Helping Students Write Beautiful Words

or "How I Fell in Love in a Graveyard."

Writing that people choose to read. That is what I’m after. Is it perfect? Grammatically, often not. Sometimes incomplete sentences. Sometimes an awkward word. But riveting, oh yes. Great writing is riveting.

helping students write beautiful words

I was arrested by this comment in Peter Elbow’s book Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Elbow says,

“Much “excellent” school and college writing that is given good grades, even by tough teachers, is writing one has to be paid to read.” [emphasis mine]

And teachers, THIS is why we write for an audience. Surely, sometimes an audience is wrong. I know a guy in Atlanta who has made a fortune selling Bobbleheads. He made millions when the Pope came to America. My great grandfather used to say,

“One will never be poor underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

Sometimes we like silly and goofy things in America. The home of the pet rock. The bug killer that was a just 2 simple bricks with instructions to squash the bug between them. The Chia pet. Not our brightest moments.

But there is something different about reading. Reading takes effort. It requires, at least, some of an education.

My husband knows that I have another love. He is ok with it. I love words — but not MANY words. I love the RIGHT words used in the right way. The perfect word.

Certainly bunches of words bore me like everyone else. When I see my students blogging with really long paragraphs, I often say, “Nope – break it down and give me some whitespace” before I even read it.

If it is boring, I stop and have them edit. Now, certainly there is some subjectiveness in my own definition of boring or exciting. But really, I get excited pretty easily sometimes, according to my family.

But I can tell boring in a New York minute. Boring jumps out at you. You put the page down or break eye contact with your monitor and ask yourself,

“Do I really have to read this?”

This is what audience does for writing. What do people CHOOSE to read?

Certainly, sometimes the audience takes its time. I wrote a piece some time ago about 10 Stress-Busting Habits of Great Teachers. It sat out there for a month or so, and then recently – BOOM, thousands were reading it. So, certainly, an audience is a bit of luck.

But audiences can often notice great writing.  Writing for an audience is entirely different than writing for a teacher.

Some might say a teacher is an audience, but I’m talking a volitional audience — one that volunteers to actually read what you wrote.

I let the other teachers teach essays. I work hard to teach kids to write stuff that people actually want to read. I want it interesting. I want it wow. I want it to help them make money one day or I want it to help them connect with other human beings.

I love Pat Conroy’s words in his book about writing. There are times that his words wind around like the Mississippi on an alluvial plain. But so many of them are just perfect. The reason I loved Conroy’s Beach Music. The music was his words talking about the beach, not even the story itself in some ways. The beach was the  words that ebbed and flowed like the surf of a beach at night.

Sure, writing for an audience is a different type of writing. It is one that invokes criticism because it is hard to assess. It is impossible to standardize awesome writing.

Because often incredible writing is drowned in grammatical errors. Of course, there’s the grammar snob rule that “you can break the rules once you know what they are.” But are we killing those who love writing in our quest for the perfectly placed comma? Are there times we make them shorten a perfect sentence because it uses an imperfect tense?

Oh, I want to do well with commas and semicolons, but I do not worship them. The words, my precious loves, make me gasp when put together perfectly. When I can feel what the author feels and it is unique and novel and amazing – ah, those words, those words are those I treasure. I write them down. I bookmark them.

And I sit down to write my own words. I remember when I was at the Governor’s Honors Program in 1986 at Valdosta State University. I was a Communicative Arts major which meant we wrote and wrote. They took us to a graveyard with orders to write. I sat down and went into another time and place and wrote my first published poem, called Mourning. Here’s a piece of that poem. [I put the full version at the end.]

My fingers dimple over cold dark ridges

of words encased in stone

that sit at your head as you sweetly slumber

and your soul resides at Home.

Blood-red roses live at your feet

the way I did at one time

They are so blest, to guard your rest.

I wish such a peace was mine.

But it was after publishing Mourning at Georgia Tech in their magazine, the Erato, that I received fan mail. A person wrote me called “A friend of China” and told me,

“you have the heart of a poet.”

I was touched deeply. My first realization of an audience. Someone who voluntarily wrote me a letter about something I’d written. One letter. It changed me. Perhaps it was that same feeling that welled up the first time I received a comment on this blog almost ten years ago now.

The idea that you can write a word that touches someone. That it could change someone’s life. Those kinds of words. Not many words – the right word. Oh, and it is the right word I seek. For Proverbs says that in many words there is foolishness. Certainly the longest winded people are often the dumbest. They love hearing themselves speak and you wonder what they are talking about. The narcissistic egotistic who believe they were there when the planets were hung and spun. Not those.

Certainly some amazing authors were likely narcissistic and egotistic (Hemingway comes to mind) but they also had a reverence for writing the right word. One of my favorite apps is called the Hemingway app for that reason — he was lethal in his slashing of words.

So, now, I’m back to the point that started me on this journey of words — helping kids write for people who choose to read it. An audience. A voluntary group of people who read and share what is written. And therein is the hard part. In order to get to the good stuff, you often have to screw up. You bore yourself for a while until you hit upon the exciting.

It takes lots of long lonely foggy empty streets before Jack the Ripper comes out of the night with his knife slashing away the empty and giving you words that tear at your soul and leave you gutless.

I haven’t arrived. But I do arrive at these words written by others each day. Some happy moments happen when I curl up with a book and marvel at words written by another. Words so good I go running for my index cards and write them down. Words so good that I put them beside the sink on my bathroom and read them to myself for the beauty and joy they bring. And words I rewrite when I drip water on them as I wash my face or brush my teeth. These are enduring words. Words that somehow fit together perfectly. Words that do something to me.

I carry them in my wallet and stick them to my monitor. I don’t like to stick to do lists to my monitor — I ignore those. But the beautiful words, I savor them like a filet mignon with a big fluffy baked potato.

And these are the words I hope to inspire my students to write. Words are awesome. Words are exciting. But often by the time I get many students — to them, words are an instrument of torture. It is my joy to unleash and turn around the kid who feels that way and let them fall in love with the words.

What good is education if we educate the life out of kids? What good is education if it kills joy? What good is education if kids never feel good about themselves? What good is education if they never find something they’re good at doing?

Education is hard. It is difficult. It isn’t easy. But education should unleash something.

For me, I found love in the graveyard. For that is when I fell in love with writing. But, when I realized my life was forever changed was when I got a note from a stranger who told me that they loved what I wrote.

Here is that poem I wrote, when I was just 17 sitting in a graveyard. But when I say wrote, I mean drafted. Those teachers made us revise and revise. This poem has gone through at least 30 revisions. For in the revision, you can level it up. I changed a word just a few months ago.

It is hard for me to share my poetry — poetry is in my DNA. Epic lows and epic highs always take me pen to paper writing out the feelings in such words. And yet, poetry is my dream.

I’ve always found that sharing this part of me elicits great FEAR. Expect your students to feel the same. When you read this poem, the bloody trail of my bleeding heart is exposed and shared. And that is why it is so hard to write for an audience.

For me, this poem is so very personal. I was seventeen. I had no love. I had no husband. I had no such relationship at this time. — But as I sat at that gravestone in Valdosta, Georgia — my imagination took me there. I cried. And it was in that moment that I realized something about myself and that this is part of who I am. So, here you go, I’m sharing this poem even though it is hard. Thank for being great readers as I’ve always found support in my transparency. And perhaps through my transparency, you and I can understand the angst and fears our precious students live every single day. 😉 Much love, Vicki 


by Vicki Davis, (c) 1986

My fingers dimple over cold dark ridges

of words encased in stone

that sit at your head as you sweetly slumber

and your soul resides at Home.

Blood-red roses live at your feet

the way I did at one time

They are so blest, to guard your rest.

I wish such a peace was mine.

Brown dirt is your blanket, soft grass is your quilt

to shelter from sun and rain.

Once you laughed with me in sunlight so bright

but only that radiance remains.

Oh, such sunshine never has been

as was the glory of my glad heart

that was driven away on your resting day

when we were severed apart.

If I must wait forever and forever again —

I will wait forever for you.

that’s how I felt and how I feel now,

Is that what I should do?

When a life is gone and the groom turns to dust

where marches the innocent bride?

Your name should be mine, we ran out of time

and here all those hopes reside.

I clench one fair flower close to my breast

As tight as we held to each other.

My grasp couldn’t hold, and now you’ve grown cold

as you traveled on to Another.

I smell the dank air and look at cold stone

As I sit on your quilt of green grass.

I sit here and trace and tears trail down my face

and I wait for forever to pass.

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8 thoughts on “Helping Students Write Beautiful Words

  1. Great post. BUT…the quote is actually as follows: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” It is attributed to H.L. Mencken, so unless he is your grandfather, you should probably give credit where credit is due.

    • Hi Rena- I will look it up and verify. I always want to speak truth- but in this case, Grandpa always said it so I was attributing correctly when I wrote it. Give me time and I will verify and correct if need be. Thanks!

  2. Yes!! This speaks to the power of readers! Our students, and as you point out, all of us need that supportive reader. In fact, I think that’s something Peter Elbow advocated: we can help emerging writers by becoming their supportive readers. And how empowering is that supportive reader when in comes in authentic venues outside the walls of the classroom.

  3. Oh Vicki! This is just fantastic!!! I didn’t know I loved writing and felt like I became a good write until I started blogging and now I know why. It is for these exact reasons. I forget (and I’m certain I’m not the only one) that writing like making and PBL , like art is art and it should do and be all the things you said it should be. It should also have intent/ purpose (audience) and it should be allowed to touch others (not just a teachers desk). Oh I just love this piece!!!

  4. Your writing is beautiful, and that’s coming from a English-teacher-nerd who pauses over passages in Dickens just to reread the beauty of them. Thanks for sharing!

    • Wow, Suzy. Thank you so much for the compliment. I totally get rereading passages or gasping at their beauty. Words have such power. So does your comment. Thank you for leaving it. I write many posts but some of them make me feel like I left part of myself on the page.