educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

How much do you write a day?

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You probably are out there writing like a maniac every day of your life. A good friend of mine, on the Website 11trees, recently posted a smart blog entry describing how much he wrote in one day, what he viewed as just an average day for a “knowledge worker.” In this one-day writing diary, he calculates that he comes in at 2,500 words, a number he uses to make this point: “We write more words every day than many college or high school students write in an entire term.

He describes all kinds of different writing that he does during his “writing day.” He starts off with some 5 am emailing; works through PowerPoints and texts; and composes notes and other materials in/through word processing programs and collaboration software. He’s interacting with people around the world, drafting, and putting on some finishing touches. He’s writing.

Indeed, people in most fields write an incredible amount. In general, young people are interacting with each other, for better or worse, through the written word in ways unprecedented in human history. Yet, scholastic preparation for this complex and quite high literacy load is lacking not just in rigor and sheer volume but also in the genres students are asked to write in.

In school, writing is siloed, and, increasingly, subject to a bizarre array of assessments. Students write long papers that look nothing like anything they will ever write elsewhere, in the service of quirky demonstrations of content mastery or specious gestures toward writing/education transfer. In response to all this writing, frustrated teachers write terse comments (there’s a long history in writing studies describing teachers’ exasperated response to student writing; here’s a classic) and say “These kids can’t write!” based on a few typos and perhaps an occasional example of textspeak.

I do this writing instructional thing for a living, and make no mistake about it: These kids can right. They write well every single day. I’m constantly telling people, mostly friends who don’t work with students, to stop viewing this generation through some kind of technology-makes-them-bad-writers lens. They are voracious composers and consumers of texts, highly literate and flexible in their use of rhetoric.

Yet in school, we don’t capitalize on these assets, which is a shame because we have the means using easily accessible electronic writing tools to ask students to write in ways much closer to how they’ll communicate in the wide world. We don’t need to ask them to write “papers” that do not resemble the short, high-stakes writing that they do professionally to a teacher — an audience of one. In school, we can put them in posting and sharing situations that better reflect what they will do — and are doing — in other parts of their lives. And using electronic tools, 11trees is a great example, we can make it easier for teachers to find ways to respond back to that writing without becoming embittered and unproductive.

Because they should be writing in school way more than they do. In a writing-intensive-type college course experience, 4,000 to 5,000 words might seem like a fair requirement, a decent amount of writing. Yet think about such “training” in the context of the 11trees blogger: It’s only two days of professional writing work!

Geez, I pride myself, especially in my online writing courses, in providing students with lots of writing opportunities. In my 10-week courses, my research into my own courses has shown that students will write about 10,000 to 15,000 words informally on message boards and blogs, and then tack another 5,000 on for projects. So in these courses, they’re doing pretty good at around 20,000 words. I’m pretty happy, yet, again, if look at the “real world” of writing, my class only gets them close to one full week of professional writing.

Students are going to write as professionals, and schools should better prepare them for the variety and sheer amount of it. Maybe that would start with a clearer understanding of how much we all actually write.

So I wonder: How much do you write every day in your job?

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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2 Responses to “How much do you write a day?”

  1. Well-said, Scott. Your points about total student writing output are spot on…and why I am an ardent fan of online writing classes! Thanks for the resources.

  2. Before another regular responder points this out, I would like to suggest this is Obama’s fault.

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