Just this week I have been asked again whether it is really necessary for students to follow the daily writing schedule laid out in their handbooks. The answer is, “Yes, it is, if you want your student to learn to write well.”

Why the detailed writing schedule?

Each of the two-week writing assignments is structured to be completed in a total of nine days of writing. A to-do list of tasks communicates exactly what needs to be accomplished on each of those days. This has several benefits:

  1. It eliminates the wrangling over “how much writing is enough.” Students and their editors know when they are finished for the day.
  2. It trains the students in breaking a large project into a series of phases and steps, an invaluable life skill.
  3. It ensures that students are engaging in daily practice of writing.

What’s so great about daily practice?

Why can’t students just spend one afternoon writing their assignment, in a 3 to 5 hour session instead of five 30-minute or 1 hour sessions? Does it really matter that writing is practiced daily, as long as the assignment is finished? Yes, it matters immensely!

When I took piano lessons as a child and then a teenager, I had a terrible habit of putting off practice. On lesson day, I tried to make up for it by having one very long, intense practice session. Although I was fairly musical and could painfully stumble my way through the assignment at my lesson, my teacher surely wasn’t fooled. I moved on to progressively more difficult pieces, never really mastering any of them or learning to play to my full potential.

When my sons took Suzuki piano, I was forced to supervise practice six days a week. Besides requiring them to play through an entire piece several times, our wonderful teacher, Sue Moncrief, assigned focused practice of several small, difficult sections of the piece, ten times in a row perfectly, at “turtle speed.” Repeatedly, I witnessed the magical effect of this careful, daily practice. On the first day, the targeted sections produced wailing and gnashing of teeth. By the second, third, or fourth day, suddenly the difficulties disappeared and beautiful music flowed forth.

The Science Behind Daily Practice

This disciplined approach is the key to mastering anything that involves complex skills. An article in Scientific American explains that periods of rest between periods of learning are necessary if the brain is to internalize the new information or skills:

During downtime, the brain also concerns itself with more mundane but equally important duties. For decades scientists have suspected that when an animal or person is not actively learning something new, the brain consolidates recently accumulated data, memorizing the most salient information, and essentially rehearses recently learned skills, etching them into its tissue. Most of us have observed how, after a good night’s sleep, the vocab words we struggled to remember the previous day suddenly leap into our minds or that technically challenging piano song is much easier to play. Dozens of studies have confirmed that memory depends on sleep.

Something amazing happens in the brain between writing sessions that can’t happen when it is done in one or two sittings. “Sleeping on it” and then tackling it again is crucial to mastery of writing.

Yes, I Can Tell 🙂

Just as my piano teacher wasn’t fooled by my poorly presented performance, a sloppily structured and styled paper always announces a lack of daily, careful practice. A struggling writer who puts in the time turns out better work than a “natural” writer who skimps. Constantly, I remind my students, “Good writing takes time.” Writer Jane Yolen puts it this way:

Exercise the writing muscle every day…Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.

All writing students, reluctant, struggling, or advanced, make progress when they practice carefully every day.

 

 

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