Writing is hard. At least, that's what students tell me.  Writing makes their hands hurt. They don't know where to begin. They don't know how to construct paragraphs. If they're not interested in the topic, they can't think of anything to write anyway. The list goes on and on and is pretty much the same in all the workshops I teach.

A number of moms confess to me that they've given up teaching writing. Some say that whenever they give their students writing assignments, crying is involved. (I assume it's the students doing the crying.) Even in the weekly writing class I teach for high school homeschoolers, at least two students have cast off all dignity and consideration of peer ridicule and burst into tears. And I teach a fun class!

I understand how these students feel, but I can give you a few tips that will make writing less painful for your students and for you.

Help Them Plan Papers They'll Never Write

Some of the dread of writing occurs because the task is too large. So why not break it down into achievable steps? Here are some examples.

  • Discuss: What topics can you write about when researching a paper on a country? If your students have trouble with this, visit the library and have them examine chapter headings in books about specific countries. Here they will find such topics as geography, exports, language, and culture. This will help students compile a list. But stop after the list is completed. This is only an exercise!
  • Form an opinion: Ask your students where they would like to go for a vacation. Next, ask them to compile a list of reasons why their choice is the ideal vacation spot. In other words, why do they want to go there? Let them decide how realistic or far-fetched the destination and list will be. Commend your students on their lists and single out some specific reasons. Junior- and senior-high students can select a hypothetical audience (friends, family, their favorite sports team, etc.) and tailor the list to convince those specific people to vacation there.
  • Use sticky notes: Burned out on outlines? Try asking your students to make a list of reasons why teachers should not give homework. I give this assignment every year, and, believe me, this topic always excites imagination and inspiration! Allow all reasons, from the sublime to the silly. Then ask your students to select five reasons, write each on a separate sticky note, and then put the notes in a logical order. This enables students to consider how to structure their arguments to make the most impact on their readers.

Give Them Practice in Taking Notes

Taking notes is a complicated skill required to do almost any type of writing. So ease your students into it. Try the following approach for one month.

  • Week One: Read a paragraph or two from a reference book. This book could be about Egypt, oceans, lizards, the history of chocolate—just about anything. Have your students to listen carefully and write down what they consider to be important facts. Discuss and encourage afterward.
  • Week Tw Choose a page or two (depending on the students' ages) of a reference book and ask your students to read the paragraphs and jot down the important facts. These facts need not be recorded in complete sentences. Some students may want to type their list on a computer instead of writing the list by hand. This is perfectly acceptable. Discuss and encourage afterward.
  • Week Three: Many paragraphs employ an "implied topic" approach, in which the topic of the paragraph is not spelled out in a single topic sentence. Choose a few such paragraphs from a reference book for your students to read. Then ask them to determine the topic of each paragraph and write their own topic sentence for each. Discuss and encourage afterward.
  • Week Four: Select a portion of a chapter from a reference book and instruct your students to identify and write down each topic presented and then list the facts covered under each topic—in other words, compile a casual outline. This helps them to understand the pattern of presenting topics with supporting facts and shows them how to develop their own paragraphs and papers.

Do Not Grade Everything They Write

I know, it sounds crazy. Shouldn't everything they write be graded? Not necessarily. Often, it is the evaluation virus that incites fear in students and turns off their writing gene. Just as a young bride might quit cooking if her husband critiques everything she makes, so will the young writer regard the evaluation process as demoralizing and stop writing. This is unfortunate, as it is preventable and even fixable.

Consider letting your students write occasionally just for fun. Give them an interesting writing prompt and tell them they can write for only ten minutes. Let them keep these gems in their own folders. If you need help developing prompts, you can find a whole year's worth in the teacher's manual for Apologia's Jump In.

Some days, slip something of interest into a paper bag and ask your students to smell, touch, or taste it and then describe it in writing. Or distribute intriguing pictures and ask them to write anything that comes to mind. Consider writing when they write. Your bravery might melt their fears.

Final Thoughts

Here are some important facts about writing I found under my bed:

  • Allow at least one hour of thinking/researching/writing time for every 100 words you assign. A 300-word essay will take your students at least three hours to complete. And that's only the first draft.
  • Writing done in the car is not quality writing.
  • Be consistent. If your students write every day at the same time—say, after lunch—they will come to expect it and fight you less.
  • Be prepared to be pleasantly surprised. One of my sons who hated to write in school is now 26 and writes insightful blogs and essays. Who knew?

Writing is hard, but you can make it easier. Implementing these and other practical ideas can lead to more writing and less crying.

Sharon Watson is the author of Jump In: A Workbook for Reluctant and Eager Writers, available from Apologia Press.

Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission from Apologia Educational Ministries, Inc. Visit their site at www.apologia.com, and join them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/apologiaworld.com.