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3 Principles for Teaching Writing

3 Principles for Teaching Writing

As a Christian, writing well is one of my greatest aspirations—it is another way I can reflect our Lord, the Word made Flesh. I am made in his image; he writes so I will write. Writing is one of the most difficult skills to acquire, as well as one of the most beneficial. It takes a lifetime to become an accomplished writer, and one never reaches perfection. There is always more to say in a better way! (Aha! A new “Leighism” for my students!)

Principle #1: You must learn your own language in order to be a better writer. The greatest joy I have received as a homeschooling parent is improvement in my own writing skills. I dragged my eldest two sons through writing lessons as I learned all that I could not do well myself, let alone teach to someone else. The Lord is good, and I stumbled onto Teaching Writing: Structure and Style from the Institute for Excellence in Writing. Finally, I could create a decent outline and name the sentence openers.

In my search for better language skills, I began to study English in earnest and to study Latin. I dug into Latin's Not so Tough! and Henle Latin and Warriner’s English Composition and Grammar and Our Mother Tongue. I quickly realized all that I should know about language but had never learned. So, because the best way to learn something is to teach yourself, I wrote my own grammar book: Essentials of the English Language. Since then I’ve learned to love books about words, such as How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish and Tracey Lee Simmons’ Climbing Parnassus. The more I love words, the more I love The Word.

My eldest two missed out on many of these recovered tools, but they continued to muddle through writing in college. They can express a good idea fairly coherently as adults, but their grammar is still atrocious. I wondered how they earned really high grades in their writing courses at college. They admit it was because they turned in the assignments on time and tried to answer the professor’s questions with the answers he or she was looking for, not because they wrote well. I wanted more for my younger sons.

Principle #2: Writing well involves forming big ideas by reading widely and wrestling those ideas into a cohesive argument. Now, my two younger boys are in high school. Unlike the older two, they have been writing papers, studying Latin, and mastering grammar their whole lives. They know it because I was learning it too. They both know what I mean when I refer to an adjective clause or a third-person singular verb.

My William struggles to organize his thoughts because he has so much to say. Recently, he was working on his first assignment for Classical Conversations Plus, where Bryan College gives college credit to juniors and seniors who are enrolled in Classical Conversations for certain coursework. I asked William about the length of his paper. He had already written five hundred words—for the first paragraph. I reminded him that the paper needed to be four to six paragraphs long with around a thousand words. He threw away what he had written and started over. Then he did the same thing again. In frustration he asked me for help: “How am I supposed to tell the story of freedom in a thousand words? I’ve no room for set-up or plot.”

So I stepped in to instruct and really help. We re-read the assignment; assessed the one hundred pages of data, stories, and analyses that he had read; and began to dialogue about the theme. We talked for about an hour and made eight or nine verbal outlines before we progressed to writing ideas down on paper. I acted as secretary while he told me his thoughts for an outline. While I led and wrote, he realized that all my examples were made up and did not actually reflect what the text had said. He released me, saying, “I think I know what to do now.”

Principle #3: Writing well involves hours of editing and rewriting. The next day, William asked me to read what he had written. He had started a fresh paper, but the ideas were not well connected, so his argument did not flow. The essay had no clear path and no transitions, just mingled thoughts. However, he had a clear theme, related ideas, and a structure that matched the professor’s outline. So I sat at the computer and read his paper, saying, “What did you mean by . . . ?” each time it was unclear. Then, I typed in his words. This added about three hundred words to his paper. Then I wrote words such as transition or complete above the sentences that still lacked clarity. When the main issues were resolved, I told him to finish the paper and let me review it again.

The last paper was a cohesive, brief explanation of the ideals of colonial Americans versus the British (for a 16-year-old boy). He sent it on to his professor, knowing that he, too, will criticize it and give William an opportunity to rewrite it. His professor will have a style he expects William to imitate. The professor cannot help it; we expect our students to reflect our image as our Father expects us to reflect his.

I spent about three hours with William on one paper. He invested about twelve hours in the assignment. I am the master; he is the student. It should take him four times longer than it takes me.

Teaching our children to be excellent writers begins with a willingness to talk and read and research and think and then to wrestle and throw away work and start over again. It requires dedication, perseverance, and time.

Leigh A. Bortins is author of the recently published book The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education.  In addition, Ms. Bortins is the founder and CEO of Classical Conversations, Inc. and host of the weekly radio show, Leigh! At Lunch. She lectures about the importance of home education nationwide.  She lives with her family in West End, North Carolina.  To learn more, visit, or her blog.

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at  or read it on the go and download the free apps at to read the magazine on your Kindle Fire or Apple or Android devices.

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