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3 Easy Tips to Help Your Student Become a Better Writer

3 Easy Tips to Help Your Student Become a Better Writer

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In high school writing, as students prepare for college, content becomes enormously important. Are you searching for ways to help your young high schoolers prepare for the time when college is around the corner? Here are three tips that lay the foundation for excellent writing and your student's ability to develop mature content. The younger your student is when you begin implementing the first two tips, the better.


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Tip #1: Turn Them into a Reader


Andrew Pudewa of the Institute for Excellence in Writing once told the story of a homeschool mom who sought his advice about her son and shared, "My high schooler's writing is awful!" He asked her if her son was a reader, and she replied that he wouldn't even touch a book. He suggested that she encourage him to read classic literature aloud for two hours a day. A month later, she called Andrew to relay that his writing had already improved.



An essential component in preparing high schoolers for college writing is to fill their minds with vibrant language patterns. While children who love to read don't automatically become excellent writers, one can't pull from the brain something that isn't there. Before students can pull flowing, compelling language from their minds, that language must first be instilled.  


Classic literature is an excellent way to expand the mind with ideas, enrich vocabulary, implant language patterns, broaden general knowledge, and start the creative juices flowing. Listening to audiobooks and memorizing poetry, Scripture, famous sayings, or passages from books also instills language patterns (Pudewa "1 Myth, 2 Truths").


grandmother, mother, daughter reading together


Does your child hate to read? Pick an exciting book and make it a special family affair with everyone taking turns reading. Other times listen to an audiobook together. Call it school (which it is). Serve hot chocolate, spiced cider, or a frozen fruit smoothie. Stop to ask an occasional question like, "That was odd…why do you think he did that?" or "What do you think is going to happen next?" to keep everyone engaged and to encourage literary thinking.



Tip #2: Teach Them How to Think


Many high school students struggle with writing because they don't know how to generate ideas. Do your teens sometimes sit and stare at a prompt for hours, unable to begin or develop any meaningful content? "Death" for a college student is to face an approaching deadline and be unable to type a single word to address the assignment.  


It's essential to teach students how to think, how to ask questions, and how to brainstorm properly. A useful technique is to start with a broad subject such as a best friend. Begin by asking questions to identify topics your teens can explore about this friend. What makes her sad? What are her hobbies? What kind of friend is she? What are some specific instances or memories that demonstrate each of these statements about her? If you could use only one word to describe her, what word would that be? Answers to these types of questions can generate the content and thesis of an essay or a narrative. Learning to think like this in a relaxed, casual environment prepares your future college writer.


Make a game whenever possible of these activities. One time the game might be to see who can create the most questions about a topic. Another time, it might be who can generate the greatest number of answers to a single question such as "What are your friend's admirable qualities?" Still another time, the game might be about who can generate the highest number of illustrations or memories that demonstrate one of those qualities.


If your student struggles to produce ideas, throw in your own ideas. If you are initially doing most of the brainstorming, that is OK! You are modeling how to create. Anxiety over "having nothing to say" will shut down your child's thinking. Listening to you "create" in a fun, relaxed manner will open up your student's mind. If you fumble around and make some mistakes or silly contributions and then laugh at yourself, that, too, is OK. You, again, are modeling that brainstorming can be fun and that the goal is generating ideas of any kind, not perfection.


right margin teens placards


Do you have an only child as I do? Once in a while, we compete against each other. More often, the game becomes whether we together can best the score in our last joint effort. What is the prize? The winner chooses the next family dessert or dinner or the next game.


Teach as you go and make it fun. Play in the car or while at the park as you stare up at the clouds. IEW users will recognize these games as steps in pulling information from the brain to build an essay (Pudewa “What is IEW? Method Not Madness”). 



Tip #3: Include Freewriting in Their Daily Routine


Freewriting, a concept popularized in 1973 by Peter Elbow, Ph.D., is a form of brainstorming in sentences and paragraphs. It consists of writing or typing whatever comes to your mind without self-editing. Students can freewrite either with or without a prompt. However, it is best to begin without a prompt when first developing the skill. Use it as a 10-minute warm-up for more structured writing assignments. 


When freewriting by hand, students keep their pencils constantly moving, without crossing out or erasing. If typing, they keep their fingers moving continuously without pause and without stopping to press the delete key or backspace. The mind is rarely blank. SOME thought is passing through it. Whatever the thought, students record it.


When the pencil or fingers come to a halt, the student immediately scans his surroundings for things to comment on or asks himself a question about anything he notices. The freewrite might look something like this: "Let's see, what can I write? The wall is white. I can't think of anything to say. Let's see, what can I talk about? My day. What happened today? Today was a wonderful day."


Notice that students are to write down every one of those thoughts, NOT only the end result of those thoughts: "Today was a wonderful day." They are to keep their fingers or pencils moving even if all they can write is, "I don't know what to write." Soon enough, an idea or another thought will emerge. As they write, their ideas will evolve. 


Free Writing Guide


As important as keeping their fingers moving is that students do not edit their thoughts while writing. Editing stops the flow of creativity. They are to dump their ideas from their brain onto the paper without any evaluation, judgment, or correction.



Why freewrite daily?


Reason 1 – Increase creativity, have more to say


Writers who freewrite daily, whether they feel like it or not, have more creative ideas and more things to say. They have explored ideas and thoughts and developed them in writing on a daily basis. They have learned to overcome their internal editors to retrieve insights and experiences from their brains and write about them. 


Writers who compose only when they absolutely must, as when given a writing task, or those who wait for inspiration to strike will generate only a fifth the number of creative ideas as those who write every day whether or not they feel like it. Sporadic writers will also produce a mere sixteenth of the material that their peers who write daily will create when given the same writing task. (Boice 1983)  Ralph Keyes, in his work The Writer's Book of Hope, made an exhaustive study into the writing habits of professional writers such as John Grisham, Alice Munro, Checkhov, J. K. Rowling, and many, many more.  He found a common denominator for all was a commitment to write daily whether they felt like it or not.


Start those creative juices flowing by writing a little bit every day. Ten minutes per day of freewriting as a warm-up to other writing activities is all that is necessary to make a tremendous difference for your student. 


Reason 2 – Overcome writer’s block


The second reason to develop the ability to freewrite is that it provides an additional and powerful method to overcome writer's block. I am certified by The Institute for Excellence in Writing to use their methods. I use those methods because they work! Because they teach students to ask themselves questions and think, students who have had a year or more of IEW instruction have typically overcome any problems with writer's block. 


However, almost all writers will still become "stuck" on occasion. When they do, it is almost always because their internal editors are working overtime with statements like, "I haven't got a clue what to write here. This paper is due tomorrow. I'll never have it done in time." 


If writers have mastered the skill of the freewrite, they have mastered the skill of sitting down and beginning to write…immediately. They have mastered the skill of turning off their internal editor. 


Having mastered this first stage of the skill, students then learn to freewrite about topics. Having mastered this second stage, students overcome writer's block by merely turning off their internal editors and sitting down to freewrite on their subject. As they always do with any freewrite on any topic, they will begin to write immediately. As they always do when freewriting, by the end of ten minutes, they will have a number of thoughts about their topic recorded in writing. They will be "unstuck" and have the beginnings of their essay.



Reason 3 – Overcome Test Anxiety


Finally, once students have developed proficient writing skills, they sometimes continue to struggle to demonstrate their true abilities in a high-pressure test situation. Once they establish proficient freewriting skills, they have a powerful tool to overcome test anxiety.


I remember one student who was more than a "competent" writer; he was truly gifted. Although he did battle test anxiety, he also had become quite skilled at overcoming it. However, when it came to the essay portions of his AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature and Composition exams, his practice attempts were awkward, stilted, and frankly downright terrible. My articulate, profound thinker had vanished, leaving in his place someone with jumbled thoughts and halting language. 


While I was encouraging, he didn't need confirmation from me to know that his efforts didn't begin to demonstrate his true abilities. This realization, of course, only further worsened both his anxiety and his essays.  


Fortunately, this student had also developed the skill of freewriting over the previous two years. After trying several solutions over a couple of weeks to help him, I finally gave him an AP prompt and suggested he do a "brain-dump: no editing, no pre-planning, just a freewrite." 


The result was a beautifully written, top-notch AP essay, and the freewrite became his marching orders for writing his AP essays. He earned nine college credits with his scores on his two AP English exams. Being able to turn off self-talk and just dump thoughts on paper can save the day in a variety of situations.


Click on the image below for a free step-by-step guide: "3 Easy Steps to Develop Freewriting Skills."



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Boice, Robert.  “Contingency Management I Writing and the Appearance of Creative Ideas:  Implications for the Treatment of Writing Blocks.”  Behavior Research and Therapy, vol. 21, no. 5, 1983, pp. 537-543., doi:10.1016/0005-7967(83)90045-1.


Cassity, Kathleen J. "RE-IMAGINING “FRONTIER” PEDAGOGY: Inside Peter Elbow’s Composition Classroom." In Writing With Elbow, edited by Belanoff Pat, Dickson Marcia, Fontaine Sheryl I., and Moran Charles, 133-43. Logan, Utah: University Press of Colorado, 2002. doi:10.2307/j.ctt46nxbc.18.


Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power:  Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.


Fox, Deborah, and Charles Suhor. "ERIC/RCS Report: Limitations of Free Writing." The English Journal 75, no. 8 (1986): 34-36. doi:10.2307/819077.


Keyes, Ralph. The Writer's Book of Hope: Getting from Frustration to Publication.” Henry Holt and Co.


Pudewa, Andrew. “What is IEW? Method Not Madness.” Institute for Excellence in Writing, January 24, 2019. https://iew.com/help-support/resources/articles/what-iew-method-not-madness.


Pudewa, Andrew. “1 Myth, 2 Truths by Andrew Pudewa.” Memoria Press, December 29, 2016.  https://www.memoriapress.com/articles/1-myth-2-truths.