Start With Whatever You Have

An anxious student staring at their computer

You’re uncertain.

Your idea is incomplete.

You don’t know all the steps.

You’re not sure how to say what you want to say.

No problem. You can begin anyway.

Too often, students let these be reasons to hesitate, to avoid starting, to procrastinate. They believe, mistakenly, that you can only begin a math problem, a science project, or an essay if you’re already certain of the entire process.

Rarely in life do we get to feel completely confident about what we’re doing. It’s impossible to predict the future and foresee all the steps that we’ll need to take. Uncertainty is the norm.

You cannot allow feeling unsure to stop you from moving forward, from trying things, from going for it. You must cultivate the ability to start anyway. School, it turns out, is a place to practice this vital skill.

So don’t wait for the full thought or the feeling of confidence to begin writing. Start with whatever you have. It’s okay that it’s incomplete. It’s okay if it doesn’t sound good. It’s okay if it doesn’t completely make sense yet. It’s okay if it ends up being wrong. That’s all part of the process.

Writing down whatever you have in your head frees up space in your working memory, allowing for more and better thoughts. Write those down too, as soon as they come.

Think of it like finding your way through a corn maze. You can’t see the end. You can’t see what’s around the next corner. You just have to keep walking. Try stuff. See where paths lead. You’ll make wrong turns and hit dead ends, but that’s okay. You’ll never get to the end of the maze if you just stand there.

A child walking through a corn maze

This applies to writing essays and stories as much as it does to solving math and physics problems, conjugating Spanish verbs, and just about everything else students get asked to do.

Being unsure of your ideas is normal, and it’s not a valid reason to be stuck.

Begin anyway.

How to Help Your Kid Become a Better Writer

A student writing

In one of the live Q&A sessions from our parenting for academic success course, two parents brought up a similar issue:

“My kid (middle school) gets 100% on his writing assignments even though they’re not very good. He believes his writing is great because it’s getting 100% percent. How can I show him that he needs to improve?”

“My kid’s language arts teacher doesn’t read or grade their writing – they just have peers read it and give feedback. I know their writing isn’t very good, but they’re not getting any adult feedback about how to improve. They think their writing is fine because they’ve never been told otherwise. What can I do?”

A Common Struggle

Writing is one of the most important skills you learn in school. No matter what career you wind up in, you’re going to need to be able to write clearly. And too often kids don’t receive good writing instruction, good reading materials that model effective writing, and – most commonly – they don’t get constructive feedback from teachers.

When a student is motivated to learn how to become a better writer, they’re happy to let me review their writing and get ideas for how to improve. They might even be eager to practice writing in order to build their skills. And if they don’t know why they’re getting low grades on papers, I encourage them to ask their teacher for better feedback. This might require an after-school meeting, but the one-on-one attention is extremely valuable.

But what about kids who aren’t motivated to improve, like the children mentioned earlier?

How to Help Your Kid Become a Better Writer When They Don’t Think They Need To

Here’s what I suggested to those parents:

First of all, don’t read their story/essay and pick it apart like an editor. Don’t highlight all the things they did wrong and admonish them to put more effort into their writing. Don’t insist on reading their papers before they turn them in. These behaviors will only do two things: trigger resistance and make them hate writing.

an adult looking critically at some writing

Instead, be curious about their work the way you might be curious about a story written by a second grader. At that age, we’re just happy they wrote something at all, and we express excitement to read their creation. We ask questions about what they’re saying – about the characters, the plot, the ideas. We don’t criticize them for misspelling words or forgetting a comma.

Ask to Read Their Writing

Ask to read what they wrote, out of pure curiosity – because you’re interested in the topic. (This might require a bit of acting.)

Also, it has to be okay if they say “no.” If you’ve been critical of their writing in the past, they might not be comfortable having you read it. If you have a two-parent household, let the parent they’re most comfortable with take the lead on this. If Dad’s always criticizing their writing, Mom should be the one to ask to read their paper.

Be Curious, Not Critical

If you get permission to read the paper, remember that you’re not playing editor. Oh, you’ll notice things – misused words, grammar errors, ambiguous sentences, etc. – but don’t point them out! We’re going for curious not critical.

a curious kitten

Instead, pick a line from the paper that’s genuinely confusing, something where you’re not sure what they mean and ask about it:

“Hey, when you said ______________ I got a little confused. What were you trying to say?” (Note that you’re not saying their writing was confusing; you’re saying that you got confused.)

As long as your tone is uncritical and genuinely curious, they’ll probably reply by explaining what they meant:

“Oh, I was saying that ______________.”

Then you can paraphrase that back to them using clearer language:

“Ah, I understand. So you were saying ______________.”

“Right.”

Helpful Feedback Without Defensiveness

This process lets them know that their writing was unclear and lets them hear how another person might have expressed the idea more clearly, all without triggering defensiveness because it wasn’t under the guise of criticism.

They’re not being judged. They’re not being given instruction. You’re not asking them to rewrite their paper. You’re only asking because you want to make sure you understand their ideas.

a parent and child looking at writing together

If they respond well to this interaction, you might do it once more after a few more minutes of reading. But please don’t bring up every instance where their writing wasn’t great. They’ll see right through you. They’ll disengage or get defensive, and you’ll never get to try this tactic again. Of the dozen or so errors and ambiguities you find in their paper, limit yourself to asking about one or two.

Encouraging Greater Depth

This approach would also allow you to encourage your child to write and think in greater depth.

The traditional approach is to ask them probing questions about their ideas or outright tell them that they only scratched the surface. This will, of course, generate resistance, so another approach is called for.

Instead, mention some part of the paper/story, and say, “This is interesting … It makes me wonder why that is” or “It makes me think of __________.”

This method allows the student to hear opportunities for greater depth without feeling criticized.

Also Comment on the Good

The goal here is to motivate them to improve their writing, and you don’t do that by making them feel like a terrible writer. You want them to see how they have room to grow without making them feel bad about themselves.

So find things to comment on positively. “Oooh, I didn’t know that.” Or “That’s a very interesting observation.”

Do this before, between, and after any clarifying questions you ask. Mention the positive more often than you mention the confusing.

Don’t fake it. Find something genuinely interesting or well thought out and mention it. And don’t exaggerate. Kids usually see right through overblown praise, and even if they don’t, it’s bad for their self-esteem.

The Curious Editor

Maybe (I said maybe) after doing this a few times, they’ll realize that they’d like your input before they turn in their essay, at which point you get to play editor.

But you’ll only get to continue playing editor if you keep the same light, curious tone that you used before. Don’t be hypercritical. Don’t expect college-level writing from a 10th grader. Your kid might be in Honors English, but they don’t write for The New Yorker.

More likely – and more importantly – they’ll start to see the need to become their own curious editor. They’ll get better at noticing the shortcomings in their own writing. They’ll think more carefully about what they’re really trying to say and make an effort to express themselves more clearly. And that, in the end, is how they become a better writer.

A Shortcut to Becoming a Better Writer

A man on a forest path looking for a shortcut

The primary way to become a better writer is, of course, writing. Practicing any skill is how you march down the mastery path. I’m a better writer than I was ten years ago in large part because I’ve written hundreds of pages over the past decade.

But that’s not the only reason I’m a better writer than I used to be. Another cause of my improvement is what I read. I regularly read a type of book that’s been largely ignored by our educational systems: popular, persuasive nonfiction.

The Great Mismatch of Language Arts Curricula

You see, in language arts classes, students primarily read fiction – novels, plays, and short stories – but they primarily write nonfiction – essays and research papers. This mismatch is a problem because the students don’t have examples of good nonfiction writing to emulate.

They do have to read nonfiction, especially in history classes, but the nonfiction we offer them is dry and tedious rather than compelling and persuasive. Don’t get me wrong, I love textbooks, but they’re not examples of great writing.

A student on a couch struggling to understand a textbook

What’s missing from the reading students do is popular nonfiction. I’m talking about the types of nonfiction books that are meant to be informative, persuasive, and entertaining enough to sell millions of copies. In these books, you will find examples of great writing.

Authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Yuval Noah Harari, and Ryan Holiday come to mind as examples from my own reading. I don’t deliberately try to copy their style, but I know my writing has been influenced – for the better – by their books.

Why Popular Nonfiction?

Many students’ writing is unclear and ambiguous, making it easy to misunderstand. Meanwhile, popular nonfiction authors express ideas with crystalline clarity. They break ideas down into component parts. They explain complicated subjects with enlightening metaphors. They connect concepts from seemingly disparate domains in surprising and insightful ways. They say exactly what they mean.

Most students’ writing is too wordy, full of redundancy and repetition. Popular nonfiction is edited down to be as concise as possible to prevent readers from getting bored.

Many students struggle to convincingly defend their thesis, connecting their evidence to their argument in only the most basic of ways. In popular nonfiction, on the other hand, the writing cuts apart opposing points of view with surgical precision, brings evidence down like a hammer, and drives home the argument like a grand slam slugger.

A baseball batter hitting a home run

Don’t Believe Everything You Read

Now, the goal of reading popular nonfiction is not to walk away agreeing with everything these authors say. The goal is to see examples of well-developed thinking articulated in clear writing.

Ideally, your bookshelf should contain authors who contradict each other. This will help you read and think more critically.

Most student papers I see have logical shortcomings: body paragraphs that don’t really support their thesis, analysis that doesn’t quite follow from the evidence. By reading books that disagree with one another, you will learn to question what you read, and, as a result, you’ll become better at spotting the problems with your own arguments.

Emulation is Not Plagiarism

As you read best-selling nonfiction authors, you can take elements of their writing styles and incorporate them into your own papers. This isn’t plagiarism. All creative work draws inspiration from others. You’ve already been unconsciously influenced by everything you’ve ever read. You might as well start deliberately choosing what you read in order to become a better writer.

A major turning point in my own writing came during the summer of my junior year of college. I read a few popular nonfiction books: The Red Queen by Matt Ridley, and The Moral Animal and Nonzero by Robert Wright. I was intrigued by their ideas and found the books difficult to put down. But the most significant change brought by reading these books was their impact on my writing.

During my senior year of college, my essays improved dramatically. I branched out and experimented with different styles. I wrote more compelling introductions. I made bolder arguments. I said more with less. And I crafted conclusions that truly made you feel like the essay had come full circle.

Persuasive writing is an art, and to become a great artist, you have to consume the type of art you wish to create. Since school isn’t going to do that for you, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands and read the kinds of books that will make you a better writer.