At NYSEC last week, I had the good fortune to drop into Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski’s session. Listening to these men speak to the joy they were able to reclaim for themselves as they worked on a project that made them feel 13 again was beyond inspiring. I took away something much more important though–I was provided some guidance around my own work with writers, based upon their varied experiences. As you might imagine, when they began drafting Dormia, they had no plan to quit their day jobs. As a result, both of them remain surrounded by all kinds of “others” who have high expectations for their work and keenly critical eyes. These guys know what it’s like to be in that space where you merely have a vision and a great big dream and you really don’t know where it might end up. They also knew what could happen if they shared any of that with any one other than themselves too quickly. So they didn’t. They kept clear boundaries between their work life and their writing, and in their own words, they “fire-walled” their project. This was essential to their success.

All of this got me thinking: isn’t it important to help the writers that I work with protect their drafts just as wise writers like Halpern and Kujawinski have protected their own? Stories like this one are not uncommon, and sometimes, I wonder if we lose young writers because we are too quick or too ruthless with our criticisms.Experienced writers and teachers run the risk of saying too much too harshly and overwhelming the kids we only intended to help. Maybe it’s important to give kids strategies that can help them fire-wall their own works in progress too. For instance, writers can be taught to….

  • Reflect on their place within the process to determine whether they are in a place that requires validation or a place that requires criteria-based feedback
  • Explore the elements of craft and identify those that they would like to receive feedback on (I’ve found that rubrics can play a valuable role here, not as grading tools but as instructional tools…particularly when kids help to create them)
  • Consider who might be best able to provide that kind of feedback within and beyond their writing communities
  • Ask for a specific kind of feedback and request the use of a meaningful protocols. This might provide them a pathway toward improvement without leaving them discouraged or uncertain about where they might even begin revising

Some people (particularly those who don’t write very often themselves) might suggest that young writers simply need to develop thicker skins. They might feel that responding well to criticism is an essential part of growing as a writer. I agree. I just believe that in order to respond well, criticism needs to be criteria-specific and provided in manageable doses that listeners can respond to. When we offer our feedback in strategic ways, we might be more successful in our attempts to help students become more resilient too. The experiences of the last few weeks have me wondering……if becoming a writer and sustaining our writing efforts is about more than words and perfectly edited final products, perhaps teaching writing is about much more than that as well. Maybe it’s not enough to know how to teach craft or process. Nurturing the creation of powerful writing is about far more than that. Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski seem to know this. I’m continuing to think about how we can help students develop and act with the same wisdom.


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