Tools Over Rules: Writing as Choice-Making, not Compliance

Although I hear people complain that students can’t follow instructions, my experience has been that most of the follow instructions for writing a little too well. In fact, students often think of writing as an act of compliance – follow the teacher’s instruction, receive a passing grade. A few years back I wanted to break this pattern of passive compliance in my student writers.

The comic strips below relate in humorous form a real assignment I use at the start of the year in my 9th grade English class. I want to get to know my students: how they write, how they think about writing, and how they think about school and their educations in general. I also want them to begin thinking about writing differently. The assignment? Writing an essay titled “My Education So Far.”

I deliberately don’t give them any guidelines – I want to see what they do left to their own devices. Many students are a bit frustrated by my lack of guidance. They are used to writing being an act of instruction-following compliance.

Students write their drafts – usually as very formulaic five-paragraph essays – and then we have a discussion. The topic: To be a good writer you need to…

The discussion about being a good writer usually turns into a discussion of the rules they have been told to follow by some of their previous teachers. Because my students come from several feeder middle schools, it soon becomes obvious that the rules are actually arbitrary and depend on which previous teachers you had.

After our discussion about what it takes to be a good writer, we then read a series of mentor texts in which authors write about their own educations in a variety of non-formulaic ways. We analyze how these authors focused their topics in terms of time and space, and which aspects of education they wrote about (a teacher, a favorite subject, a best or worst class, etc.). We do writing exercises that get students practicing the types of skills those authors use: moment-by-moment narration, description of people and places, sensory detail, and dialogue.

I then ask them to revise and rewrite their original essays.

Most students actually want to revise and rewrite now they realize they are free to make choices rather than follow a set of rigid instructions. In fact, they begin to see writing as an act of making choices. Which is what writing actually is.

As we finish this unit, I introduce my motto for writing in my class: Tools Over Rules. It’s a bit rebellious, and it fits in perfectly with the rebellious Star Wars décor of my classroom.

David Lee Finkle

Images via Created by David Lee Finkle.

How do you get writers to think about the choices they make? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at

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