss their writing problems and help them work to master them. But let us not forget that honesty also means we must continually strive to see what our students are doing well, and then acknowledge and reward it. What really matters is that our students keep writing, learning, and growing as much as they can. (p. 126)

Giving Feedback on Writing

  • Have the student read the paper aloud
  • Listen for the overall effect during the first reading
  • Have the student read the paper aloud a second time (if it isn’t too long)
  • Make notes or comments during the second reading
  • Tell what you liked best about the writing
  • Then, identify a place in the paper that needs work
  • Focus on big issues first: content and organization
  • Focus on smaller issues second (perhaps on a different day or a different draft): spelling, punctuation, usage, etc.
  • Keep the responsibility and ownership on the writer. Point to places in the text and ask questions about them. Offer suggestions, but don’t rewrite it for them. When you point out a potential problem, ask them what they think they could do about it.
  • One of the most helpful things you can do is just give the writer your reactions as a reader. One thing the writer never really knows is whether what he has written works for the reader. The writer needs to know what the reader is thinking when they read the paper, what is working and what isn’t. Then together the writer and reader can figure out what might make it work better.
  • Don’t overdo it. For teaching purposes, focus on only one or two things each session. For editing purposes, you can deal with more.

Many thanks to Lind Williams for writing the tips included on this page.