The perils of praise or blame for young writers. New ways to help students find their own voice.

The teaching of writing has evolved over the decades. Teachers used to praise students for duplicating what they were instructed to write, or criticized and graded poorly for not meeting established norms. This practice of praise or blame created consequences that were detrimental to the writer. They doubted their own natural ability to express themselves in writing, wondering whether it was good or not.

W.S. Merwin, in his poem, Berryman,* about his college professor John Berryman, asks him “how can you ever be sure that what you write is really any good at all?” He gives him an unexpected honest answer.

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Nearly three decades after he mentored Merwin, Berryman would encapsulate his advice to young writers in this Paris Review interview, on the perils of praise and blame.

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

It’s interesting to see this explanation—how praise (fame) or blame (criticism) might influence a young writer’s psychology, and therefore his or her creative output and development as a writer. Advising them to stay true to themselves, remain unswayed by public opinion, would allow them to maintain their own integrity as artists.

David Lynch is another artist who always follows his own muse and tells young filmmakers to do the same. Answering a student’s question about his creative process, he says we’re nothing without an idea. Using a fishing analogy, he explains that a desire for an idea is like a bait on a hook. He gives a detailed account of how he falls in love with ideas, turns them into a script, and transforms them into a film, or other works of art. To catch bigger fish, you have to dive deeper. David describes daydreaming and TM as ways to get there. He tells students to stay true to their vision, to meditate, and most importantly, to always have the final cut.

In this interview, he answers the same question, but from a different perspective: In the other room, the puzzle is all together, but they keep flipping in just one piece at a time.

Learning by doing: writing and teaching

When writers and poets were asked to teach creative writing, some conveyed the enterprise as a process to be explored and unfolded, not as a specific product to be reproduced. What they said made sense. I practiced their suggestions and discovered my own process of becoming a writer and a poet.

I also shared their strategies with my students facilitating them as writers. The most important takeaway was this: If you took care of the writer, the writing would take care of itself.

I enjoyed asking younger students questions to find out what they were passionate about, to help them uncover their own voice. If they said something interesting, I had them write it down, then asked them to combine their thoughts into a rough draft. I had them listen to what they had written by reading it aloud to me, to use their skills as a reader. Once involved in the process they naturally wanted to clarify their writing, to include relevant details, to edit their work. They had become intrinsically motivated writers!

Here are a few favorite writers who inspired me along the way.

What some favorite poets, writers and teachers say about writing

William Stafford

Another great poet and teacher who avoided praising or blaming his students’ writing, but for other reasons, was William Stafford. He would not tell his students what to write or how to write in a specific way, avoiding they’re writing to please him for a grade. He acted instead as a facilitator to help them discover the writing process for themselves, to find their own voice (A Course in Creative Writing), to let the writing take them where it will (You and Art).

For homework, Stafford told his students to write a poem a day. His frightened students balked at the idea, so he told them to just “lower your standards.” He taught them how to workshop their poems. He paired them up and had them share their work with each other, suggesting they give and receive honest feedback on what worked and where more clarification was needed. The students created a writing community among themselves. They caught fire.

Donald H. Murray

After one of my first poems, Writing—a poem on the writing process, I discuss the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist turned writing instructor, Donald M. Murray. He was a journalist by profession, not a teacher. So when asked to teach writing at UNH he reflected on his own process and broke down the different stages of his writing, from idea to finished product, and shared the process with students as a sort of roadmap.

Murray shared his experiences in his now classic process-approach to teaching writing, Learning By Teaching, a collection of articles looking at writing and teaching from the perspective of a working writer and teacher. He started off at the front of the class lecturing, then modeled his writing process. He then became less didactic and had his students move their chairs in a circle to let them workshop their own drafts. He got out of the way of their own learning, allowing them to teach themselves as he watched from the back of the classroom. Instead of being a sage from the stage, he became a guide from the side.

He also developed the one-on-one writing conference as an effective way to facilitate their writing process. He would meet with each student once a week in his office to discuss where they were at in their writing. Through a series of simple questions he would help them clarify their own writing, get unstuck, and move forward.

Donald H. Graves and Lucy Calkins

Murray also taught his methods to his graduate students who went on to teach and research these strategies, which are becoming standard practice in the classroom. Donald H. Graves wrote the textbook, Writing: Teachers & Children at Work, in which he describes  the craft of writing and the necessity for fundamentals in the teaching of writing.

The teaching of writing demands the control of two crafts, teaching and writing. They can neither be avoided, nor separated. The writer who knows the craft of writing can’t walk into a room and work with students unless there is some understanding of the craft of teaching. Neither can teachers who have not wrestled with writing, effectively teach the writer’s craft.

Considered by many to be the “father” of the process-approach to writing, Donald H. Graves wrote All Children Can Write (University of New Hampshire Learning Disabilities Focus, 1985), a classic piece on the need for a change in the way writing has typically been taught in schools. This article helped spark the movement now known as the “Writer’s Workshop” approach.

One of Don’s students, Lucy Calkins, went on to develop Units of Study, methods for teaching young students reading and writing, used in thousands of classrooms. I remember reading one of her earlier books, Lessons from a Child: On the Teaching and Learning of Writing.

More on writing from other writers

Here are other writers I’ve enjoyed reading about and learning from: Elizabeth Gilbert—Some Thoughts On Writing | Writers on Writing–What Writing Means To Writers, including Natalie Goldberg and her writing techniques from Writing Down the Bones | Words of Wisdom on Writing from Literary Lights | Burghild Nina Holzer inspires us to write and discover who we are and what we have to say.

You can read more about John Berryman and W.S. Merwin at The Poetry Foundation. Joel Athey wrote a comprehensive overview of John Berryman’s Life and Career for Modern American Poetry.

*Thanks to Maria Popova at brainpickings for posting the poem: Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist. Tonic for living with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world.

See the full film: “Meditation Creativity Peace”—A documentary of David Lynch’s 16-country tour during 2007–2009. Also see the David Lynch Graduate School of Cinematic Arts and it’s unique approach to filmmaking.

PS: I kept revising this post, adding content, clarifying ideas, and improving the flow, which is part of the writing process. As a writer though, one has to decide when the rewriting is over as there can be no end to polishing it. Since there is no such thing as perfection in the relative, at some point then, it’s good enough to be considered done. 🙂

This poem written by my son for his grade six class speaks volumes: INSPIRATION, a poem by Nathanael Chawkin.

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10 Responses to “The perils of praise or blame for young writers. New ways to help students find their own voice.”

  1. Andrea R Huelsenbeck Says:

    Wonderful article, Ken.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nathanael Chawkin Says:

    A great article, Ken! Reminds me of Carol Dweck’s research on mindset from Stanford. Children praised for their behavior vs. character have more of a growth vs. fixed mindset. Also reminiscent of the notion of an “alive idea” that has been floating around… which also reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful TED talk on the history how great ideas were thought to come from the muses – so a blessing when given and nothing personal when taken away.


  3. deborahbrasket Says:

    Great stuff! So much to delve into. I’ll be coming back to check out more of your links.


  4. Sage advice from William Shakespeare in the film “All Is True” on how to become a truthful writer | The Uncarved Blog Says:

    […] early poem on the writing process | INSPIRATION, a poem by my son as a young student | The perils of praise or blame for young writers. New ways to help students find their own voice, with links to more […]


  5. Tony Walsh @LongfellaPoet’s poem, Take This Pen, inspires Brits to contribute to @PoetryDayUK | The Uncarved Blog Says:

    […] post—The perils of praise or blame for young writers. New ways to help students find their own voice—is a treasure trove of knowledge and teaching strategies by poets, writers, and innovative […]


  6. Writing—a poem on the writing process | The Uncarved Blog Says:

    […] And this most recent post, with relevant links: The perils of praise or blame for young writers. New ways to help students find their own voice. […]


  7. INSPIRATION, a poem by Nathanael Chawkin | The Uncarved Blog Says:

    […] A new post: The perils of praise or blame for young writers. New ways to help students find their own voice. […]


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