Stop lying: Writing is so hard.

I was writing with my friend and current co-author Kate Roberts at her home on Sunday.  At one point late into the day, at an official “wait, when did it become 6:30?” moment, we started talking about how hard writing is.  How it’s fun, exciting, but also exhausting. We are well into revising mode yet the little line-by-line work and the big nope-that-lesson-didn’t-go-well work both take so much time and energy.

As we were talking… yes mostly to avoid writing for moment… we quickly switched our conversation to thinking about how students write in school and wondered out loud if we as teachers of writing are bringing lessons from our adult writing lives into our rooms.

Revision is horrible until it’s beautiful until it’s exhausting.

I told Kate about a conversation I had about a month ago, I can’t remember exactly where, but a few teachers brought up the point that students seem to hate to revise.  I began with my usual stump speech and practical tips and then stopped for a minute.

I had a flash of myself, in front of my laptop, at 1:38AM, on a work night/day, revising and quietly cursing in my head, “why aren’t the thinks I’m thinking getting thunk on the page any faster?!?”  I then flashed to a heated debate with Kate over a section (of a now very old draft version we have long since improved upon) that at the time neither one of us was totally emotionally prepared to give in to the other on. I then flashed to a moment of turning on the television and refusing, absolutely refusing, to even turn my computer on because I was just so drained from a day of work I couldn’t even face the screen.

I remember looking up at those teachers and saying, “You know what, if I really think about it, of course your students hate to revise.  Writing is a terrible, emotional, time consuming–sure, at times wonderful–thing.”

i am writing

Revision is as revision does.

Kate and I started reflecting on what it means to commit to revising in our adult lives and how it does or does not look in classrooms.

  • Revision involves thinking of audience and a clear purpose. Carl Anderson has written about this, I have even done some of his lessons on this with students.  Heck, the standards even say we should care about this. But I don’t bring this up enough with students.  Yet, every single word I write and all of the hundreds upon hundreds of nit-picky rewrites I do are all with some reader in mind. “Will this make sense? Are they going to understand my point? A list of three questions stylistically reads more fluidly than just two right?”
  • Revision involves heart-ache and letting go. I am convinced you haven’t really revised anything until you’ve taken something you absolutely love that you wrote and deleted it.  I do so much teaching of what students should add to their drafts that I do not think I do enough teaching into what they should look for to cut.
  • Revision requires other eyes. Hallelujah that I am lucky enough to have great editors in my life.  I have learned so much working with each of them. My friend and editor Tobey is always terrific at seeing just what isn’t working as well as it could and suggesting cuts, changes, and needed explanations. What makes her a special talent is that she doesn’t write the book with us, she never says, “in this part I would write this.”  Instead she is much more of a writing teacher than editor, she gives big ideas, raises larger issues and then lets go.  I always aim to support teachers in leaving students with big strategies — I wonder, though, if I work enough on having honest (not harsh just honest) feedback about issues in writing that need addressing.
  • Revision takes time. In our conversation Kate pointed out something that has stuck with me, that I can’t figure out a solution for just yet, but that has really stuck.  The simple fact that it can sometimes take hours just to revise one small section of one page.  Yet, in classrooms, even in ones that give students time to revise every day for a week, the sum total of in-school revision work is perhaps two and half hours, maybe pushing three. I see the need to keep types of writing going and lots of opportunities to publish.  I think there is value in that.  I also know that when revision feels painful to students any day spent on it can feel like an eternity.  But I still wonder, are we – can we – provide the time needed for students to even feel the power of revision.  To get through their own stages of grief to acceptance?

My thoughts are racing with reflections.  “Duh”s and “Hmm”s and “What if”s.  I guess the biggest idea I will be carrying with me is if I am humanizing writing instruction enough for students. Do I expect them to do miracles that most adults find hard to do? Do I share my own struggles enough?   I’d love to hear some of your own lessons from your writing life and what they mean for your teaching of writing.

Happy anxious feelings of dread… er… writing.



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7 thoughts on “Stop lying: Writing is so hard.

  1. Chris,
    Great post highlighting what we all know to be true but pretend we don’t succumb to. Your points are dead on! As someone who truly needs to work on brevity, one of the greatest lessons I have learned as a writer is to murder my darlings. And to do this often requires identification of those darlings to be sacrificed by the other set of eyes you mention, eyes I usually don’t want to critique my writing because my ego wants to continue believing it’s a masterpiece as it is. In my mind each darling has a very clear purpose, in my mind. Yet the reader does not see it as such, thus begins the fence-post shuffle of balancing what I am trying to communicate with what the actual message being received.

    Regarding time, this is also so true. So many, too many times I have finished writing something, published or turned it in, then later, after a break from it and with a fresh mindset, find so much that I would change had I the chance still.Therein lies the challenge of the perfectionist writer, knowing when to be done, when to take a break and revisit, or when to accept that what was done is past; move on and do it better next time.

    Drafting is easy for me. Writing (revising for audience and purpose) is so hard, but I wouldn’t know where to begin as a sculptor, a painter, or a dancer, and as a wanna-be musician, there is even so much more nuance in what is expressed and how it is received than in writing. Thus the artist in me pursues my passion to write, and teach writing, as hard as it truly is. And I am learning to overcome the fears and insecurities to share my writing with an audience, another part of the humanizing writing you mention.

    I really enjoyed reading and reflecting upon this post. Thanks for sharing.

    • And I meant to only italicize the word finished, but made a mistake with the closing html tag instead of . 😉

  2. Thank you so much for writing this post, Chris. I don’t think nearly enough teachers really go through the writing process themselves to understand that vision is so much more than adding elaboration. I changed an entire book from first person to third person…that’s a big revision. It’s now at a different stage bc one of my readers suggested making it a picture book. I haven’t quite gotten the energy for that revision, but I will. I think I teach students differently bc I do understand how overwhelming suggestions can sometimes feel.

  3. I had this conversation with my oft collaborator friend Matt today! Great post. I particularly like “Revision requires other eyes” when thinking about standards and teaching practices. The CCSS is set up to move our students from “dependent” in the early grades (i.e. brainstorm with peers to generate ideas) to “independence” in middle and high school (i.e. remove surface errors in a document). This is a misapplication of cognitive development schemes on ELA, especially in regards to writing. “Revision requires other eyes” is a truth about composing that is not only being ignored, but current designs for writing standards would have it be systematically unlearned.

  4. Thank you for composing this, revising it (he-he) and posting it. I had an interesting conversation with my 11 y.o. son (6th grader) on the way to school this morning after I read this. He is a smart kid and great reader/thinker. I asked him if revision was hard. He said, “It depends. If the writing assignment is worth a lot of points then I spend more time revising. If it isn’t, then revision is easy.” This made me sick to my stomach! I asked him who his audience is when he writes and he told me that it is usually his teacher. We MUST make writing authentic with real purpose and a variety of audiences. Children may just engage more and understand the trials and tribulations of revising if we do. I plan to share this blog in my next “tip of the week” that I send to my colleagues to spark some much needed conversations.


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