Monday, August 13, 2007

Writers Need Readers

A few years ago, I made an obvious discovery: a writer needs a reader. I know it sounds so obvious, but if that statement does seem pedantic, why is it that so many writing teachers make assignments, collect the drafts, possibly share them with the class, make some lame comments, and return them back to the writers and move on to the next assignment? No writer writes for fifteen or twenty people. A writer writes for as many people as he can get to read and pay attention to his work. So if you want to learn to be a better writer, there is only one avenue: write for publication.

The question is, how do we give students the opportunity to write for a large audience? Internships are the key for college students. Every college student who aspires to be a better writer should be assigned an internship at a newspaper or magazine. She should then be allowed to write her own stories, researching and interviewing alongside established reporters, and also spend time at the editor’s desk reviewing and editing copy. I guarantee that in six weeks she will be a better writer. Dealing with copy every day breeds familiarity with editing practices. Writing articles and listening to feedback from other writers and the subscribers/readers will improve a writer’s nose for story and writing ability.

In the high school classroom, the avenues to internships and public exposure are limited due to the students’ age. There is a very good method, however of increasing the chances that a student’s work will be read by a broader audience. A few years ago, I started a magazine at my school. I turned all of my writing classes into writing and editorial workshops to produce a magazine every month. It was a hellish amount of work, but it was successful beyond my wildest dreams.

I modeled our magazine after The New Yorker, one of the oldest magazines in America. Of course, the finished product was radically different from the model, but I decided, at least initially, to aim high. The New Yorker, first published in 1925, contains some of the best writing in America. My students read many of The New Yorker writers in the literature portion of the class, including James Thurber, E.B. White, and J.D. Salinger. The magazine uses several kinds of writing, including journalism, profiles, personal history, fiction, poetry, cartoons, and criticism.

I copied several stories from multiple editions of the magazine and distributed them to my students. We read through them and studied the techniques, the stories, the research involved, and the writer’s particular style. Then, I divided up the class into areas of responsibility. I knew I wanted a group of reporters to write about what was happening locally on campus and in the immediate community surrounding the school. I wanted another group to focus on book and movie reviews. I wanted a third group to interview prominent people in the community and in the school. I knew that some students wrote poetry and short fiction for fun. I gave them the freedom to bring in what they had been working on for possible inclusion. The last section of students I put together as the editorial group. All of these jobs would be rotated through the classroom so that every student found himself in each job category at some point in the school year. As things became clearer, and students demonstrated their talents and abilities, I allowed them to settle into specific jobs, or work on specific kinds of writing. We became a well-oiled machine.

Yes, it was chaotic at times, and involved an enormous amount of work and organization, but when the issues started coming out, and students began reading, the publication day became one of the most exciting days of the month. Literally, classes would come to a standstill to read the latest issue. Parents were calling in to give feedback on a particular article or piece. Students who were not in my classes demanded to know how they could write for the magazine.

The bottom line was that the magazine represented real writing for a real audience. Sure the feedback often bred controversy and occasionally, some anger within the school community. However, I gave voice to opposing views and tried to take a balanced editorial approach. I also had a tremendously supportive administration who never interfered with the content of the magazine. They backed me and the student writers all the way.

Along the way, I was able to teach the writing process in real terms. I could send an article back for more research and investigation. I could demand additional drafts. We could spend time discussing photographs to accompany a story. We developed theme issues. I avoided the stereotypical high school newspaper stories—no cafeteria food analysis articles or other petty complaints. My students wrote about violence in their community, mixed marriages, racial harmony, the growing American interest in soccer, relationships and their transitory nature in high school, music and movie reviews. And the reviews were most interesting. From the start, I did not want the “two thumbs up or down” variety of review. I wanted the movies and music reviews to relate the work to culture. I was pleasantly surprised to see articles come in about the culture of violence surrounding rap music, or how so many movies targeted for a teen audience catered to the lowest common denominator in terms of comedy. Many, one student pointed out, contained lots of bathroom humor, but literally no plot. As they were learning about the ancient Greeks’ study of drama, students began writing about how many movies lacked a catharsis, or played to the audience’s emotions rather than offering a satisfying and involving plot and conflict.

This year, we are expanding our program in a big way. The magazine has struggled to be a journalistic endeavor as well as a literary and cultural entity. Often, we were not set up or prepared to cover breaking news on campus. This year, we decided to remedy this by restarting the campus newspaper. Students will now have the choice of working on the school newspaper each day, or they can work on the magazine. The newspaper will focus on breaking news and short journalistic articles. The magazine will focus on long form journalism, culture, fiction and poetry. In addition, we will be adding the yearbook assembly to the students’ responsibility. This will allow students to work on short, immediate pieces, longer, more researched and developed work, and year long summary articles and pictures. We will cover the entire gamut of published writing. The best part is that students have a built in audience for all of this within the school community. It is a win-win proposition.

So is there a downside? The downside is the amount of work that will be placed on basically three teachers. But there are no shortcuts. To me, the value of students working on actual published writing that has a large audience far outweighs the extra hours and responsibilities. I know that my students will learn to write.

In other schools, there are time and funding constraints that would limit such a program. But the case needs to be made that watching students learn to write, revise and shape a piece for publication is to watch kids strive to reach others with their work. If a teacher cannot start an actual publication, there are websites, blogs and other forms that could be utilized.

In the end, there is nothing that encourages writing like feedback from readers. What I found with most of my assignments was that the final grade I put on the paper had little or no meaning. After all the drafts and work, it was most often an A grade. But the students were far more enthralled with the feedback from their readers. My grade was a distant second in importance. For a writer, that is the validity that comes from readers, and there is no substitute.

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