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Writing is Not All About Essays

Tired of the essay format? Why some tasks in the learning process are better suited to shorter-form writing.

Patti West-Smith
Patti West-Smith
20-year education veteran; Senior Director of Customer Engagement

I’m an English teacher by training so what I’m about to say may sound a bit like sacrilege, but it needs to be said… Not all writing comes in the form of an essay.

Hear me out! I’m not demonizing essays. There are meaningful tasks that demand an essay or other extended writing, and to be able to form fully-developed, cohesive ideas or arguments is a necessary form of communication. However, that is not the only type of writing required in the world, nor is it the only kind of writing that teachers are asking students to perform as part of their learning.

The What and Why of Shorter Forms of Writing

Sometimes a paragraph or two is a perfectly reasonable product, and sometimes even a graphic organizer is more appropriate. There are even times when a phrase, sentence, or small collection of sentences is the right form for the task, and there are many reasons why a shorter form of writing might be the best fit. Time, of course, is always a factor - both the instructional time required to complete the task and the time needed to provide feedback on the writing. Discipline might also play a part in this kind of choice; some content or types of inquiry lend themselves to short-form written responses. Purpose, too, should not be ignored as a motivating component in this kind of writing. The reality is that people need to express themselves in diverse ways, and a variety of writing types across the scope of an education helps to strengthen all the muscles needed to know how to (and even WHEN to) use those different writing formats to suit different tasks.

Using Fundamental Writing Instruction Principles to Teach Shorter Forms

If that premise is true, educators have to take a closer look at what is known about writing instruction:

  • Do the stages of the writing process need to be observed in the same way?
  • Does the scaffolding involved in this kind of writing instruction require adaptation?
  • What works and doesn’t work when we broaden our perception of writing to include a variety of forms?

The answers to those questions may vary according to the exact parameters of what students are writing; however, there are a few things that hold true across writing tasks:

  • Students need clear expectations of measures of quality for shorter writings. Though the product may be shorter, it is still absolutely essential that students have a thorough understanding of the criteria that will be used to evaluate their writing and what the various performance levels are. That means even shorter forms of writing require a rubric. The evidence of mastery will be different, but helping to make those expectations clear to students is still of paramount importance. Rubrics help to make the abstract more concrete for students and act as an important form of communication between the teacher and student. That is no less true for more brief forms of writing.
  • Students need feedback on the writing, about both areas of strength and areas needing improvement. While it may not be necessary to provide the same volume of feedback on shorter forms of writing, students still need timely, relevant, and actionable feedback on both what they’ve done well and what needs improvement. With these shorter, perhaps less polished pieces of writing, teachers can focus on very specific elements without forgoing the vital direction and guidance that come from effective feedback. Feedback is a chance for instructors to guide students to consider their choices as writers, to think about purpose, ideas, evidence, and all the other aspects of writing. Without feedback, students are often left to fill in the gaps for themselves.
  • Students need opportunities for revision to grow as effective communicators. Perhaps some may think that it isn’t important to revise and edit shorter forms of writing; however, that belief could result in a missed opportunity that offers so many benefits and potentially supports ALL writing instruction goals. Though the writing process may be shortened or modified, students still need to internalize and apply feedback. Without opportunities to revise, that is very difficult to do. Additionally, it is a bonus that revising shorter forms of writing will consume far less instructional time so teachers get the double payoff of opportunities to reflect and revise without consuming the class time often associated with longer works. That’s a win-win!

To support each one of these principles, the Teaching and Learning Innovations team has developed some resources to help. Check out the newly released Science Short Answer, Social Studies Short Answer, and English/Language Arts Rubrics and QuickMark sets within Feedback Studio, as well as upcoming blog posts dedicated to science and social studies, all developed by Turnitin’ s group of veteran teachers.

For even more resources, check back this fall when we will release sets of discipline-specific activity ideas geared toward teaching writing effectively across multiple content areas and stay tuned for announcements about webinars to dive into the research even more deeply.