What made you a better writer?

This article originally appeared on the Washington Post website.

What made you a better writer?

By Jay Mathews

My favorite Christmas vacation was in 1962, during my senior year of high school, when my family went to my grandmother’s house in Long Beach, Calif., and I worked on a paper about Russian novels. I was in love with Fyodor Dostoevsky, particularly the Grand Inquisitor’s encounter with Jesus in “The Brothers Karamazov.”

With Thanksgiving here and Christmas coming soon, I have been thinking about what I wrote by hand on the dining room table between long runs on the beach. It fits with last week’s column suggesting that schools junk the standard approaches to writing instruction.

My Dostoevsky paper was the best thing I wrote in high school. My English teacher that year, the tall, bespectacled Michael Callahan, didn’t drill us on the five-paragraph essay, as many schools do today. Instead he exposed us to great writers as though they were secrets he was sharing only with us and let their rhythms and vocabulary affect what we wrote.

Many of us have had such experiences. I want to write about that. Tell me what worked best for you. Send it to mathewsj@washpost.com, or post it as a comment at the end of the online version of this column.

I realize that learning to write takes time. My wife, the best writer I know, had parents who did not go to college but filled the house with books. Her seventh-grade teacher Lucille Neiter required sentence diagramming and the memorization of poetry. In high school, my wife spent three years in a small, accelerated English-humanities class whose teacher, William Goodfellow, demanded almost constant writing, including several research papers a year, and use of “The Elements of Style,” the best and shortest book I know about how to write.

In college, her writing skill was evident to her professors and readers of the daily college newspaper where she was managing editor. But she learned the most about writing, she says, in law school, when a professor challenged her arguments and ripped apart early drafts of legal briefs for a moot court competition.

That’s just one story. What’s yours? The methods of the best writing teachers vary. Phil Restaino spent years at Mamaroneck High School in the suburbs of New York City turning ordinary students into essayists. He had them read magazine stories about sports figures and then moved them into literature. They wrote journals about their daily routines, from football games to hanging out at the Nautilus Diner, then composed short essays about what they were reading.

A few years ago, Emmet Rosenfeld, an Alexandria educator and occasional contributor to The Post, showed me his methods at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County. He taught what he called pre-writing techniques, such as gathering so much raw material that it was hard not to produce an interesting paper. He passed student drafts around the class for proofreading and the detection of flaws, a technique recommended by the National Writing Project.

Such peer editing was also praised on my blog by a writing teacher signing on as LindaLovesFilm: Students “learned how various readers responded to what they were trying to say, and they learned respect for a variety of approaches and points of view,” she said. Another teacher, signing on as drlindaellis, extolled the writing workshop approach. Students “learn writing skills through mini-lessons and one-on-one conferences as they write,” she said.

Tell me about your teachers, and other influences on your writing. Families are important. I grew up in a home full of words. My father was an editor. My mother taught school. They both read and encouraged my brother and me to do the same, although my mother suggested occasionally that I step outside and rediscover such intriguing phenomena as sunlight and fresh air.

I got the mix right that holiday I explored the brilliance of Karamazov. Tell me how all of our students might become better writers in the new year.

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