Ten Things Every Writer Needs to Know
reviewed by Angela Hampton - June 01, 2012
Not since the first edition of In the Middle (Atwell, 1989) have I read such an inspiring, comprehensive text on teaching writing with upper elementary and adolescent writers in mind. 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know focuses on creating structures in which student writing expands with possibility.
With a culture deeply impacted by high-stakes testing, Andersons timely prologue sets out to articulate his understanding of what writing is and what it is not. He asserts that teaching writing as test preparation subjects students who have the most significant academic and socioeconomic struggles to the most anemic writing instruction. In contrast, Anderson believes that writing instruction is an exploration in what writing can do and in which imitation is used as a scaffold for innovation. His instructional philosophy is based on the belief that all reading is a transaction between the writer and the readers. He reiterates that this transaction, or connection between readers and writers, is a basic human need imprinted on us at birth. Although Anderson makes his position on high-stakes testing clear, he does not drag his feet there. Throughout the rest of the book, he rarely, maybe once or twice, mentions testing. His focus is clearly on helping teachers create spaces in which their students get to behave like writers.
10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know is organized around 10 key ideas: motion, models, focus, detail, form, frames, cohesion, energy, words, and clutter. Those who have read Andersons other writing will not be surprised to find that the principle most common throughout the book is the use of mentor texts to set the stage for what writers can do.
In Andersons first chapter, he expands on the idea of motion. Based on the premise that There is no wasted motion, he provides strategies to help students put pens to paper and keep them moving. He also includes useful techniques for helping writers move beyond the blank page, suggesting that all cases of writers block result from some form of perfectionism. One note of caution he gives to teachers is that our responses to students writing may travel with them long after they have left our classrooms and have potential to halt the writing process.
Chapter 2 is a pivotal chapter as it relates Writing Next research by Graham and Perins (2007) to the scientific method as a means for approaching mentor texts. In short, Anderson suggests that the scientific method for studying models includes noticing, interacting, naming, experimenting, and reflecting (p. 27). He emphasizes that teacher modeling is an underused yet highly beneficial strategy for helping writing scientists move from noticing, interacting, and naming to experimenting with what they are learning in their own writing. In each chapter, Anderson provides useful models of his dialogic instruction surrounding mentor texts, but I felt that because modeling with our own writing is so difficult and underused by teachers, it might have been helpful if he had also included a few more examples of modeling with his own writing throughout the book.
The key in Chapter 3 is that it only takes a few minutes for students to narrow their focus as writers, but if they skip this step, they may become overwhelmed and ineffective as writers. In Chapter 4, Anderson suggests Focus before detail as a banner to wave before writers. Once focus has been established, writers are then able to discern the details most useful in communicating their messages. Anderson explicates multiple strategies and mentor texts to use with students, including a playlist of music he uses when teaching students to use photos to write with detail.
When Anderson talks about form in Chapter 5, he is quick to point out that form does not equate to formulaic, but to a menu of possibilities for organizing writing. He makes the study of form relevant to his students by tapping into their knowledge of media, such as categorizing and naming various kinds of television shows and movies. Then he engages students through immersion in the study of mentor texts. Included in this chapter is a three-page list of mentor texts along with brief discussions of each. This valuable list of resources could serve as a starting point for a number of writing lessons, including ideas for writing across the curriculum.
Chapter 6 relates how teachers can help students use leads and conclusions to become custom framers of their writing (p. 114). He encourages teachers not to jump into teaching leads in isolation, as he did when he first started teaching, but to show that connecting leads with conclusions creates even more powerful frames for writing. Anderson suggests that the process of studying leads and conclusions is an active process of constructing meaning together that can last as long as a semester.
In Chapter 7, Anderson asserts that cohesion makes our writing whole (p. 146) and that it begins at the sentence level. In his discussion of consistency of verb tense, point of view, tone, and mood, he insists that it is more important for students to examine models of successful texts and construct their own understandings of what makes writing work than it is to provide them with ready-made rules about how to write cohesively.
Chapter 8 describes energy as the electricity that moves readers through texts (p. 173). The source of energy within writing is wrapped up in the 10 things every writer needs to know. Especially helpful in this chapter are models for class and peer responses to writing.
Chapter 9, Words: Crafting Precise Diction, is not about memorizing vocabulary lists or replacing short words in writing with fancier sounding words from a thesaurus. It is about making students aware of the choices they have when revising and selecting their words. Chapter 10 addresses how to get rid of clutter and open space for readers to receive and process what is most important in a piece of writing.
Written with humor, passion, and a deep reservoir of teaching experiences, 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know is a gift to preservice and practicing teachers that will be hard to keep on the shelf. Like the rings in a tree that show its history, Anderson concludes that every encounter with our studentsthe words we speak about writing in our classroom, our tone, attitudes, judgments, praise, the time we give to writing, the types of texts we open up to our students, and the connections that are made in the transactions between readers and textsleaves a lasting impression on them (p. 241). Likewise, Anderson has once again left his mark on us through this indispensable book.
Atwell, N. (1989). In the middle: Writing, reading, and learning with adolescents. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.
Graham, S., & Perins, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools. New York, NY: Carnegie Foundation.