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The difference between strong and struggling writers is smaller than one might think. Writing success boils down to one key question: Are you confident about your writing? Let’s explore what writing confidence looks like, and then unpack three secrets to help any writer achieve that successful mindset.

What does writing confidence look like?

In many classrooms, teachers call their students, “writers,” during writing lessons. While the label may seem like simple semantics, the choice is deliberate and part of a bigger truth. When we claim a skill as part of our identity, we’re much more likely to succeed in that area.

Consider the difference between “I’m trying to learn to play guitar,” and “I’m a guitar player.” Imagine we think one of these two thoughts a couple times a day. Even after a week, these two thoughts will lead us to highly different destinations. Why? Not surprisingly, we believe what we tell ourselves. Our thoughts create feelings, and those feelings affect how we approach our goals. If we think about “trying to learn the guitar,” we feel tentative and reliant on others to show us the way. Most troubling, we place ourselves a long way away from our goal. When we think, “I’m a guitar player,” we feel confident and self-sufficient. We don’t mind risking failure because a failed attempt doesn’t change the ultimate truth. We’re guitar players, plain and simple.

For writers, the same is true. While this truth is simple, it’s deceptively so. Simply calling our students writers isn’t enough. If they’re struggling, they know it. In fact, being called a writer while internally telling yourself differently may do more harm than good. Writers need to claim their own identities and build their own confidence. Unfortunately, no one can do this important work for them.

How do we help youth build writerly confidence?

Here’s where the three secrets come in. Over the past fifteen years, working with writers of all ages and skill levels, I’ve identified a few patterns. As educators, parents, and supportive friends, we can help writers tap into confidence using these three tools.

Secret One: Play + Passion = Productivity

It’s natural for educators and parents to consider standards when assigning writing projects. We focus on mechanics, writing essays, and learning how to research, because we can easily draw a line from these skills to “real life.” That’s why this first secret may be the most difficult to believe. However, of the three, it is the most important. Play + Passion = Productivity.

The shortest path to writing confidence is a passion project. For many students, this will be a story or a memoir, but for others, it may be a collection of poetry, letters, narrative nonfiction, a script, etc. No matter the genre, passion projects are not written primarily to achieve a grade, prove a level of competence, or to please a teacher. Passion projects are created because a writer has something to say, a story to tell. This intrinsic goal fuels the writer through the ups and downs of the writing process and motivates them to develop the necessary skill to complete the work with stylish flair.

The shortest path to launching a passion project, and to working through the writing process, is play. When we drag ourselves to the page, we experience resistance at every step of the process. Reframed as play, we approach our projects with a nimble, experimental mindset.

In other words, the quickest path to writing confidence can appear to be a waste of time. Neither play nor passion projects strike the casual onlooker as practical. We wonder, fairly, how the ability to write a novel translates to the college thesis that looms in our students’ future. Nevertheless, the changes that occur when we invest time in play and passion—a shift in identity, problem-solving agility, and overall writing skill—are undeniable. Writers learn to approach all writing projects with their passion and a sense of play. From this new vantage point, even the most technical of writing becomes manageable and is sometimes even as enjoyable as a challenging puzzle.

Secret Two: Recipes Are A Writer’s Best Friend

Once writers have tapped into their voices through play and passion, they are generally more willing to consider the second secret. They learn that recipes are a writer’s best friend.

Once writers see that stories have a pattern to them, they can plan using that pattern. This approach builds momentum while leaving a world of possibilities open. Once they’ve bought into the idea of one writing recipe that works, writers are more likely to appreciate the structure and kick-start that a recipe provides for other types of writing.

Again, the difference comes down to mindset. A five paragraph essay, presented in a dry, rules-based way, is guaranteed to lead to grumbling and complaint. A visual recipe for an essay, presented to writers who already understand the power of following a proven pattern, is likely to lead to smiles and grateful exploration.

We don’t follow a recipe because someone told us to. We follow a recipe because, like the rules in a well-crafted game, the rules of a writing recipe create the structure that gives us space to play. When appropriate, we break a rule or two. That’s also part of the game, but successful rule-breaking is only possible because we understand the rules and the reasons for them.

Secret Three: Revise With Your Audience in Mind

As long as we see revision as an opportunity to scour our work for mistakes, we’re in for a negative revision experience. The question isn’t, “What did I do wrong?” Rather, it’s “How can I better create the effect I’d like to make?” The third secret of writerly confidence is revising with our audience in mind.

When we seek out mistakes in our writing, or worse yet, ask others to point out our mistakes, we can’t help but feel defensive. We find silly errors that we didn’t mean to make. We realize we didn’t think a character or a sequence of events all the way through. What if, instead of expecting perfection from a first draft, we saw that draft as a base layer? Instead of seeking out all the ways we messed up, we could look for opportunities to add layers, details, and emotion.

Once we realize that revision isn’t about right or wrong, we can start to open up to what revision actually is: an opportunity to master our craft. When we consider the effect we want to have on our audience, we can begin to experiment. What dialogue would make the scene more humorous? What description would bring the setting more fully to life? What action would help the reader see the character’s emotional growth?

In the end, writerly confidence begins when writers realize that their words belong to them, and no one else.

Our words have the power to communicate our perspective and to change people’s understanding. Our stories have the potential to create empathy, build connections, and impact the world. The first secret helps writers tap into their own voices. The second secret helps them put their words to use for a variety of purposes. The third secret allows them to take their work to the next level. Together, the three secrets help writers take ownership of their writing. This writerly confidence is personally transformative and it also yields excellent results. (Yep, including fantastic grades!)

If you’re a supporter of a youth writer (or two or three), you may wonder how you can help. One key way is to provide helpful feedback that empowers rather than diminishes. We’ve created a quick cheat sheet for you to organize your thoughts before offering feedback to the youth writer in your life. By sharing your thoughts in a structured way, you’ll give the writer the information they need in a way they can process, consider and problem-solve their way through.

Download the Feedback Cheat Sheet below.

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