In this podcast, Jeff Anderson chats with Franki Sibberson about his latest book, Ten Things Every Writer Needs to Know. A full transcript is available below the player.
Franki Sibberson: Jeff, the premise of your new book, Ten Things Every Writer Needs to Know, is an interesting one. Can you talk about the idea that no matter what you’re writing, there are certain things that are important for every writer?
Jeff Anderson: Yes — I think it’s interesting because we’re always trying to define what writing is and what makes a successful piece of writing. To me, I really thought about this idea of what could you distill down to, things that writers really need to know. It took me about three years longer than I thought it was going to take, to continue to play with this idea. But what I came down to were some lenses that we could look at writing through, whether a kid ends up being the corporate tweeter for somebody or any kind of writing that we have to do when we’re exploring the world or exploring our own heads and thoughts, or doing it for an audience.
One of the things that has to happen is you have to start. This was probably the concept I had the most difficulty with but every writer writes about it, this idea of just getting into motion, just getting some words onto the page. I really wanted to think about, when a kid’s not in my class anymore, and they’re out there at home, trying to write their causes of the Civil War essay or whatever, where can they go? The very first I start with is this idea that they just start writing.
It sounds simple but the fact of the matter is, every writer writes about this. If you don’t get into motion, if you don’t get going, then nothing can happen. And even though writing isn’t magic, in a way it is because if you’ll put your pen to the page, or you start tapping on the keys, well, something comes. You might have to clear your throat a little bit, or it may be a few lines in, but something happens magically, I think, when you start writing on the page.
The rest of the things were more things that everybody looks at and talks about. You need some sort of focus, and gosh, if you’re writing a Twitter entry, you really need a tight focus and you need to take out the clutter, to take out what doesn’t belong. So kind of stepping through those ideas and looking at them, I bring in a lot of different mentor text and sections of mentor text. I think that’s the fun part, too.
Sometimes teachers, for mentor text, think they have to find this exact piece, that’s the exact length, that does exactly what they’re asking their kids to do. In reality, I think it’s simpler because we’re showing them piece of other writing, where they’re just kind of writing down. Let’s say it’s the Common Core -– and everybody is talking about the Common Core -– explanatory writing. If you try to find an entire piece that’s explanatory from beginning to end, you’re going to have a tough time. But you can pick up anything. You can even pick up a piece of fiction. There’s something called exposition in fiction, which is where they explain the setting or explain the background, and then you can see those acts happening.
You can even apply that to anything that you’re doing. So it’s kind of like a patchwork. You look at different pieces, you see how this writer uses cause and effect, and you learn about that. You maybe try that out in expressing your ideas, but then when an assignment comes, you have this understanding -– this is a lens I can look at this through. This is a way writers explain with comparing and contrasting. They’ll sometimes show you something that it’s not like, that you’re familiar with, and something that it is like, and that’s how a writer explains.
And I don’t have to find an entire text that only does that, as much as I just have to find a paragraph where that’s done successfully, and we can look at that together and talk about what that writer’s doing, and see what we can try out in our own writing. That’s why I kind of go with this idea of models, which is that next space in the ten things. I think once you’ve got those two things in place -– that I just have to write and I have to look at what writers do, the basis of writing process, and see a visual of what that looks like in action –- then I can try that out.
And it doesn’t matter what I’m writing anymore if I look at other pieces. Carl Anderson really got me going on this idea. When I was working on my first book proposal, well, I need to see what a proposal looks like. I haven’t seen lots of book proposals. He kind of got me going, and then I started looking at tables of contents, and I started look and it was like, oh, that’s what we do as writers, isn’t it?
As writers, we can figure out anything by looking at successful pieces of writing, and then take bits and pieces from everything I learned, from all those different spaces, and apply it to any type of writing. It makes me crazy when people think that we have to break writing into these really right lenses, and I think that whether it’s fiction or non-fiction or explanatory or a non-fiction narrative, whatever it is, we can get an experience from any kind of writing to help us with any other kind of writing, and that they feed each other.
Franki Sibberson: I just love the way you’re thinking about this. You mentioned a little bit in your first question, how do you think that writing is the same or different since you started teaching? You talked a little bit about we keep trying to redefine it. How does these differences impact your teaching?
Jeff Anderson: Well, I think this whole idea of the word “common” -– I’m seeing people say we need a common _____, and that we need a common that -– that wasn’t so big in 1989 when I was teaching. The other thing that I think is interesting, is we were struggling with making a connection between reading and writing, writing process, and writing across the curriculum, and I think that right now that’s how it’s the same.
We’re still struggling with making sure we’re making this connection between reading and writing -– real writing process, because I think there’s this vast gully between what writing process is and then what some people think that it is, and that we keep having that discussion. I think it’s this thing, knowing, “Oh, we already do the writing process.” But I think we have to keep talking about that, because the moment you think you have the writing process defined, you don’t really know it.
And then this idea of writing across the curriculum is, of course, being pushed with all the nonfiction in the reading and the Common Core. But we were trying that in the 1980s. Writing across the curriculum was a big thing. So in some ways it’s different because we’ve got this kind of survival of the fittest, which is also interesting because this whole thing about competition, it feels like to me it’s coming into schools at a higher degree.
There’s this movie I saw the other day and they were talking about in The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin he mentions survival of the fittest twice, and he mentions love almost 100 times -– in cooperation. I mean, that’s how species are successful, and I think we could take something from that word love. That is one of those big things that I think is the same. And we try not use that word, like, “Oh, it’s not about love,” but I think it. It’s about love and it’s about passion and it’s about support.
If we look at love as only wanting what’s the best good for everybody else, then I think that that’s a simple definition that works for us, as a teacher. Of course, we have to love what we do and we have to love our kids -– to me. But this whole thing about everything being common, I get, because we want it to be fair. But I just think we have to be careful that it doesn’t all have to look the same, and that scares me a little bit. I didn’t feel that pressure.
Franki Sibberson: You talked about mentor texts and I’ve learned a lot from you about mentor texts being important to your teaching, and you talk about those in every book that you’ve written. You’ve already given us a little bit of your insights about that. How do you choose mentor text or what tips can you give to us as teachers, for really helping find those texts that will help students grow?
Jeff Anderson: Whether it’s for some grammatical pattern or some explanatory pattern or text structure that you want to teach, I think just keeping a big lens, a list, like, “I need some more, I need to see a compound sentence.” Like our big list of things that you want, 10 or 20 things, and then as you read, you will find them. I think if you don’t make a conscious choice -– it’s a happy medium because you can’t say, “I’m going to go find the subjunctive mood because I’m going to cover that. I’m going to read The Hunger Games and I’m going to find the subjunctive mood” -– I mean, you might, but you’d get very frustrated if that’s the way you hunt for mentor text. It’s more about having some ideas of types of things you’re looking for and that are important to you, and then just reading for enjoyment, and you will come across them.
Franki Sibberson: Yeah, that makes sense. Just consciously knowing what you’re looking for.
Jeff Anderson: Right. If you a put a list — but it can’t be just one thing. Please take my pain that I learned. If you look for one thing, it will be the first book ever [crosstalk]. So you’re just going to have to have lots of things that you’re looking for, but not everything. It’s kind of a happy medium. And then you’ll start to come across them, and then, over time, your needs will change and your collection can grow in different ways, so your list changes because you’ve already got some things that work.
Franki Sibberson: That makes sense. That’s good advice.
Jeff Anderson: My favorite part of the whole process is my kids bringing me things that they find, and other teachers bringing things that they find, because once they see you doing it, then they’ll find in their book, “Oh, look, they’re doing that same thing we were talking about.” I remember the first time that happened, it was such an amazing thing, just because we took a piece and we looked at it and we talked about it. “Hey, they’re doing that thing.” “Yeah, what thing are they doing?” “You know, the thing,” and they pull out the text, we look at it, we talk about it, and we have these conversations.
To me, if I’m going to pick a mentor text, I want to pick something that will cause a conversation one way or the other. It could be because something in the craft is so beautiful and rich. There’s just got to be some high-level interest or something to me that will grab the attention and cause a conversation, and then we can talk about all the little things that that writer did, all the stitches that created that patchwork to make that happen, in either that sentence or that paragraph, or even an essay. I just love the conversation and the interplay.
But that’s my biggest tip, and then the second one is always looking at leads when you’re looking for sentences. Leads are fun to look at anyway, because you’re working on your frames of your paper, but then there’s always these great things that are done in the leads. If a teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time for that to happen.
Franki Sibberson: That’s an interesting pattern. I can’t really have a conversation with you without talking about how much I’ve learned from you about grammar and editing in the context of good writing, and you really helped me see how to look at good writing rather than errors. Can you talk a little bit about that philosophy of using good writing, like you just talked about with leads, instead of teaching kids through their errors, to learn about grammar and mechanics?
Jeff Anderson: Well, I think that’s the whole thing. It’s so big and there’s so much to teach. If the only way I’m going to teach grammar is to read their papers and look at their patterns of errors and their mistakes, there are so many sometimes that I can get bogged down in that. What I found is, kids are so overwhelmed. We’re all so overwhelmed. Teachers are overwhelmed. The simple joys of looking at a beautiful sentence, or two, or three, and thinking about what makes it beautiful, what makes it work, takes all this pressure off about being right and wrong.
As much as we’d like grammar and mechanics to be black and white, they really aren’t. Authors have purposes. Authors have reasons for making the choices that they make, and I want them to be a part of that thinking process. I think that inviting them in through the positive transforms grammar and editing to something other than the gotcha, which just doesn’t pass anymore. I’ve worked in Title I schools my entire career, and when a kid really struggles with second-language issues or standard English issues, and you try to attack all of that at once, it’s just overwhelming.
So I guess, to me, even though there’s so much that can be in that beautiful sentence, it’s so much right, that kind of overwhelming is great. Again, just like any other thing that we teach, we show them what it’s going to look like, what it can look like. Anything else that we coach kids to do to get better at, we show them beautiful examples. It seems so simple but really, it’s the transformative power of taking something from negativity, from contipidation, and from competition, from right-wrong to curiosity and positivity and process and interest, and they become masters this way, of our language.
And then, of course, as we’ve talked about, they get better at reading, and they get better at the process of writing in general, just by looking at text in a different way, because we’re teaching them that it’s about appreciating. It’s a medium of artistic-ness that we can appreciate. So what we’re doing is we’re causing kids to look at text different, and therefore, things stick with them in a different way because they’re processing and reading differently. So I would say the power is just in its simplicity, and then the questions that come up because of the simplicity.
Franki Sibberson: Do you think that, as teachers, that’s our biggest challenge is that it’s just overwhelming, all the errors, and so that’s what makes grammar and mechanics so difficult for us or so challenging for us to figure out?
Jeff Anderson: I do. I do, and we want it to be black or white, and it’s gray. There’s not one rule.
Franki Sibberson: That makes sense.
Jeff Anderson: Something like capitalization. That’s pretty black or white, and yet you see people make design decisions to not use it, and why might they do that, and have that conversation instead of just going, “Oh, I hate McDonald’s because they say ‘I’m loving it’ in lower case.” Or do we just talk about, “What’s their gig? What’s their purpose? Why do you think they’re doing that? Are they trying to capture your attention, they’re trying to say ‘we’re friendly’ or ‘we’re you.”
And then we have to talk about where is that appropriate. It’s the whole-purpose audience thing. Just because you see it everywhere doesn’t mean that that’s what you can do in your writing in an academic setting. So making it about that choice.
Franki Sibberson: That makes sense, that whole design piece. When you think about your own writing classroom, what are the big things that make it successful? What are your non-negotiables when it comes to the writing classroom?
Jeff Anderson: I think I’ve already said the positivity part. I heard Bernice McCarthy one time. She said that teaching is throwing back light, and I love that idea that light is what they are, and that’s what we’re seeing and finding and we’re throwing it back at them. So much of what school becomes for kids, by middle school, where I was working the last few years, is it’s all these ways we’re trying to guide, protect, and save them, but it’s through a corrective model.
Even the business world came up with this “working on strength.” If we can just find their strength and throw back the light — and I’m talking in writing with grammar and editing, or with any kind of writing — find their strengths first, highlight their strengths. That kind of positivity brings out curiosity because it’s safe to be curious, it’s safe to wonder. It brings out process, it brings out interest, and I think you have to balance routine and novelty.
There’s so much important about that a kid needs to be able to count on, but you know what? There’s this space created in my writing class where I get to write my ideas. Sometimes I might be a little more guided than others, but it gets to be about me exploring the world, making sense of the world, and writing for real purposes, and that I can count on that I’m going to have time to do that every single day, every single year.
And then also we have to throw in a little novelty and break things up sometimes, and bring it all back around to that connectivity — the connectivity between reading and writing, the connectivity between grammar and speech, and how all those things work together and support each other, and then connectivity on that other level of cooperation. We’re all writers. We’re all part of this process. And this book — let’s pick this book up and see what does it have to tell us, what can we learn from it about life and about writing, and then where we’re going to go next.
Franki Sibberson: I know you’re always thinking in some new direction. What’s your newest thinking right now in terms of the teaching of writing? What’s interesting you right now?
Jeff Anderson: I’m playing with this idea with a colleague from Brigham Young University. We’re talking about how all the research keeps pointing back to sentence-combining, and defining why it works but that it does work, in terms of grammar and editing and in terms of everything else. We’re looking at a book that we’re working on together, calling it Combining Conversations, because I think the term “combining” has a stigma, and really looking at how can we rework that so it’s not a worksheet that comes with your textbook adoption.
But it’s real and it’s so hard not to make it into a list of just de-combined sentences, and how do you really make this part of a conversation and a process that gives traction so that it works for kids. People try it a couple of times, and I think maybe, as staff developers, we’ve talked about it but we haven’t maybe scaffolded it enough so that they knew what to do when they get back to the classroom. So I’m working at playing around with that idea, trying to harness that power in a way that makes sense and that’s accessible. I needed a partner to do it, because it’s so complicated.
Franki Sibberson: Sounds really complicated.
Jeff Anderson: We make it simple — because that’s the job, right?