The Lead Writer: Modeling the Habits of Writing for Students

Spring 2018

By Jessica Flaxman, Ann V. Klotz

I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine. — Emily Dickinson

Writing Is Hard

One of the best writing handbooks is the classic Elements of Style by Strunk and White. In the introduction to the 2005 illustrated edition, Roger Angell tells the story of learning to write by observing the writing practice of his stepfather, Charlotte’s Web author, New Yorker columnist and co-author of the Elements of Style, E. B. White.1
Every Tuesday, White closed the door to his study to write the “Notes and Comment” page for The New Yorker. To Angell’s surprise, the sound of his stepfather’s typewriter “came in hesitant bursts, with long silences in between.” And it never failed that when White sent his words off to New York from his home in Maine, he was somewhat disappointed.2
“It isn’t good enough,” White would say, loud enough for Angell to hear. “I wish it were better.” So, too, do most if not all writers, no matter their level of experience. That’s because “writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” Angell says in his loving tribute to his first, if unofficial, writing teacher.3
Like all very good writers, E. B. White demonstrated discipline in his writing habits and simplicity in his writing voice. He and his professor, William Strunk Jr., have taught millions of novice, aspiring, and expert writers to “write in a way that comes naturally.” “Do not explain too much,” they insist. “Be clear.” And, perhaps most important, “revise and rewrite.”4
Revise. Rewrite. It’s what writers—student-writers, teacher-writers, writer-writers—have to do. Developing a writing practice is what leads to developing a writing voice, the fulcrum of successful communication in and out of school. And it’s hard work, work that depends in part on commitment, openness to feedback, and good modeling.
As teachers and leaders, for many decades we have written alongside our students and on behalf of our schools in an effort to walk our talk while strengthening the voices of others.

Every Student Writes

Every student writes. But nearly every student, at one or many points in his or her school career, questions the purpose of revision and buckles under its weight. After only one draft, students will often ask in desperation, when told there is work yet to be done, “What do you want me to do? What should I change?”
Their questions are understandable given the constraints on their time and the diversity of their interests. But the answers are not so easy to give. That’s because revision is married for life to argument, to having something important and individual to say. The best way to have something to say is to engage deeply with the material, and the best way to sharpen writing is to write a lot, over time, and to sweat the details.

Ms. Flaxman’s Eleventh-Grade Classroom: Following Emily Dickinson’s Lead

Years ago, a colleague and I developed a lesson for high school juniors to illustrate the power of revision. We presented students with two versions of Emily Dickinson’s “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” one from 1859 and the other from 1861.
A quick glance at the two poems with the same name indicates that nothing much changed in the two years between presumably first and last draft. Both versions have two stanzas and Dickinson’s characteristic capitalized words, dashes, and exclamation points; both take on the themes of nature and death.
For homework, I asked students to write a quick, informal analysis of the two poems by prompting them with the simple question, “Of the two versions of this poem, which is better and why?” Without realizing it, my students came to class the next day with a rough draft of a compare/contrast paper that was nowhere near complete in terms of research, thinking, or writing. But it was a start.
The majority felt, after an insufficient amount of time reading and writing about the two poems, that the first poem was better. Why?
“It’s easier to understand,” one student said.
“She’s a lot clearer about what she means in the first one,” said another.
While this is possibly true and certainly arguable, there is no question that the second poem is more interesting. The first challenge is to identify the specific ways that Dickinson’s work changed in the time that passed between drafts, the second is to think about why she made those revisions, and the last is to think about the overall impact of the changes she made.
Poem 216 Version 1 (1859)
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –
Untouched by Morning
And untouched by Noon –
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection –
Rafter of satin,
And Roof of stone.
Light laughs the breeze
In her Castle above them –
Babbles the Bee in a stolid Ear,
Pipe the Sweet Birds in ignorant cadence –
Ah, what sagacity perished here!
Poem 216 Version 2 (1861)
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –
Untouched by Morning –
And untouched by Noon –
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection –
Rafter of Satin – and Roof of Stone!
Grand go the Years – in the Crescent – above them –
Worlds scoop their Arcs –
And Firmaments – row –
Diadems – drop – and Doges – surrender –
Soundless as dots – Disc of Snow –5
When Dickinson changes the word “sleep” to “lie” in stanza one, she changes the entire feeling of the image she is depicting, that of the dead in their final resting places. If they sleep, they are presumably at peace. If they lie down but do not sleep, that’s something else entirely. When she changes the punctuation at the end of the first stanza from a period to an exclamation point, she changes the tone from one of neutrality or completion to one of excitement or anxiety.
There are dozens of additional observations that can be made in stanza two, which is a wholesale revision in the 1861 draft. And as students made some of those observations, it was clear that a wholesale revision of the draftwork they did was in order. Not only did they need to revise their arguments, but they also needed to revise each paragraph to accommodate a different take on the textual evidence.
Engaging with material and revision at this level is what it’s all about. A classroom and the writers in it become positively charged through meaningful revision and the articulation of a better, more interesting thing to say.

In Ms. Klotz’s Classroom: Writing Alongside Students

For more than 30 years, I taught English without considering myself a writer. But along those years of modeling for students and editing their work, I became a writer with my girls. Although I wrote plays with students and churned out endless pieces of writing in my roles as teacher, department chair, college adviser, and, ultimately, head of school, none of those projects seemed to qualify as “real” writing because I had never been published. Then poet Naomi Shihab Nye came to our school and said, “Too often grown-ups talk themselves out of doing what they love most to do.” Naomi’s clarity felt like a call to action and inspired me to be more deliberate in my English classrooms, sharing with the girls my ambitions and struggles as a writer. 
Thereafter, when my students wrote for five minutes at the beginning of every class, I would often write with them and, from time to time, share my scribbles. When I taught an elective in Creative Writing, I made revision the priority. I encouraged what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts,6 a phrase that startled my students but helped give them permission to explore, experiment, try again, listen to feedback, make choices about what pieces of feedback resonated.  
It was a heady semester during which I allowed myself to coach rather than teach. I gave the girls my pieces and asked for their feedback, breathing deeply when their criticism, offered kindly, felt hard to hear. I let go of being in charge and relished their willingness to help me grow. I graded only pieces that had been revised after they themselves had evaluated their revisions and their process. This slowed down how much work each student produced, but for most, the emphasis on the writing process was new and welcome once they stopped worrying about outcomes or what they thought I wanted.
At the same time, I also became a student again, attending summer writing workshops and doing online writing classes. The role of student made me feel humble, tentative. It was an important reminder to me as a teacher—learning to write is hard, frustrating; it takes time, patience, and encouragement; and all writers need inspirational models.

Having Something to Say and Knowing How to Say It

Ultimately, what teachers want is for students to fall in love with language, to delight in choosing words, and to feel, as White did, that their work is never really done and that’s okay, even good.
Even though writing is hard, it can be done well, and the effort itself has rewards. Students can express an individual voice by choosing strong verbs, avoiding passive construction, varying their sentence patterns and lengths, deleting unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, and stripping away that which is unnecessary. Teachers will continue to edit comma splices, urge stronger transitions, and hope students learn, along the way, to write not only analytical essays but personal essays, too—lessons all good writers must practice throughout the course of their lives.  
We have found that showing our students our own love of words and revealing how hard we work to get a piece just right by sharing revision histories are powerful ways to show rather than tell what we hope our students will grow to understand. Strunk and White’s handbook is considered canonical for good reasons. The simplicity with which they teach one of the hardest things to do—write clearly, with purpose, and with an individual voice—has stood the test of time.
 “Do not explain too much.” “Be clear.” And, perhaps most important, “revise and rewrite.”

1. Roger Angell, “Foreword,” The Elements of Style, 4th edition, by William Strunk Jr., E. B. White, and Maira Kalman (Illustrator) (New York: Penguin Press, 2005).
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Strunk and White, Elements of Style.
5. Emily Dickinson, Essential Dickinson. (New York: Harper Collins, 2006)
6. Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Pantheon, 1994).

Jessica Flaxman

Jessica Flaxman is dean of faculty and employees and interim upper school English department chair at Rye Country Day School in Rye, New York.

Ann V. Klotz

Ann V. Klotz is head of Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and the founder of Laurel's Center for Research on Girls.