By Dr. Steve Graham
When asked about writing when I started the doctoral program in Special Education at the University of Kansas, I had a single answer. What do you know about writing? “Not much.” Do you like to write? “Not much.” Are you a good writer? “NOT MUCH.” In fact, I was pretty certain that everyone felt the same way I did, except those people who are naturally born good writers.
The view that writers are born and not made is pretty common, as many people think that good writing is a talent. You have it or you don’t. I suspect there is a kernel of truth to this idea, but if someone asked me today if I thought this concept is valid, my answer would be: “Not Much.” Experience and research led me to value the flip side of this outlook; namely, writers are made not born.
The experience side of this formula is based on almost 40 years in the trenches as an academic writer. I wrote my first article (with my advisor Floyd Hudson) towards the end of my Doctoral program. I wrote, rewrote, sweated, and agonized over every single word. Nothing came easy, but when it was published I was very proud of it. I quickly got my comeuppance though. I shared it with some basketball buddies. They were very polite, but also very clear that they didn’t understand much of it. To make matters worse, the paper was about how to develop individual educational plans. Such a paper should have been clear even to those gym rats!
Thank God I had a relatively thick skin or I may have persisted with my “not much” mantra. Over the years, I read and analyzed academic papers that I thought were well written and used them as a basis for much of my early writing. Before starting a first draft of a paper, I was very thoughtful about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, working most of the details out in advance. Although I often found it painful, I asked others for advice about my plans and drafts. I also put what I thought was the final draft of a paper aside for a little while so I could revise it one last time with new eyes. As I became a better and more confident writer, I experimented with writing in new ways. For example, I stopped planning so much upfront. Instead, I would begin a writing project with several guiding goals and develop most of what I wanted to say as I went. My growth as a writer is not an idiosyncratic event fortunately, as I see such growth in many of my former doctoral students as they write more and more over time.
Given my initial feelings about writing, it is ironic that most of my research focuses on how to help others become better writers. From this work, what has most convinced me that writers are made not born is the work my colleagues, students, and I have done with students with special needs. Many of these children find writing extremely challenging and form negative attitudes towards it. However, when these students are taught how to write, they can make incredible gains in the overall quality of their writing, and even come to like writing (although this latter outcome is less certain).
So keep in mind, if someone says you, your child, or your students are weak writers, don’t despair – Writers are made not born.
Dr. Steve Graham is the Warner Professor in the Division of Leadership and Innovation in Teachers College at Arizona State University. For over 30 years he has studied how writing develops, how to teach it effectively, and how writing can be used to support reading and learning. In recent years, he has been involved in the development and testing of digital tools for supporting writing and reading through a series of grants from the Institute of Educational Sciences and the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education. His research involves typically developing writers and students with special needs in both elementary and secondary schools, with much of this occurring in classrooms in urban schools.
Steve is the former editor of Exceptional Children, Contemporary Educational Psychology, Journal of Writing Research, Focus on Exceptional Children,
and he is the current editor of the Journal of Educational Psychology
. He is the co-author of the Handbook of Writing Research
, Handbook of Learning Disabilities
, APA Handbook of Educational Psychology, Writing Better
, Powerful Writing Strategies for All Students,
and Making the Writing Process Work
. He is also the author of three influential Carnegie Corporation reports: Writing Next(link is external)
, Writing to Read(link is external)
, and Informing Writing(link is external).
Steve has served as an advisor to a variety of organizations, including UNESCO, National Institute of Health, National Writing Project, and the What Works Clearinghouse. He was the chair of the What Works Clearinghouse guide Teaching Elementary School Students to be Effective Writers, and he is currently chairing a similar What Works Clearinghouse guide for teaching writing at the secondary level. Steve was a member of the National Research Conference committee on adolescent and adult literacy. He has provided background information for a wide variety of magazine, newspaper, television, and radio reports including National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, La Monde, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, National Public Radio, CBS Sunday Morning News, and NBC Today Show.
He is the recipient of the Career Research Award from the International Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), the Kauffman-Hallahan Distinguished Researcher Award from the Division of Research (CEC), Samuel A. Kirk Award from the Division of Learning Disabilities (CEC), Distinguished Researcher Award from the Special Education Special Interest Group of the American Education Research Association, J. Lee Weiderhot Lecture Award from the Council of Learning Disabilities, and the Don Johnston Literacy Lectureship Award for career contributions to literacy. He also received an award from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU in 2015 for Outstanding Research with Sustained Impact. The award that is closest to his heart, though, is Distinguished Alumni Award from Valdosta State University, as his mother was able to participate in the awards ceremony and it took place in his hometown of Valdosta, Georgia.
Steve is a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association, a Fellow of Division 15 (Educational Psychology) of the American Psychological Association, as well as a Fellow of the International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities.
He is an avid basketball fan and movie buff.