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October 1, 2004
Vol. 62
No. 2

Talking Back to Authors

When students learn to analyze a published author's writing style—and send a written critique straight to the source—they suddenly see writing as a powerful act.

Talking Back to Authors- thumbnail
I'm not going to do that,” 8th grader Julius announced when asked to send written feedback to professional writer Gary Soto on Soto's short story “The Challenge.” “I can't write to an author and tell him what's bad about the story.”
Julius wasn't the only student in the class who felt that way. I have found that instructing students to critique a piece of writing and send that critique to the author initially causes incredulity and grumbling. Almost always, it is the first time students have had such an assignment.
So why do I assign students a task that causes so much protest? Because inevitably the assignment increases students' zeal to write and sharpens both their writing and reading comprehension skills. And once their initial discomfort with the idea of giving feedback to a “real author” subsides, students become invested in their own ideas and relish the assignment.
I find it surprising that students are not routinely asked to do this type of writing. The connection between the operations involved in reading and writing has been well researched during the past two decades (Smith, 2001). An author critique goes beyond the traditional method of connecting reading and writing—using a reading assignment as a prompt to launch a writing assignment. The author critique links reading to writing in a more mutually reinforcing way, first using a writing assignment to motivate reading, and then using reading to spur student writing.

A Purpose for Reading and Writing

When students know they will have to analyze a text and send a critique to the author, they gain a sense of purpose for their reading and writing. Lack of purpose is a major obstacle to many student writers. Writing, like reading, requires motivation for the writer to put forth the immense concentration the activity demands. Our students are no more willing than we are to do something that seems purposeless. Compare two writing tasks: writing to an actual author and completing the traditional “read this story and then answer the questions about it” assignment. Which task is more likely to entice students? When preparing to write a critique, students approach a reading assignment armed with several purposes: to examine the author's content and craft, to let that author know what they liked or didn't like, and to offer suggestions for improvement.
Students in grades 4–12 can do all this—and enjoy it. Young people like to be given the chance to “talk back” to authority by giving feedback to the author. They appreciate the opportunity to be honest, look smart, and get taken seriously. It's all about getting students' attention and creating a stimulating incentive. I break the assignment into three steps: rating the author's work, critiquing the author's work, and improving the author's work. Teachers don't need to use every step; they can choose which steps to assign.

Step 1: Rate the Author's Work

I begin by giving students a checklist to rate any assigned text on how helpful or unhelpful the author was for them as a reader. This makes students aware of the partnership a reader has with the author.
The reader-writer transaction is a novel idea to most students. In 1938, Rosenblatt (1938, 1978) theorized that authors and readers conduct a transaction through the printed page. For this exchange of ideas to succeed, both writer and reader must be aware of each other and work together. Writers are responsible for being clear and interesting; readers are responsible for being alert and engaged. As Jordan (2001) notes, students need to be explicitly taught what texts expect of them as readers and how to fulfill as well as challenge these expectations, thus developing their authorial reading skills. [italics added]
It is empowering for a developing reader to understand that reading involves a give-and-take between writer and reader. Most students who struggle with reading believe that any deficiency in their ability to comprehend text is their own fault. If we show them that reading comprehension is a two-way street, that the writer has a big role in determining how much the reader understands, they often become more confident, proactive, and demanding of authors.
Raymond Jones (1993), creator of the ReadingQuest.org Web site, claims that It is this notion of the “fallible author” that [we] wish students to become aware of. When they think a failure to understand is their own fault, students often pull away from their reading. But if they will approach text with a “reviser's eye”. . . they can shift from trying to understand text to making text more understandable.
I have developed an eight-item questionnaire, adapted from the college-level “Survey Routine” created at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning (2004), that helps students rate the author of a piece on how considerate or inconsiderate that author was to them as a reader (see fig. 1, p. 60). The questions push the student reader into the role of evaluator and clarify the nature of the reader-writer relationship. Questions address both positive and negative characteristics—not just the negative, as many students assume when they hear the word critique.
Figure 1. How Considerate Is the Author?

Figure 1. How Considerate Is the Author?

  • Does the author use a title that helps me get an accurate idea of what's coming?

  • Is the layout obvious and well organized?

  • Any boldface headers?

  • Any italicized words?

  • Any font or size changes?

  • Any pictures, diagrams, or charts?

  • Is there a clear introduction?

  • Does the author clarify key vocabulary?

  • Do the paragraphs have useful topic sentences?

  • Are questions provided for the reader to answer?

  • Any interesting questions?

  • Any questions that go beyond simple recall?

  • Any questions that I could add?

  • Is there a clear conclusion or summary?

  • What helps or hurts my chances for strong comprehension?


The Sentence Opening Sheet (SOS) analyzer, shown in Figure 2 (p. 61), also helps students analyze an author's writing craft. Invented by the Stack the Deck Writing Program (2001), the SOS is a four-column worksheet that was designed to lead students through the process of editing their own written work. The form works equally well as an aid to critiquing another's writing. Each column targets a different aspect of the author's writing: variety of sentence beginnings; analysis of verb effectiveness; a column teachers can customize to reflect a particular writing craft; and variety of sentence length.
Figure 2. Sample of a Sentence Opening Sheet

Talking Back to Authors - table

First Four Words



No. of Words

1st Paragraph
In the United States
We also as citizens
During the late 1400s
During the Spanish Inquisition
2nd Paragraph
In America we have
If you were Jewish
The Jews were forced
If Spain's rulers had
Source: Stack the Deck Writing Program. www.stackthedeck.com.
Imagine the power of getting “inside information” by analyzing the sentences of Gary Soto, Maya Angelou, John Steinbeck, or any other great author. The benefits aren't limited to literature, either; you can have students use the SOS to analyze the writing in a math, science, or social studies textbook—and discover why the book is easy or difficult to absorb. In both cases, students are venturing into new territory, and teachers have planted the idea that readers should be aware of how an author's writing style contributes to—or detracts from—the writer's message.
There are many different ways to teach with the SOS, so it is worth learning more about (you can do so by visiting www.stackthedeck.com/tips-great.html). It will not magically perfect all student writing, but it is a good tool for improvement.

Step 2: Write a Critique

Students use the information they developed through the “How Considerate Is the Author?” questionnaire and Sentence Opening Sheet to write a critique of the author's writing, analyzing what worked or didn't work for them. Two methods that guide students in this stage are Questioning the Author (Beck, McKeown, Worthy, Sandora, & Kucan, 1996) and Praise, Question, Polish.
  1. What is the author trying to tell you?
  2. Why is the author telling you that?
  3. Does the author say it clearly?
  4. How could the author have said things more clearly?
  5. What would you say instead?
Praise, Question, Polish (PQP), developed by Bill Lyons, former K–12 language arts coordinator for the Iowa City Community School District, helps students address three constructive issues: what I like about the writing (praise), what I don't understand about the writing (question), and what I suggest for improving the writing (polish). Both Questioning the Author and PQP guide developing readers past surface comprehension to the deeper understanding that is required for a critique.
As a mini-writing assignment, students compose a short postcard to the author communicating the results of either their PQPs or their answers to the Questioning the Author protocol. Alternatively, I sometimes ask students to write the author a memo. A memo mirrors authentic adult writing in the workplace and affords more room than a postcard for reporting strengths and weaknesses. Memo writing motivates careful reading and writing because the information must be correct, insightful, and relevant, and the audience may seem more authentic to students than a teacher would. Figure 3 (p. 63) shows the memo that one 6th grader wrote to me as the author of a short story her teacher assigned the class.
Figure 3. Memo to Author of Short Story

Figure 3. Memo to Author of Short Story

TO: Larry Lewin

FROM: Carissa

RE: Sidd's Excellent Adventure

Your story was all right. The main reason I didn't like it was because I don't like farces. The one thing I can visualize is the bright orange on the cat with a black light because I watch a show called “C.S.I.” and it does a lot of stuff like that. It was extremely easy to predict he was going to do something with the orange goo, but what he did with it was funny. The part I didn't like with the orange goo was when he was going to kiss Inga because that doesn't really appeal to this audience's age. I didn't really understand why you put what Sidd's tail looks like (paragraph 14, lines 6–7). Why did you worry about what your face looks like (paragraph 14, line 7) when you can't see it when the black light is not on? How do cats have glasses? I thought the cat with the glasses was a bit too tacky.

Published with permission.

Step 3: Write a Guide to or a Revision of an Author's Work

In the final stage, students take on the role of editor. I have students either write a study guide that clarifies an author's work or actually rewrite parts of the published work. At this stage, students are responding to the fourth and fifth questions in the Questioning the Author protocol: How could the author have said things more clearly? and What would you say instead?
One good way for students to start reworking an author's material is to write study guides that make the text more understandable for others. They can write student-friendly guides for science, math, or social studies texts as well as for fictional material (Burke, 2000). This assignment gives students a meaningful purpose for reading a particular book, article, or Web site. Writing a study guide requires a student to process the content thoroughly enough to be able to instruct another reader on the key points. Students need to analyze what the author is trying to communicate, decide what ideas are most important, summarize and paraphrase those ideas clearly, and organize their presentation. The benefits of this reading-writing task include upper-level critical thinking and a sense of empowerment at being expert enough to write a study guide that helps others. Students like to make a contribution—even if they often claim otherwise.
For maximum effect, pass out completed study guides to students reading these texts in other classes, or use them as a class to review for a test. Some teachers allow students to use their self-created study guide during a test. Students could even mail their study guides to a textbook publisher or an author to see whether the publisher might incorporate their suggestions into future versions.
After writing a study guide, students can try rewriting some portion of the text that they believe was not as clear or well crafted as it could have been. This activity moves students from the role of translators to the more demanding role of editors. I have asked students to rewrite a small section of a U.S. history textbook's account of the causes leading up to the Revolutionary War. To improve the section, students must decide what information to include, what to drop, and—most important—what to add to the original, drawing on their own study of the topic.
Not all student-authored study guides or rewrites will be successful. A student-authored version of a book chapter might misrepresent a key concept, miss information, or be duller than the original. Teachers should assess the accuracy, completeness, and liveliness of the guides and rewrites by employing a detailed scoring rubric presented to students at the beginning of the assignment. But remember, the main purpose of this reading-writing task is to increase students' motivation to read deeply and write clearly, not to necessarily improve on a Mark Twain story.
  • Edit repeatedly. After students edit their own work, peer editors should use checklists to review each piece, and then the teacher should correct remaining errors. Although I don't believe that correcting all errors improves student writing in the long term, this practice is useful when sending something to an outside audience.
  • Give the author a heads-up. The chances of an author responding to the students significantly increased when I provided advance notice that my students would be sending feedback or revisions.

Help Students Analyze Their Own Writing

Another benefit of doing author critiques is that students can use the analytical skills that they have learned to critique their own writing. The Sentence Opening Sheet is an excellent device for this purpose because it reformats the text so that students almost can't help seeing strengths and weaknesses in their writing. Many teachers have told me how well the Sentence Opening Sheet motivates student revision. Booth McKeown, who teaches in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, noted that I had been talking myself blue in the face about repetition [of sentence beginnings] with little effect, yet with these sheets the kids are able to see for themselves. One girl began seven of her first eight sentences with “John said.” She didn't understand what I meant by saying she was repetitious, yet just looking at this sheet made it all clear for her. (personal communication, February 22, 2003)
A 9th grader in an honors-level freshman English class completed the SOS in Figure 2 to analyze a piece of her writing. Reflecting on what she learned from the SOS, this student wrote: I found that I need to vary my sentence length more and start my second paragraph differently than my first. I also noticed I started three sentences in the second paragraph with if.
Let's face it: Reading for understanding and writing for meaning are extremely demanding ventures. Many of our students not only have difficulty mastering them, but they also are not that interested in trying. Educators need approaches that inspire students to write with clarity and forceful purpose, and writing critiques or revisions of an author's work is such an approach. That makes this reading-writing strategy well worth our instructional time.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., Worthy, J., Sandora, C. A., & Kucan, L. (1996). Questioning the author: Students with text. Elementary School Journal, 96(4), 387–416.

Burke, J. (2000). Reading reminders: Tools, tips, and techniques. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Jones, R. (1993). Strategies for reading comprehension: Questioning the author. ReadingQuest.org. Available: www.readingquest.org

Jordan, M. (2001). [Review of the book Strategic reading: Guiding students to lifelong literacy 6–12]. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook. Available: www.writingproject.org/pub/nwpr/quarterly/2002no2/jordan.html

Rosenblatt, L. (1938). Literature as exploration. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Rosenblatt, L. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Smith, L. (2001). Implementing the reading-writing connection. Paper presented at the 1998 annual conference of the National Association for Developmental Education, Atlanta, GA.

Stack the Deck Writing Program. (2001). Great strategy to help students revise using our sentence opening sheet (SOS). Available: www.stackthedeck.com/tips-great.html

University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. (2004). The survey routine. Available: www.ku-crl.org/iei/sim/routines/survey.html

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