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Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at homeroom@theatlantic.com.


Dear Abby and Brian,

My daughter is in ninth grade and is really struggling with essay writing. English, history, the subject doesn’t matter—she has a meltdown every time. She just stares at the screen and doesn’t know where to start.

I try to remember what I learned in high school about the Roman empire or Robert Frost to get her going. I’ve tried to leave her alone, or to sit there doing the work along with her. None of it ever seems to help. I find myself dreading her getting an essay assignment, because whenever she does, the night before it’s due nearly always ends with her in tears or yelling at me.

What can I do?

Julia
Virginia


Dear Julia,

Seeing your daughter so upset when confronted with writing assignments can be painful. We appreciate your instinct to help, but neither leaving your daughter alone nor sitting there doing the work along with her is the right approach. What will help is taking an assignment that overwhelms her and breaking it down into a series of small, manageable steps that she can do on her own. The goal is not to get an essay written no matter what, but to set her up for being an independent, confident student who doesn’t rely on you at every turn.

You’ll want to sit down with her and say something like “I know essay writing has been really hard, but it will help if you can think about it as a set of smaller steps and budget enough time for each.” Then go through these steps with her:

  1. Read the material, highlighting important points and taking notes.

This is the starting point for any good essay writing. Suggest that even before she is assigned a writing prompt, she begins taking notes on the material as she reads it. Annotation should serve as a conversation with the text: She should mark significant or reaction-provoking passages and jot down a few words about why they are noteworthy.

  1. Review the notes, looking for one thread that ties everything together.

This is how she will begin building her thesis. Teachers sometimes disagree over whether students should start with a working thesis and then find evidence to build their case, or start with examples and see where they lead. We believe that the thesis and examples should be developed together; as your daughter narrows down evidence, her thesis can evolve.

  1. Write topic sentences for each of the body paragraphs, and then match topic sentences with examples and analysis to build an outline.

Your daughter should think about defending her thesis with a series of sub-arguments, each expressed as a topic sentence for her body paragraphs. Many students have difficulty connecting their arguments to evidence, because they are inclined to summarize the material rather than critically evaluate it. Your daughter can ask herself what her examples reveal about her topic sentences and then delve into the importance of word choice and literary devices as is relevant.

  1. Write introduction and conclusion paragraphs.

With topic sentences, examples, and analysis for each body paragraph together in outline form, your daughter can move on to her introduction and conclusion. The focus of her introduction should be general background information leading up to the thesis, and the conclusion should offer new insight into the significance of the topic and a parting thought for the reader to ponder.

  1. Use the outline, introductory paragraph, and conclusion to write a first draft.

Once she has completed an outline, she’ll have a straightforward road map for writing a draft with more thoroughly developed ideas.

  1. Look over the draft twice: once to ensure that the argument flows logically and a second time to eliminate errors in grammar and syntax, as well as to sharpen word choice.

We recommend that all editing be done while reading the work aloud from a printed draft, pencil in hand. Once these revisions are implemented, she’ll have a final draft ready to go.

If a single major assignment becomes six minor ones, your daughter is far less likely to feel overwhelmed. This process, from start to finish, will take about a week, so she should plan accordingly. With a calendar in front of her, she should look at what assignments she has coming up for the rest of the semester and mark deadlines for each of these steps so that she won’t have to rush at the end. Remember that writing always takes longer than it seems it should. Helping your daughter plan well in advance should allow her to approach writing with less trepidation and instead see it as a process composed of clear, manageable steps.

As she does this more and more, she’ll find that her belief in herself will grow—and you won’t cringe when you hear about the English essay due next week.


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