Writing is a complex task that involves a great many more skills than just putting sentences on paper. Writers can know how to write, can even know how to write well, but still regularly fail to produce written work when its required because they are weak in skills that are not part of the writing process per se.
A discussion of why Johnny can’t produce written work would fill a book, or more. (David M. Levine has written one book on the problem, The Myth of Laziness, and there are probably other books on the topic as well.)
One familiar reason why students I’ve had weren’t able to produce written work is they weren’t very good at estimating out how long writing would take. We even have a common name for this phenomenon. We call it the
Researchers discovered that when people make plans, they tend to focus on the best-case scenario. They don’t build in time for things to go wrong.
When you, for example, plan how long it will take you to pick up something from the grocery for dinner, you are likely to estimate based on light traffic between work and the grocery, pulling into a parking place close to the store, finding what you want on the shelf, and having no one ahead of you in the checkout lane.
What you actually encounter is likely to be heavy traffic, empty shelves behind aisles blocked by boxes of unopened merchandise, a new employee being trained at the only checkout that’s open, and seven people in line ahead of you.
When your students write, they estimate how long they need to complete it, the same way you estimate how long it will take you to pick up something for dinner: by a cheerfully optimistic best-case scenario.
Because everything takes longer than they think it will, they may not have time to do a fraction of the prep work writing requires.
If writing teachers are going to enable students to write, they must enable them to make good estimates of how much time they will need for each of the stages of writing.
I find it useful to teach students to write in five stages, each of which ends with the production of some written product that becomes part of the finished paper.
By assigning students to complete the five stages on five consecutive days, I make it possible for them to count how long it took them to complete each step.
When we get to the final assessment, I ask students to identify the first stage in the writing process at which they could have done something differently that would have significantly improved their final product.
Over a period of months, students develop the ability to make reasonable predictions of the total time it will take to plan, draft, and edit their work based on their past experiences of worst case scenarios that actually happened.
In short, they learn that
Graphic credit: The background for the statement “Everything takes longer than you think it will” is a sliver of a Trulia map that shows approximately how long it take to get anywhere in the map area from where you are.