Why is writing such a difficult subject to teach and to learn? And why does it seem particularly challenging for bright kids, whose intelligence actually seems like a hindrance in this subject?
There are quite a few reasons that writing is especially challenging for gifted kids.
#1 It takes a lot of time
You can do a writing activity in a short amount of time. But to take an essay—of any length—from first idea to final draft takes time and patience. Ideally, this process would happen over the course of several days, maybe even weeks. But it often gets contracted in the classroom; there just isn't enough time.
In either scenario, time becomes a problem. If students are already predisposed to dislike writing, sustaining interest in it long enough to complete projects in a satisfying way is challenging. On the other hand, condensing the process usually inspires overwhelm, which can feel like boredom. This feeling frequently makes kids give up on long-term, multi-stage writing, declaring it impossible or unimportant, depending on their temperament.
For gifted kids, spending a long time on a task that doesn't seem worthwhile or being rushed on a difficult task are equally likely to lead to aversion. Writing becomes less and less appealing, getting filed into the "not worth it" drawer, and the cycle repeats.
#2 You have to touch things more than once
A lot that’s written about successful people tells us that one of their key traits is only touching things once. I have to say, this idea has transformed my life when it comes to keeping my kitchen clean, but it just doesn’t hold true for writing.
Good writing results from returning to our work with fresh eyes so that we can see how to solve problems that didn’t even seem like problems previously. But this re-engagement, this returning to something we've already handled, can be very frustrating for students. It’s especially hard for gifted kids with perfectionist tendencies because it means facing imperfections. There's often a tendency to finish in one draft, and this prevents students from experiencing the positive outcome of a strong final product.
In writing, touching things more than once means you're doing it right. [Tweet that]
#3 You have to multitask
Remember when you first learned to drive a car and you had to actively think about what your hands and feet were doing and where your eyes were focused? Going even a short distance could be exhausting because you had to be conscious and careful the whole time.
When you write a sentence, you’re holding your thoughts in your auditory memory, choosing words, trying to spell those words correctly, and simultaneously doing the mechanical task of either writing or typing. For students with motor challenges or auditory processing or memory challenges, one sentence can require a depleting amount of focus, and an entire paragraph can feel like the Indy 500!.
#4 Some parts are tedious
Even people who enjoy writing find some parts of it tedious. Structured writing involves a lot of repetition of ideas. In expository writing, the writer’s job is to make life easy for the reader, and this means spelling out every argument clearly and comprehensively.
For gifted children who easily make inferences themselves, the process of connecting all the points of an argument and providing thorough explanations can feel not only tedious, but also a vast waste of time.
#5 The same process doesn’t work for everyone
There are as many different writing processes as there are people. Of course, there are the six touchstones of the writing process—brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing—but they often don’t happen linearly, and at each stage infinite variety possible.
Really, the only way to find an effective writing process is through trial and error. Writers will have to use a method before they know whether it works for them. While a good teacher or writing coach can guide a student toward the modalities likely to work—based on learning style, neuropsychology, personality, type of assignment, or even time of day—there are no guarantees. Students must be willing to experiment, and that can be very frustrating for kids who are sharp and used to things working for them on the first go.
#6 It’s Personal
Certainly none of us likes to be corrected, even if we can see that, yes, our answer to a math problem doesn't make sense, our tower topples over, or the notes we play sound terrible. But having our writing critiqued can feel especially awful.
Writing is an expression of thought, and thought is part of internal life. It is essential to who we are. Just like art, writing, even expository writing, can be extremely personal. Many students are reluctant to share themselves in this realm and risk the critique of others. Gifted or very sensitive children often feel this discomfort even more acutely.
#7 There’s no one right answer
Even when we write about mundane, impersonal topics, writing is about our ideas. During a recent Writing JOY! coaching session, I shared a short sample essay (penned by yours truly) with a student so that we could log some practice time revising. I thought we would be discussing word choice, transitions, and organization. But this very bright student couldn't get past my ideas about cooking, which were different from his.
Our revising quickly turned into rewriting as he told me what he would've written instead. While we ended up having a good discussion about ideas, we've had lots of good discussion about ideas, and a lot less practice revising. Having to make one thing "right" before we can address another is keeping our revising stuck in first gear.
Thinking actively and defending a point are key goals of teaching writing, yet they often make the learning process more difficult! For big thinkers, it can be hard to turn off the desire to find the one correct answer, or to see past the ideas to the underlying structure or style. This often leads to rewriting rather than revising, but it also frequently leads to so much indecision that no ideas can be written down in the first place. Writing is especially challenging for students who feel uncomfortable with the notion that there is no one right answer, and that the task is simply to make the best of whatever answer is on hand.
How to make it easier
A challenging task will become even more unpleasant when we have the wrong expectation about how long it should take or how much effort should be involved.
If you head to the grocery store just to grab one or two items and end up stuck in line for 25 minutes, it's easy to imagine you'd start fuming. If, on the other hand, those same 25 minutes were spent waiting to reach the front of the line at the DMV, you might be ecstatic, having expected that errand to take hours.
We can help kids form a more realistic idea about how much time and effort writing takes. This might mean a research project on book publishing, or it might mean reviewing the six steps of the writing process and working together to describe the goal and purpose of each one. (Writing projects about writing, hmm, I like it!)
Remember, our attitudes toward writing can affect how easy or difficult it is for us to teach this subject to students, especially to very sharp students who pick up on subtle cues and remember what we say.
If we complain about writing, we make it that much harder to teach. Instead, we can elevate writing and give it the status of something difficult but worthwhile, like rocket science or fine art. In this way, we can invite kids—especially gifted kids with a strong desire to excel at important things—to rise to the challenge of writing with their best tools and brightest ideas.
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