Support for Struggling Writers: How Essay Interviews can HELP!

The term “struggling” writer really applies to every single human being.  We have all struggled with writing at some point and will continue to struggle moving forward.  The difference between successful writers and unsuccessful writers (“success” being defined as students who turn in completed essays that convey meaning effectively versus those who do not) lies in being able to work through frustration.  This philosophy applies to all aspects of life.  Those people who become successful tend to be the ones that don’t quit when they face obstacles.  In essence, this is the entire concept of “grit” as proposed in Angela Duckworth’s popular book.

But to narrow the focus to the specific task of writing, it is important that we teach students strategies for coping with writing frustration.  With complex pieces of writing such as literary analysis, students can oftentimes get frustrated with structuring the initial argument and brainstorming evidence.  If this is the point in the writing process when the student gives up, then any essay becomes impossible.  Oftentimes, I find that students get caught up in trying to say something in a sophisticated “academic” voice right from the start, and this can shut them down if they aren’t able to articulate their ideas using this language.  This is where simply “talking through” an essay concept (a.k.a. the Essay Interview) comes into play.

The Essay Interview Method

I’ve had students tell me (in frustration) that they can’t write an essay because they can’t say it the “right” way.  It’s important that we communicate to students that writing is a process, and there’s a reason why Anne Lamott calls first drafts, using her term from Bird by Bird, “shitty.”  This is the part of the writing process in which we are supposed to turn off our critical minds and let the free creative mind take control.  It’s difficult to use Lamott’s terminology in our classrooms—perhaps you can replace the term “shitty” with “crappy,” but nonetheless, you see the point.  

When a student tells me that he/she doesn’t know what to write or where to start, I will conference with that student and let the student talk while I take notes.  This is called an essay “interview.”  If I have a blank outline form handy, I will jot down notes on that while the student talks.  The process goes something like this (modeled after a real life conversation I had with a student):

Student:  I don’t know what to write.

Teacher:  Well, why don’t you tell me what you think Romeo and Juliet is about.

Student:  Ok, so it goes like this.  It’s a whack story (his term) because it’s about two people who get married, and they just met at like this party.  There ain’t no way it could work out, and then they end up dead.

Teacher:  Ok.  It sounds like you’re saying Romeo and Juliet is about love and relationships. Is that correct?  (My goal here is to take the student to the thematic level.)

Student:  Yeah exactly.

Teacher:  (writes down the word “love” on the notes) So what does the play show us about love?

Student:  That it doesn’t work out.  That like, if you meet someone and hook up with them and you don’t know them, then it’s over.

Teacher:  (clarifies what the student said & writes it down) So, you’re saying that rushing into a relationship leads to failure?

Student:  Exactly.

Teacher: (begins to help the student piece together evidence) Can you think of any specific parts of the play that show this to be true?

Student:  The whole end when they die.  There isn’t a happily ever after for them.

Teacher:  (writes “death scene” down for one of the body paragraphs) What else shows it?

Student:  Well, that’s the main thing.

Teacher:  Ok.  What about the friar?  What part does he play in all of this?

Student:  Well, he tells them, like, not to rush into something so quick, but they do it anyway.  To like take more time and not get so carried away with love.  Love at first sight isn't really love.

Teacher:  (writes down “friar’s warning” as another body paragraph) Ok, great!  So, now you have an argument and two body paragraph points to explain.  (hands the student the notes)

Student:  Oh wow!  I didn’t see that.

Teacher:  So, now go find 2-3 quotations for each of those body paragraphs and start explaining. You are off to a great start!

The ideas are there inside of our students, but sometimes, we just need to help the students see that they are there and help the student get started with a rough outline. 

The essay interview strategy is something students can do with each other in small groups or pairs in your classroom.  It’s not always possible to conference with every single individual student, so you can train your students to do these interviews in order to meet their needs.  Even if a student already has a working outline, talking through it with another student reinforces the essay’s direction.  This is typically the first strategy used in writing centers across the nation both on the high school and college levels.  Students should be able to articulate where they are headed with an argument and what their “talking points,” or body paragraphs, will be.  

It’s amazing how a simple conversation can be the tool to help struggling students fight through writing frustration. I’ve included a free ESSAY INTERVIEW guide here that will guide your students through a peer writing conference in which they interview each other about their writing concepts.  Students can take turns listening to their peers “talk through” their ideas while writing down notes about what they say.  This will help students get started with their writing ideas or solidify their arguments.  Click on the image below to download this freebie!

We’d love to hear back from you?  What strategies do you use to support struggling writers? Leave us a comment below to share your ideas!  

About the Author

Meredith is the founder and creator of and Bespoke ELA.  She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University.  She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas.  Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.