The Most Overlooked Yet Important Writing Instruction Stat I’ve Ever Seen

The massive 2011 “Nation’s Report Card” on writing contains a number of striking statistics. Among other things it found that…

  • barely a quarter of students in both 8th and 12th grade are proficient in writing
  • students who were assigned 4-5 pages per week of writing had the highest average scores
  • computer access translates clearly into larger writing success.

But tucked in amongst all of these stats–as a mere footnote–is one of the most important stats I’ve ever seen concerning writing. Out of all of the factors measured, which do you think was the most correlated with students’ levels of proficiency in writing? Is it the schools they attended? Their socioeconomic status? How much they wrote each week? These things were correlated or even highly correlated, but they were not the best predictor of their writing scores. That honor belonged to how many times the students hit the backspace key.

When the data was parsed out, of the high school students in the top quartile, a striking 67% hit the backspace key more than 500 times! Compare this to the bottom quartile, where only 10% hit the backspace key more than 500 times.

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From the 2011 Nation’s Report Card

No other data point from the study had such a wide division between the top and bottom quartile, and what this means for our job as writing teachers is that of all the skills we need to teach our young writers, few are more important than to teach them to develop as Ernest Hemingway so eloquently and saltily put it, “a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”

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This is not an easy thing to do. Most students are in survival mode most of the time when they write. They aren’t sitting there wordsmithing or trying on new ideas like costumes out of a costume closet. They are instead hunched over a keyboard the night before an assignment is due just trying to remember comma rules, how to format quotes, keep straight who was a Capulet and who was a Montague, and get to the two page minimum so they can go to bed. Many of these students soldier so unblinkingly ahead that they won’t even remember large swaths of what they wrote the night before if asked.

To shift this, the first step is to teach students about the writing process. So many students see revision, and especially revision that involves cutting, as something that is done only when they make mistakes, as opposed to what it really is–an essential (or even the essential) part of the writing process.

My favorite way to start this shift is to share with them clips and articles where writers discuss the necessity of revising and using our “crap detectors” to cut the unnecessary and the mediocre so the necessary and beautiful can shine through. Two of my favorites to do this are Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” (apparently shit is a favorite word of writers when talking about drafting) and this clip of Ta-Nehisi Coates talking to high school students (the part about revising and writing process is from 1:30-5:00).

I also show them how this looks in my own writing, so they know that this isn’t just another thing that adults say but don’t actually do themselves. For example, here is just a small part of the revision history of three of my ten drafts of the introduction for an Edutopia piece that I wrote on writing more and grading less.

Here was my second draft after my initial one:

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Here was my third attempt:

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And here was my seventh:

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These examples are meant to help students see the importance of learning to detect and cut crap and model a more writerly process, but I also need to teach them how to do it, as for many the cutting process is not intuitive. To teach students this, I generally start by giving them specifics about the kinds of things they can cut at a sentence level, as this type of cutting is more concrete, making it easier to access for many students. Here are some sentence level tips that I share with them (these are from the wonderful grammar manual Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace and here is a pdf):

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Once they have gotten comfortable with smaller scale cutting, we move on to larger scale revision in the following ways:

  • I have students engage in what Linda Christensen from my beloved Oregon Writing Project calls an “accordion write.” This is where you assign students to expand a scene for a page or write one page too many and then compress it back down again.
  • By having early assignments that put emphasis on concision. These can be 100 word memoirs, 6 word stories, haikus, sonnets or anything else where the parameters mean one has to be surgical with the details and wording.
  • Training students to go through metacognitive revision where they follow a series of checklist items to systematically prune their pieces down.
  • Having contests to see who can trim an overly verbose passage to the shortest amount without losing its essence.

In the end, what makes the shift to a cutting mentality cool is that it is a precursor to a whole host of other lessons. Cutting is a synonym for engagement, as when students start to truly cut their own writing, that means they have started to actually look at and think about it. Once they have begun doing this, the door swings wide on a host of other lessons–ranging from word choice to characterization–that require engagement and a willingness to take the scissors to one’s own writing!

Yours in teaching,


Connect with Matt

If you would like more about teaching the essay and all things writing instruction, join my mailing list for a weekly writing newsletter, weekly list of curated articles on writing instruction, and a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing.

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