How to Win a Writing Award

When I first met R he was depleted. It was the first week of his sophomore year of high school, and he came to our first writing tutoring session directly from a meeting with his parents, advisor and teachers where the central topic was how to improve his lackluster academic performance, especially in his writing classes. Suffering from an abundance of comma splices and a dearth of detail, his papers had consistently gotten “C”s or lower during his freshman year.

R looked miserable. As I asked him to tell me his strengths and challenges as a writer, he just hung his head and said, “I’m not a very good writer.”

My heart sort of broke for him, but I could see past that. Students often labor under the idea that one either is or isn’t a good writer, as if writing skills are a gift bestowed at birth only to certain people. Although there is certainly, as with any art, a level of writing that reaches an inspired level, this have-or-have-not thinking is detrimental to so many students who only need slightly more, or different, instruction to help them master writing in a methodical, patient way.

R was an athlete, so I told him he wouldn’t magically be able to write “A” papers, but if he showed up consistently to learn the skills, like he showed up to his sports practices, he would improve and be able to “win” the big games (his writing assignments). I promised him that I had never seen anyone who adopted this mindset fail to improve.

R bought in. We met twice a week for writing tutoring throughout his sophomore year and once a week during his junior year. R understood that his best shot was to use our sessions as a kind of extracurricular writing class. So although we touched base on his writing assignments, I worked with R through our own curriculum, teaching him how to put sentences together not just for grammar but for style– to create nuance and sophisticated arguments. We practiced paragraph development and how to build vivid detail into his writing. All of this made R not only a better writer but a better reader, as he started approaching his English class readings as a writer studying what writers do.

R developed confidence and showed real maturity, staying the course. By the middle of his sophomore year, he came into our tutoring session buoyant, reporting his first “B”; by his junior year, he was reporting “A”s, not at all an easy accomplishment in his rigorous school environment.

Perhaps the best news came when his 11th-grade English teacher submitted the class’s work to the Scholastic Writing Awards and R was named a silver medal winner, one of only two students from the school who was awarded a prize that year. R had put in the practice, and he had won the game.

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