12 back-to-school writing tips to practice while you social distance

We may not yet have a vaccine for the coronavirus, but we have time to read and write and talk about reading and writing.

July 24, 2020

It’s nearly August and the phrase “back to school” keeps popping up in the news. Never have so many seemed so confused about what to do at so many educational levels.

Should I wear a mask playing in the sandbox? What does a huddle in high school football look like if I am practicing social distancing? Will frat and sorority parties feature hazmat suits instead of togas?

These are the times that try men’s souls — and women’s and kids’ and teachers’ and parents’.

But there is one thing I am sure of: Whether you are locked in your room with a computer or spaced apart in a school auditorium, you will be OK if you read and write. And read and write some more. And talk about your reading and writing.

We do not yet have a vaccine for the coronavirus. For now, think of these tips as your booster shot for literacy.

1. Writing is not magic. It’s a process. Learn the steps.

This advice came to me from writing coach Donald Murray, and he described the steps as he taught and practiced them: Find an idea. Collect more than you think you need. Look for a focus. Select your best material. Create a plan. Write a draft. Revise.

2. Don’t write a little about a big thing. Write something big about a little thing.

I once wrote a story about my wedding ring, a gold band given to me as a gift by my grandmother. “Sadie’s Ring.” I was Catholic, but she was Jewish. The story would grow into an 11-part series published in the Miami Herald. Through the circle of that little ring, I could see the big history of intolerance, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust.

3. Do the work. Do the reading. Gather more than you think you need.

Here is the main difference, in general, between high school journalists and the best professionals: Young journalists often use most of the material in their notebooks. Sometimes all of it. They will grow and grow in their craft until they reach a point where they are using a small percentage of what they have gathered. They will select not all their stuff, but their best stuff. That’s what makes a story great.

4. You may call it a theme or thesis. What you want to find is a focus, the most significant thing you have learned.

It does not matter what you are writing: term paper, book report, essay, poem, short story, news report. It has to be about something. The best word for that is “focus.” You need to be able to answer this question: “What is this writing you are working on about? What is it really about?” The clearer your answer, the better armed you will be to conquer any challenge you will face.

5. Before you write what you think, write down some interesting things that others think about your topic.

A good and popular book for college students is titled “They Say/I Say.” It argues that the right to have a useful opinion must be earned. Should children be required to wear medical masks on school buses? I am forming an opinion on this, but before I express it, I need to learn more from others and use that knowledge in my argument.

6. From what you have collected, select only the stuff that supports your main point.

You have selected lots of material in your notebook. You have done your reading. You’ve conducted interviews and have lots of quotes. What elements will you choose to include in your writing? If you can’t decide, you may have to go back a step and reconsider your focus. Think of your focus with two metaphors:

  1. It is a door that lets in only the most pertinent stuff.
  2. It is a knife that cuts out all the irrelevant stuff.

7. You don’t need an outline, but you do need a plan, five or so elements you will include in the work.

This is another trick I learned from Don Murray. A formal outline has elaborate parts that look like this: I. A. 1. 2. 3. a. b. c. II… and so forth. It is hard, if not impossible, to think of those minor elements embedded in the story in advance of drafting. But here is the trick: You can think of the Roman Numerals: I. II. III. IV. V. These are the big parts of the story. My plan is usually scribbled on a legal pad: five or seven or 10 points I know are going to be in the story somewhere. I can then play around with them to figure out the order, especially what will come first.

8. Make sure your work has a clear beginning, middle, and ending, according to the accepted style you’re working in.

Here are my favorite six words from Shakespeare: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.” Even that short sentence has a beginning, middle, and end. So does a haiku, the poetic form with three lines and 17 syllables. But so does a Shakespeare play. So does a scholarly book about Shakespeare. So does the movie “Shakespeare in Love.” Your writing may have five parts, or 17 parts, or 47 chapters. But it will help if you can see in advance which of those parts go in the beginning, the middle, or the end.

9. Write earlier than you think you can to discover what you know and what you still have to learn. Write quickly and lower your standards at the beginning.

I know many Ph.D. candidates who took years and years to get their degrees — or never got them — because they could not write a dissertation. Their excuse? “I haven’t finished my research yet.” That is the path to nowhere. Before the first draft, consider writing a “zero draft,” bursts of fast writing with lowered standards. Let your hands do the thinking. You will discover that you know more than you think. But your weak spots will be revealed, and now you can target that research.

10. If you write early, you will give yourself time to revise. You can revise all parts of the process, not just the language.

Stop thinking of revision as proofreading, the few corrections you make at the last minute before you hand in the work. Think of it as the safety net for all parts of the process. You can revise the idea, the reporting, the focus, the selection, the plan, and the draft. You can even revise your revisions.

11. Bonus tip: If you wait until the very end to begin drafting, at least think about what you want to say as soon as you get the assignment. If you rehearse it, you will be able to draft more quickly.

We all know how to write things in our head. Before I asked my future wife on a date, I feared rejection and rehearsed what I wanted to say. Reporters may drive to the scene of, say, a protest march, and begin “writing” the story in their heads. In the field they are thinking about a “lead” (or “lede”), a good quote, a “kicker” of an ending. If you procrastinate in your writing, you may come to hate the work. If you turn it into rehearsal, you will discover speedy creativity.

12: Extra bonus tip: Create for yourself an artificial deadline.

This is a form of self-hypnosis that works for me every time. If my book manuscript is due on New Year’s Day, I fool myself into thinking it is due on Thanksgiving Day. Chances are, I may deliver it by Halloween. In addition to fulfilling my obligation to deliver, I am creating time and space for significant revision and fact-checking. If I have a term paper due in two weeks, I mark my calendar for 10 days. If I have a news story due at six p.m., I tell myself it’s due at 4 p.m. Then at 4, I get up from my desk, reward myself with coffee and a bagel, spoil my dinner, but return to the text with fresh eyes ready for revision.

Welcome back to school, kids. Stay safe. Keep reading and writing. And keep talking about your work to anyone who will listen.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at roypc@poynter.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.