Worst-case scenarios help improve writing

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
Map section with words "Everything takes longer than you think" imposed on it.effect.

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.

That’s the Map section with words "Everything takes longer than you think" imposed on it. effect.

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

Map section with words "Everything takes longer than you think" imposed on it.


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.

5 thoughts on “Worst-case scenarios help improve writing

  1. Linda, this has inspired me. I made a chart, based upon your stages, to review with my students to discuss their most recent blog post assignment. I am finding that their unwillingness (inability?) to read, re-read, focusing attention on key ideas, is at the heart of their misunderstanding of how long something will take to compose. In the comp course I teach at the two-year college level, the ineffectual reading is at the heart of writing issues, or so I’ll think until I experience better evidence of effective reading. Perhaps I will start using Grant Wiggins’ brief self-monitoring questions. Need something…simple (knowing that deep reading is anything but). What do you suggest?


    1. Do you have a copy of my Talk It Out material? It’s designed to help students plan their writing and it really does force students to put their ducks in a row before they get anywhere near to composition stage. If you had that, you could make some “did I do X?” questions based on it. I frankly don’t know how well that would work. My first year comp students need more hand-holding than a checklist provides, which is the rationale behind the Talk It Out questions.

      Personally, I’ve found teaching students to write does more to improve reading than teaching students to read does to improve writing. At least teaching writing structure is faster than teaching reading. The basic pattern is simple, but there are hundreds of variations on the pattern that hide it in reading material.

      What my college students didn’t get until they had written (and written and written and …) was how the thesis statement was the essence of the writing, that it permeated every sentence the way a drop of iodine in a cup of water permeates every drop of water. Writing, at least in the follow-the-pattern way I teach it to novices, emphasizes that the thesis penetration happens by plan, not by chance.

      If students do one writing stage per day, they produce:
      Day 1 – a working thesis statement (bald, graceless, a guess at what the writer hopes will work)
      Day 2 – a writing skeleton made by copying the working thesis 3 times and adding because and a reason statement to it (if they do this right, they’ll know if their thesis is doomed to failure)
      Day 3 – a comprehensive plan, which lists three pieces of evidence to each point in the writing skeleton (this gives them a pretty good idea of how much work they need to do before they can compose a rough draft).
      Day 4 – a complete rough draft (fast and easy since the plan is complete)
      Day 5 – an edited draft.

      Students initially assume that how long they need to produce each writing artifact depends on how many sentences they need to write. Thus, they figure a thesis statement might require only 3 minutes, while their rough draft will take 90 minutes. Students require considerable experience before they realize that the amount of time each stage is greatly influenced by other factors, such as the amount of first-hand evidence they have (assuming they can use that evidence), their knowledge of the existence of second-hand evidence, and how accessible second-hand evidence is.


      1. Thanks, Linda. I will be sharing this with students…We’ll take it out for a spin. I appreciate the detail you have included here. I do have “Talk It Out” and will review it.


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