National Writing Project

Keith's Question

By: Bill Connolly
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 9, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: Prompted by a student-writer's question, high school teacher Bill Connolly reflects on why writing groups in the summer institute are so powerful.


Keith was a good writer, a frequent contributor to our school's literary magazine, and an 18-year-old with a beard and interest in classic rock that belied his age. With graduation less than a week away, I was flattered when he asked me his question.

It was a writer's question—not "What do I owe?" or "Did I hand in my bibliography?" I was sitting at my computer in my classroom, stacks of essays and papers nearby lending to my end-of-year anxiety. Still, I put all of that aside when Keith asked, "How do I solve my problem with awkward wording?"

Although many writers and teachers search for the "magic bullet" that will be the answer to their problems or their ticket to the New York Times best-sellers list, Keith was asking this question with genuine interest. After all, how many seniors are interested in school-related matters in the waning days of June? His senior research project was in the pile by my arm. His writing for me was done, but Keith was not done writing. I felt compelled to answer his question as a fellow writer, not as his teacher.

So I did not pull out a book or manual, I did not quote Twain or Faulkner or Peter Elbow, and I most certainly did not go to my file cabinet in search of my awkward wording worksheets. (There aren't any in there.) I gave an answer that came naturally and almost instinctively: "Join a writing group."

At that moment, there were no theorists or articles on the tip of my tongue, just what is in the heart of anyone who has participated in a National Writing Project summer institute. While I did elaborate on why Keith should do this, the simplicity of the answer reveals, I think, the complexity of the writing life and the reason why the writing groups in the summer institutes can be so powerful.

A colleague's "can't fail" worksheet, an adage by a famous writer, and even a good chapter in a book about writing simply cannot duplicate the magic—there's really no other word for it—when writers simply write and share their writing in a supportive environment.

Writers need to produce, but we cannot subscribe to Emily Dickinson's write-a-ton-die-and-hope-someone-opens-the-trunk-finds-the-poems-and-puts-them-in-every-lit-anthology-until-the-end-of-time approach. Every writer needs a reader, and the kind (and perhaps cruel-to-be-kind) ears and eyes of fellow writers are invaluable tools when a writer is ready to take that writing to a wider audience, whether that is one's family, a friend, the local-daily readership, or the subscribers to a national publication.

When Keith cares enough about this wording problem that he will become almost obsessed with exorcising it, he will take his writing to someone who cares, someone who's not reluctant to furrow her brow or raise his eyebrow at an awkward phrase or cumbersome sentence.

It is there, in the intimate exchange between reader and writer, that the naked truth is finally clear for us to see. Our eyes are opened to the beauty of a well-crafted sentence or the ugly awkwardness of a phrase teetering on the edge of coherence. Only then, when we are made to truly care—or are forced to confront what it means to care about our words that much—will we spend precious moments of our days and nights, agonizing over our wording . . . and loving every minute of it.

About the Author Bill Connolly is the co-director of the National Writing Project at Rowan University. He teaches English and journalism at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, New Jersey, where he also serves as the supervising chairperson of the English Department.

See the related articles:

Reading in the Summer Institute: How, Why, and What
By Nick Coles and Richard Louth

Digging Deeper: Teaching Inquiry in the Summer Institute Demonstration
By Art Peterson

More Thoughts on Reading in the Summer Institute
By Lucy Ware

Beyond I Am
By Michael Taylor

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