Relationship-Based Writing

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In one of my first posts of this blog I talked about a subject that I think doesn’t get nearly enough attention: writing is really hard.

We all know that it is hard, but I’m not sure that during our day-in and day-out dealings with student writing we appreciate enough how incredibly hard it is or how hard it can be on us. I mean take me for example. I teach writing, I write a lot, I have a deep understanding of how writing works, and I’ve got a generally good track record with writing. And I still struggle to find the right words, agonize over choppy constructions, lose my train of thought and grow overwhelmed trying to find it again, and face waves of exhaustion and worry almost every time I sit down and put my hands to the keyboard.

Nowhere was this more true than with this post. I originally wanted to post this on Thursday. Then I pushed it to Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday morning, and now it is late on Monday evening. Along the way I probably wrote 5,000 words for this 1,000 word post as I fought through a fairly acute case of everything I described above.

In his fabulous new book Embarrassment, which also served as the inspiration for the previous post, Tom Newkirk gives a theory for why writing does this to us. He states that writing is so difficult for us and difficult on us because “as social beings we feel an obligation to act in a competent way.” This hit home for me because it put into clear wording exactly why writing is so scary, even for those who do it a lot. Throughout the act of writing, the writer spends most of the time feeling incompetent. Even accomplished writers must power through waves of (to quote Anne Lamott from her amazing treatise on writing Bird by Bird) “shitty first drafts” filled with convoluted thinking and poorly phrased wording. And for newer writers, many spend nearly all or all of their time feeling incompetent. When they put pen to paper they are entering a territory where they know they will likely make a multitude of errors, struggle to express even the most basic concepts, and face criticism from teachers/parent/peers for their ideas and the way they expressed them.

With all of this in mind, is it any surprise when our students procrastinate, hide, or breakdown when confronted with writing? Is it any surprise when they state that they simply aren’t writers, rush the process, or look at writing like it is a root canal without anesthetic?

So what are we supposed to do? Even if we do things to make writing easier and less painful like give students a clear writing process, teach them directly how writing works, give them voice and autonomy, and offer students reasons why writing matters, we can’t change the basic fact that they will need to spend most of the process in the uncomfortable position of being not fully competent.

The answer that has worked best for me and for nearly every great teacher of writing that I know of is that the key to helping young writers through the difficulty of writing is the relationships we hold with them. In the way that athletes are willing to endure grueling practice after grueling practice for coaches they believe in, if our students have a relationship with us and believe in us, they will often fight through the hard processes of becoming strong writers and crafting strong pieces in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise.

In my classes, there are four things that I regularly do to build up my writing relationships with students so they are as strong as possible:

  1. I Use the Margins. In my NCTE Ignite talk last year, I discussed how the margins are often the places where teachers have the single most one-on-one interactions with their students. With that in mind, to paraphrase Peter Elbow, I strive to use my margin comments as more than just a game of find the error. Instead I approach them as critical foundational pillars on which to build strong relationships with students.
  2. I Have Writing Conferences. It is not easy to conference with the between 155 and 165 students I generally have, but thoughtful conferences are a perfect place to further solidify relationships. My approach is to try to always listen to and get excited about what the student have to say, as few things build connection faster than a sense that someone is truly listening and valuing you.
  3. I Use Student Work for My Exemplars. I am always trying to give my students model/mentor texts, and whenever possible I use their work for my exemplars. In fact, my goal is to use work from every student in the class at least once during mini-lessons/teach-backs throughout each semester, as turning student work into exemplar examples is the in-class equivalent of a positive call home. It is so unexpected and positive, that the students can’t help but beam, and that carries over into our relationship and their work.
  4. I Use Passing Time Effectively. As a new teacher, I often tried to squeeze one more email or paper grade into passing time in an effort to reduce my crushing workload. Eventually, I learned that while doing this did little, if anything, to lesson my load, it had a significant negative effect on my relationships with students, as it passed along a clear message that I had more important things to do than talk to them. Now, I strive to talk to students every single passing time and ask them questions about their lives. These seemingly unrelated questions often play huge dividends in their work, as it is harder for students to blow off someone who they feel is listening and cares about them.

Later on in Embarrassment, Newkirk mentions how when students have clear strengths, the confidence that comes with the strengths can give students the grit to help them overcome areas of weakness. When it comes to our students and their writing, we can have a similar effect. If we believe, care, and connect, we can infuse students with confidence and motivation and that for many might be the difference between them giving up or them going for it.

Yours in teaching,


Connect with Matt

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5 responses to “Relationship-Based Writing”

  1. […] the students quickly, which aides tremendously in building fast and strong relationships with them (I talk about the importance of this in my last post). Students often talk about the topics that are on their minds and tell you about the people/things […]


  2. […] Matthew Johnson in Ann Arbor, MI has argued, the notes we put in the margins of kids' work are relationship-building. Often times, for those of us with 100+ kids on the roster, margin notes are a primary means […]


  3. […] talked before about how using passing time effectively and holding writing/reading conferences can help to build relationships, but when our student load […]


  4. […] of thoughtful models and carefully targeted reflection, providing lots of autonomy, building relationships through writing and our responses to it, and directly teaching both writing skills and the writing […]


  5. […] teachers we know this already. We know that relationships matter and can completely reshape student behavior and mitigate the fear they often bring to our […]


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