Learning to Write: A Conversation With Susan Wise Bauer

By Diane Wheeler

When it comes to the teaching of writing, Susan Wise Bauer is a terrific person to talk to. As a successful author, college writing professor, homeschool mother, and conference speaker, she has a valuable perspective on what we can do to equip our eager, and not-so-eager, writing students. In our conversation, Susan offers general information on the process of learning to write, as well as advice for creative writing, SAT prep, and more.

TOS: In The Well-Trained Mind and in your writing series titled The Complete Writer: Writing with Ease, you give a full explanation of your recommendations for teaching writing. But for those who have not read your books, could you give us a short summary of your suggested approach for K–12?

Susan: Writing is a process that involves two distinct mental steps. First, the writer puts an idea into words; then, she puts the words down on paper.

In the elementary years, you should teach those two skills separately. Teach students to take ideas and put them into words through using narration; ask the student to tell back to you in his own words what she’s just read in her history or science or literature. As the young student narrates out loud, she is practicing the first part of the writing process without having to worry about the second part of the writing process: putting those words down on paper.

Separately, the student begins to master the second part of the process: putting words down on paper. This skill is developed through copywork and dictation. Copywork and dictation allow the student to master the second step of the process without having to worry about the first (and difficult) task of putting ideas into words.

Eventually, elementary students will learn that in order to write, all they need to do is put an idea into words (something they’ve practiced extensively through narration) and then put those words down on paper (which they’re accustomed to doing during dictation).

In the middle grades the student learns to organize sentences into short compositions. By now, he can put ideas he’s already read into his own words and get those words down on paper without difficulty. But until the student can begin to think about the order in which ideas should be set down, he’ll continue to struggle with written composition. So in this phase of the writing process, the student learns how to outline. Writing programs suggest all different ways for students to brainstorm for ideas: drawing webs, free-writing, clustering, and even making collages. But whatever brainstorming method the student uses, he cannot start writing until he knows in what order his ideas should be put down. The outline gives him this order.

The student’s ability to plan out and use an outline will not reach maturity until the high school years. The middle-grade years are training years—a period of time in which the student learns the skills of outline-making.

Before asking students to outline their own original ideas, the thoughtful teacher gives them plenty of practice in outlining other writing. Careful educators never ask a student to do a task that has not first been modeled; a beginner can’t do something that he has never seen done.

So between fifth and eighth grade, the student practices outlining pages from history and science (never fiction, which follows different rules). In the early stages, while the student is learning to outline, he can continue to practice writing narrative summaries. But by sixth or seventh grade, the narrative summaries will give way to a more advanced form of writing: writing from an outline.

After making an outline of a passage, the student will put the original away and then rewrite the passage, using only the outline. Then he’ll compare his assignment with the original. This is preparation for mature high school writing; before the student is given the task of coming up with an outline and writing from it, he needs to see how other writers flesh out the bones of an outline.

The persuasive expression of ideas is the central focus in high school writing. The ability to assert an opinion, and then to defend it with reason and rhetoric, is central to the teenager’s sense of himself. During the high school years, the student should learn how to come up with a thesis statement (a proposition you can defend, a statement you can prove or disprove, or an assertion that has to be supported by evidence).

He should also study rhetoric and practice the progymnasmata (exercises used in ancient and medieval rhetoric to develop skills in argumentation). Among other skills, these classical exercises teach the student how to write a variety of narratives (condensed, amplified, biographical, and more), use different modes of narrative (direct, indirect, interrogative, comparative), master the art of description, learn how to use such sentence-level strategies as parallelism, parataxis, multiple coordination, and so on.

Throughout the high school years, as he works through the progymnasmata, the student should write three to five one-page papers per week, taking his topics from literature, history, science, and his other high school courses. Every time the student has to complete a one-page paper, he has to go through the process of formulating a thesis statement, deciding on a form and a strategy, constructing an outline, and writing from it. This constant repetition is much more valuable than two or three long writing projects undertaken over the course of the year.

In the last two years of high school, students should also pursue those longer projects, completing at least two lengthy research-style papers on a topic of their own choosing. These longer papers make use of the skills developed by the short papers, and they also stretch the student toward a more detailed and complex form.

Rather than rushing to push children into more mature tasks, the progression I’ve outlined takes the time and trouble to prepare students for writing. The goal is to turn the young writer into a thoughtful student who can make use of written language rather than struggle with it.

TOS: What about getting a late start? For a child who is comfortable using a pencil (the physical act of writing) but has not been made to do copywork, dictation, or narration at a younger age, where does he start?

Susan: First, make sure that the student is able to tell you in complete sentences what he wants to write; if he can’t, you’ve got to go back and practice narration with him. Also make sure that he can write two or three sentences at a time from dictation; if he struggles, you should take some time to work on dictation. Students who can’t write from dictation often have a difficult time getting their ideas down on paper, even if they’re able to articulate those ideas in speech.

Once those basic skills are in place, start teaching outlining. Every student should practice outlining and rewriting before moving on to high school composition exercises.

TOS: Talk about the importance, or lack of importance, of creative writing in the life of a student.

Susan: After more than fifteen years of teaching writing at all levels (including university students), I’m convinced that creative writing isn’t necessary for all students. Everyone should learn basic expository writing, but learning to write imaginatively isn’t a skill that you have to have in order to lead a satisfactory adult life.

There are many students (I think a lot of them go on to careers in engineering and computer programming) who simply don’t operate like creative writers. Asking them to write creatively requires them to work against their natural gifts. They easily grow frustrated and begin to identify the entire task of writing with this mysterious “being creative” that they just can’t seem to figure out.

So if students want to write creatively, let them. If not—don’t push it.

TOS: What advice do you have for a parent with a student who does have a serious creative writing interest? Are there contests, publishing venues, or writing curricula that you would recommend to strengthen a gifted writer?

Susan: If a student is anxious to take a creative writing course, there are several I’d suggest trying out: the Wordsmith series for middle-grade students, the One Year Adventure Novel for middle-grade students or high school students (one of my sons did this course and got quite a lot from it), and Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel and accompanying workbook for advanced high school students. Probably the best strategy for young students is to write as much as possible and exchange stories with friends, so that they can begin to get the experience of seeing readers react to what they’ve written.

TOS: What importance should parents place on preparing their students for the SAT test’s writing component? How much do colleges focus on that portion of the test?

Susan: You should put about the same importance on it as on preparing for other sections of the SAT—which is to say, it’s worth spending some time on, but don’t assume that a high score on the test has anything to do with writing ability (or vice versa). Doing well on the test will make college admissions easier. That’s the only reason to prepare for it.

The writing section of the SAT is graded by scores of high school teachers all over the country, each of whom is given a copy of a rubric and told to evaluate the essays. The rubric rewards multisyllabic vocabulary, predictable structure (after all, the essay topics are all on subjects which “require no previous knowledge”). The grading is uneven and unpredictable. So get an SAT prep book, learn how to write an SAT essay, and do your best—but don’t confuse the ability to do so with real writing achievement.

As far as how much weight colleges put on that score—it’s difficult to say. I know that many admissions officers have deep concerns about how useful the test is, but how it’s treated as part of an application is obviously going to vary from school to school. The best thing any student can do is to include an excellent real writing sample with the college application.

TOS: And finally, what is the status of your writing curriculum? And how is the writing project of a lifetime, The History of the (Whole) World, progressing?

Susan: I’m working hard on the first level of our middle-grade writing program, along with an accompanying grammar handbook. And I’m spending the rest of my time researching the history of the Renaissance world. I don’t dare give a delivery date for either—but believe me, I’m anxious to finish both.

TOS: I am sure that both will be well worth the wait. Happy writing, Susan, and thank you for helping us in our work as writing instructors.


For further reading, I recommend perusing Susan’s blogs:

• The History of the (Whole) World is Susan’s blog documenting the “progress in writing, revising, sending to my editor, re-revising, fact-checking, galley-reading, and promoting a four-volume history of the world” and can be found here: http://www.susanwisebauer.com/blog/.

• Susan also has a blog at The Well-Trained Mind website (www.welltrainedmind.com/blog); this blog focuses on different aspects of implementing a classical education at home.

• And you can always find Susan’s materials for history and writing at Peace Hill Press: http://www.welltrainedmind.com/store.

Diane Wheeler lives in Placerville, California, with her husband John and their family. She enjoys reading, cooking, photography, and coffee. Diane blogs at acircleofquiet.blogspot.com.

Copyright, 2011. All rights reserved by author.

Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Winter 2010-11.

Used with permission. Visit them at theoldschoolhouse.com and view a sample copy of the magazine.