Students often find writing papers for English class a mysterious and frustrating experience, and parents can find the process equally mysterious. They want to help their child write better, but what kind of help is most useful? How much help is too much?

Here are a few tips for parents from a longtime teacher of freshman English:

1. Support the Process

First, writing is like any skill—students have to practice if they want to improve. Just as you cannot practice the piano for them, you cannot write for them if the goal is improvement. Try to keep the focus on improving your child’s skills and confidence rather than on grades.

Second, if you suggest what seems like a sensible way to improve the writing or organization of the paper and your child says, “But that’s not what my teacher said!” —encourage them to go back to the teacher and ask again. Perhaps they misinterpreted; perhaps the teacher did. Or maybe it is a general rule that in this case needs an exception. The bottom line is that the piece will have the student’s name on it, so she should write something that makes her feel proud.

2. Form a Great Idea

Often students are so focused on completing the assignment that they forget to first find something important to say. Ask them about the book or topic: What did they find interesting? (If the answer is “nothing,” ask them what others found interesting). What was controversial or confusing? What did the class talk about and what do they wish the class had talked more about?

Get them to jot down several ideas, even if they don’t think they are good. Once they have a list going, they can look it over—maybe a topic will be sitting right there, maybe the list will lead them to a good idea, or maybe two ideas can be combined to make a good topic.

Some students don’t like this general brainstorming method. Another method is looking through the book or their notes for important quotes and jotting them down. When there is a list of 10-12, look through them and usually they will cluster around some important idea or theme. Work this into a topic.

Whatever method they choose, remind them that a good topic goes beyond what was discussed in class and does more than just rehash the plot. Once they pick a topic, they should be able to think of at least three interesting things to say about it. If they can’t, the topic probably isn’t broad enough.

3. Give Them Room to Write

The writing itself pretty much has to be done alone. All you can do is provide a quiet place and time away from distractions.

Encourage them not to leave things to the last minute—even if they say they can only write well under pressure. If they leave it to the last minute, they will not do a rewrite and their skills will improve much more slowly than those who write and rewrite. In addition, leaving it to the last minute often leads to late papers and lower grades if a student gets hit by a broken computer, empty ink cartridge, or exhaustion.

Do encourage them to keep writing even if they hit a writing block. They can always cross out or revise bad material, they can’t do anything with a blank page. As Roger Ebert put it, “The muse visits during the act of creation, not before.”

4. Revision: Four Eyes Are Better Than Two

Here is where parents can be of the most help. Once your child has written a draft, they should let it sit for a day or so and then go back and reread it. This rereading should provide them with ideas for improvement. They should jot those down and get to work. If they are at a loss or simply want a second opinion, your voice can help.

However, don’t just take the draft and start writing all over it—remember, this is their paper and their vision, not yours. Also remember, they do not have the years of experience you do, therefore their literary insights and their writing style will not be what yours would be. That is as it should be.

Ask them, then, to identify the areas they are worried about. Ask them to write questions in the margins you can answer (e.g., “is this clear,” “does this quote make sense,” “does this paragraph go here,” “do I need to write more”). These questions should guide your comments. Of course, if you notice other things, comment—just don’t push.

Basically, your job at this stage is to ask questions and make suggestions, but not squelch their own emerging style. Don’t succumb to the temptation to rewrite entire sentences—although you can suggest ways that they can rewrite them.

5. Devil in the Details

Some students have developed an excellent proofreading eye; many others struggle to see errors in their own work. Seeking help for proofreading is often a good idea. If your child comes to you for proofreading and not for revision help, you will probably need to bite your tongue and leave stylistic suggestions alone.

Make sure they have already proofed the paper on their own. If you are finding 1-2 errors per page go ahead and just make the correction. If it is more than that you should encourage them to look at it again themselves. Point out the problem area (spelling, grammar, punctuation).

If they still aren’t getting it, go through and find the first uncorrected instance and show them the correction, then find the second and help them correct it. Do the same for the third. Have them find and correct the fourth. If they have a persistent problem—like run-on sentences—you can work with them or you can encourage them to see their teacher.

6. Encouragement is Always Good

Help your child feel confident and see improvements they are making in their writing. For some this is an arduous task and they need encouragement from both you and the teacher. Encourage them to read their teacher’s comments on the papers. If they are confused or feeling discouraged please encourage them to go to the teacher to talk about it.

By Claire Concannon

Ms. Concannon teaches Upper School English.