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2011 October 23

Reluctant writers

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:38
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Because my son had some fairly serious writer’s block last year, I’ve been seeking advice about how to help him overcome it.  So this post from the Davidson Institute looked promising: Tips for Parents: The Reluctant Writer.

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Indeed, I was nodding along with the author’s general statements of the problem until I got to the detailed advice:

For example, when writing about a work of fiction, they should consider not just what happened (or the plot) but instead answer questions such as:

  1. Why did the main character act the way she did?
  2. Why would the author place these two characters together?
  3. What main point do you think the author is making by creating the character the way she does?
  4. If this story were to continue, what do you think would happen? What about the story and characters makes you believe this?

That is exactly the sort of prompt that causes my son to shut down and stop writing.  Why is it that English teachers can’t think of anything more interesting to demand that students write about?  Why, for that matter, do they think that the literary analysis essay is the most important form of writing?  It isn’t as if there is a big demand for such essays, nor is the style of writing fostered by such essays of much use in other disciplines (not even in other humanities).   I’ve complained about this before (Death to High School English and School Decisions), but I’ve yet to have anyone attempt to defend the literary essay as an important style for students to learn (other than the inevitable “they’ll have to do it in college”).

Is there anyone out there with good advice for reluctant writers that does not involve literary essays?


  1. My sister and I once sat down to “interview” one another IN CHARACTER of the protagonists we were trying to write about. I don’t remember if we actually used any of the material that came out of the evening, but it got our brains rolling again (and I do know I got to know my character better than I had before)… Maybe something off-the-wall along those lines would avoid the literary-essay-shut-down (shudder)… In any case, we had fun with it. :)

    Comment by Kana Tyler — 2011 October 23 @ 18:51 | Reply

    • He is very into acting, but he doesn’t have anyone else to do the role-playing with. We have discussed the possibility of rewriting a scene from one of the novels as a play or radio play for one of his assignments, but he hasn’t chosen that option for any of the books yet.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 October 24 @ 07:16 | Reply

  2. I totally agree with you about the overemphasis on literary analysis. And the argument that they’ll have to do it in college is ridiculous. If you avoid literature courses, you can easily avoid the literary essay.

    I homeschool a high school student who has dyslexia. He is actually a fairly competent writer when he’s writing about something he thoroughly understands (like science). But last year I decided it was time for him to learn how to write a literary analysis paper. I had him use the format that is described in Teaching the Multiparagraph Essay by Jane Schaffer. This is that format in a nutshell. Write an introduction with a thesis statement. Then have two main reasons that support the thesis (you can have more, but not fewer than two). These will be paragraphs two and three. For each of these paragraphs, you’ll have a topic sentence. Then you’ll have two or three examples (that preferably use quotations from the text). Then after each sentence containing an example, you have two sentences commenting about it. This commentary was the most difficult part for my son. Then there is a concluding sentence. Finally, you have a conclusion.

    I tried to make sure his essay topics would naturally conform to this structure. I had to write the first few essays of this type with him, meaning I sat with him and essentially told him what to write and why. Gradually he was able to produce the essays fairly independently, though it was incredibly time consuming and painful and they weren’t great.

    This year I just need to make it through one semester in English, as he will be entering school in January (I hope). I’m having him write book reviews instead of literary analysis. He is doing much better with this (and I let him use SparkNotes). For the one he’s doing now he’ll need to write an introduction where he talks about the author and book generally. Then he’ll provide a plot summary. Next he will discuss a particular character. Next the theme as it relates to that character. And finally, he will write a conclusion where he relates the character/theme to life in general. I got this format out of the Write Source series of writing books. My son has done one of these so far, and it went well. I think using SparkNotes had something to do with it, as it already has all the analysis in there, so he’s really just paraphrasing.

    As for not involving literary essays, you could purposely pick literature that relates to a contemporary or historical issue, and then have him write about it. Or if you want to get away from writing about literature at all, and you need output for the books he reads, simply have him do a review leaving out the analysis (so it would simply be the introduction, plot summary, and conclusion mentioned above). Then for the “real” writing for the course, have him write essays about things that interest him.

    I hope something in here helps.

    Comment by Kai — 2011 October 24 @ 06:35 | Reply

    • Thanks for the suggestions. We had already considered doing book reviews instead of literary analysis, and we may do that—plot summaries are not hard for him. Neither my wife nor I have much respect for paraphrasing nor for SparkNotes, so we probably won’t follow that path.

      His theme for this year is “Alternative Realities” and he has read Brave New World, Left Hand of Darkness, and 1984. For Brave New World, he wrote about the caste system in the world state, for Left Hand of Darkness he looked for all the geographic information and constructed a map of Gethen, and for 1984 he is doing an analysis of New Speak (he has a strong hobbyist interest in conlangs). We may alternate written and non-written projects for books this year, depending what he and my wife can come up with to motivate him (I’m teaching the science and engineering, she is teaching the English and history, he has community college for Spanish, and Art of Problem Solving online for calculus). We plan to do some timed essay writing with SAT prompts, to get him used to putting something down quickly, so that when he takes the SAT he doesn’t bomb the essay.

      I think we’re going to get through this year, but he needs the equivalent of 4 years of English to get into University of California (and most other schools that might be suitable for him). Since he dropped his English class in 9th grade, we are going to have to do an intensive summer or double up some year in order to catch up. One thing we’re looking for (particularly for a summer course) is a college-level tech writing class—there is one offered at UCSC, and I know what used to be in it, since I created the course 24 years ago and taught it for 14 years. It may be a bit too intense for him still.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 October 24 @ 07:14 | Reply

      • I don’t have much respect for paraphrasing or SparkNotes either, but desperation can make a person do crazy things.

        Comment by Kai — 2011 October 24 @ 08:01 | Reply

  3. I don’t think those questions are “literary analysis” (which I see as being at yet another level of delving into the text). The questions that you’re describing seem more like using the text to understand and explore relationships and human stories. They’ve injected the author into two of the questions, but the real question being asked is “If characters were to act this way, what main point is being made?”

    I’m not going to make a strong argument for where using books to explore the structure of human relationships and stories should be in the educational hierarchy, especially for all children. But I don’t see it as being in the same vein as “exploring the symbolism of son/sun imagery in Jane Eyre” (which I see as being literary analysis).

    The questions being asked here are a lot like the questions asked when presenting drama — is there a way to parlay your son’s interest in drama into answering these questions? The role playing suggestion seems like one way, but potentially one could answer question #1 by simulating playing that character in a play? But perhaps your son does a different kind of drama.

    Comment by zb — 2011 October 24 @ 07:05 | Reply

    • We have discussed him doing a character analysis as if preparing to play the character on stage—which means looking for and justifying gestures, mannerisms, and tone of voice as much as (or more than) underlying motivation. He did such a paper in drama class in either 8th or 9th grade (I forget which), and it helped a little but was still not an easy paper for him to produce.

      I won’t quibble about the definition of “literary analysis”. If you can give me a name for the type of essay I’m objecting to that is more polite than “bullshit that English teachers ask for” I’d be glad to use it.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 October 24 @ 07:25 | Reply

  4. I’m certainly not an expert on literary analysis so I’m not purporting to be defining any general terms. I think my point was that I actually think there is a “BS that English teachers ask for”, but for me, character analysis described by your questions is not it. We like character analysis around here; it is the stuff of book clubs, not the literary analysis that I remember from high school and the AP English text (which I don’t hate, but don’t like). Drama is also big in our household, and our analysis of characters always involve these kinds of questions, as well as the translation of those answers into some physical form that can be expressed on stage.

    I really don’t know whether a child should be forced to do this kind of analysis — well, say compared to doing analysis of spring constants in physics or geometry (one of the major newspapers has an article I couldn’t bear to click through to suggesting that geometry be replaced with “entrepreneurship”). But those are the big questions, of what a general education should provide, what children should be forced to do if it’s hard for them (i.e. we don’t try to force children in wheelchairs to walk — usually), but we do try to force everyone to learn to read. Where to spring constants, geometry, and book analysis fit in that continuum? I don’t really know.

    Comment by zb — 2011 October 25 @ 06:48 | Reply

    • Good points! There are certainly a lot of things in the standard education that students will not use again—but which things they are depend on what the student goes on to do with their life. There are undoubtedly some students for whom character analysis and literary analysis in general is useful.

      So I don’t want to argue for eliminating literary analysis from the curriculum. What I’m arguing for, I think, is a widening of the writing curriculum, so that students can learn many different forms for writing, some of which may turn out to resonate with the students better than the ubiquitous literary essay. There are many other forms of writing, but you wouldn’t know it from the typical middle-school or high-school English class.

      English teachers get more time with students than any other subject (at least in California), and it would be good for them to use that time to diversify their offerings. The 4 years of the high-school English curriculum seems much narrower than the 3 years of math, 2-3 of science, and 2 of history that most students get.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 October 25 @ 08:43 | Reply

  5. I’m obsessed with Peter Elbow’s book Writing with Power. Elbow was the originator of “automatic writing” and the concept that you have to separate the creative and editorial phases of the work. This helped me tremendously when I was writing a book in 2009/2010. Happy to lend you the book.

    Comment by Nina Simon — 2011 October 26 @ 17:05 | Reply

  6. Just saw this on ProfHacker— Writer’s Bloc. Seems like it might be a very useful site for helping students to connect with real writers and see how real writing gets done, and maybe find some value in all he literary analysis that is the staple of many English classes.

    Comment by John Burk — 2011 October 27 @ 07:01 | Reply

    • Thanks for the pointer. I’ll pass it on to my son, though I suspect that his resistance to video as a form of instruction may make it difficult to get him to watch even the three 8-minute videos at

      I also did not get the impression that these videos were addressing his problems, though I admit that I did not watch them (24 minutes is too long a time for something that seems unlikely to be to the point, and streaming videos are damn near impossible to skim).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 October 27 @ 11:18 | Reply

  7. […] assignment (which I have ranted about before in posts like Death to high school English and Reluctant Writers).  I don’t know that we will use any of them exactly, but they did help spur some thinking […]

    Pingback by Ways to respond to literature using New York Times models « Gas station without pumps — 2012 January 8 @ 13:05 | Reply

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