Teaching Writing Try This

The Writer’s Memo

A strategy to promote reflection

What is it?

A strategy that has been used in writing classrooms from elementary school through college, A Writer’s Memo is a memorandum from a student-writer to their teacher-reader, answering specific questions about how they composed a written draft.

Why do it?

A writer’s memo helps to shift the responsibility for the writer’s growth from the teacher to the writer themself by asking the writer to use metacognition and reflection to produce a memo for the teacher-reader about the work being turned in. The use of such self-evaluation promotes self-reliance, independence, and autonomy. But the writer’s memo accomplishes more than simply helping students become more effective readers of their own writing. It also positions teachers to adopt constructive roles as respondents, rather than judges.

How do I incorporate this into my teaching?

In introducing the writer’s memo to their classes, teachers usually distribute a Writer’s Memo assignment sheet, which accompanies a regular writing assignment. The Memo assignment sheet includes a series of questions that deal with the process of writing the assigned paper and with the students’ feelings about the finished draft.

Questions on the writing process might, for example, ask students to recount how they selected a topic, how they generated ideas for use in the paper, or what problems they encountered in organizing their thoughts. Other questions might deal with the students’ composing choices; for instance, one might ask students to explain which other organizational patterns for their ideas they considered before making the final decisions about the structure of their writing. Other questions compel students to evaluate their own work by asking them to point out and explain their work’s greatest strength. Students can be asked to select their single best sentence or paragraph or transition, which can have the further benefit of bolstering students’ confidence, simply by helping them to locate parts of their writing worth praising, even while the draft is still quite rough. The students can also be asked to compare the effectiveness of the draft to one of their earlier pieces of writing, or to identify weaknesses of the draft. Still other questions can be used to reinforce ideas about writing or techniques covered in class, and to suggest various new approaches to the writing process.

Finally, students can be asked to provide the instructor with needed assistance in effectively responding to the draft. Questions about audience and purpose are useful ones to pose, as well as those that allow students to direct their teacher’s responses to their individual needs as writers: “What questions would you like me to answer about your draft?” When the memo questions are distributed with an assignment, the teacher should explain that the memos are required and that papers will not receive comments until the memos are completed.

At the same time, the instructor stresses that the memo itself is a tool for both student and teacher, and will not be evaluated or graded. The memo questions can usually be placed on the same sheet as the assignment, making it easy for students to see the connections between the two writing tasks. Over the course of the term, questions need to be varied from assignment to assignment in an effort to keep the memos from becoming a rote-like chore and to tie the questions as closely as possible to each given assignment.

By asking students to share their memos with each other or to read them to the class or by writing a memo to the class about one of their own drafts, a teacher can show the range of responses possible and say something about the importance of metacognition in the writing process.

Writer’s memos can also be used when students turn in revised versions of earlier drafts. Questions can ask students to explain and justify the changes they have made in their work from one draft tothe next. This is particularly useful in responding to the revised paper, because it guarantees that the teacher will be focusing on the conceptual concerns or specific parts of the essay about which the student is most interested in receiving some response.

Where can I learn more?

Rebecca Powell traces the Writer’s Memo to Peter Elbow, and points to “Writing and Response: Theory, Practice, and Research” by Jeffrey Sommers as a good source for understanding the Writer’s Memo and its history. According to Robert Brooke, the “writer’s memo started out as ‘author’s note’ in the early work of Donald Graves, when Lucy Calkins was a researcher for his larger project.” You can read about author’s notes in Calkins’ iconic Lessons from a Child. Since they were all working in New Hampshire, this idea filtered up to Donald Murray at the college level, where author’s notes were part of his pedagogy, codified late in his career in his book A Writer Teaches Writing.

For some examples of what the Writer’s Memo looks like in practice, Bob Broad, Director of the Illinois Writing Project, provides guidance on assigning the Writer’s Memo here: https://about.illinoisstate.edu/rlbroad/the-writers-memo/. And you can find an example of an undergraduate student’s Writer’s Memo here: https://english101narwhal.weebly.com/blog/writers-memo11.