Little Boxes on the Desktop: Keeping Writing Small

pile of cubes


I went to a pretty good conference last weekend. It made me think of the old folksong, “Little Boxes on the Hillside” (scroll down to the bonus audio). There was a lot of writing involved in sessions throughout the day, which is always a good thing. But in each session I attended where writing was involved, I got a handout with boxes on the page. One sheet had a box that was a quarter of a page. One was a half a page. One box had two columns.

The boxes were surrounded by text. Most of the boxy handouts also included a bulleted list of directions, or descriptions, or examples. I didn’t read any of those words. Most of the time I started scribbling some ideas the speaker had sparked; I knew I would use them to rough-sketch a larger piece.

But in the last session, the handout had the smallest box of all, framed by the most written language. I couldn’t help but wonder how there could be enough room for a kid’s words on that page. And what if I were a kid whose handwriting was large? Would I feel there wasn’t room enough for me to make myself heard? And then, with all those sentences and paragraphs talking at me, I wondered if there would be room for kids to even hear themselves think.

For some kids, “just jot a few ideas in the box” can make a worrisome task a little easier to approach. But I wonder about the lessons hidden inside the boxes. 

I worry that the boxes suggest writing is simpler, easier than it really is. Getting ideas out onto a page is an essential part of composing. But if I like to sketch my thoughts, do a mindmap, how does that fit in a box?  Then there is the sorting through, the selection of the golden nuggets from the ordinary rocks. There’s not much to choose from if you don’t have room to make a pile.

Boxes may be easier for teachers, but in the long run, for students, learning to cope with writing as a deeply individual, often messy process is one of the cornerstones of being a writer.

What do we do instead?

Making writing transparent keeps us honest. I can’t always write with my students, but I can always share my experiences as a writer, and strategies they may want to try. I think of that initial draft– for me, usually a sprawl of half finished sentences, stubs of paragraphs down the computer screen. Messy. But messy is better than nothing.

I think of Anne LaMott’s chapter about writing a shitty first draft. Yes, I have brought that chapter into high school, sometimes with the word blacked out, sometimes– with the blessing of the principal or department chair– with the S word hanging out on the page in all its glory.

Talking about strategies for recognizing and coping with Fear of the Blank Page is a good start. Why not talk about the monstrous little voice that whispers mean things to you when you write? (The little voice that’s saying, what little voice right this minute.)  I ask students to draw a picture of that monster. We write the things the monster says that make us anxious, make us stuff back our words. Then we talk all semester long about standing up and speaking our truth right in the monster’s face.

These are important points of departure for me when I teach writing.

Conference handouts may not signal that all teachers are relying on boxes, but when I looked more closely at them at home, the pages seemed like actual assignments given to high school students.

We are lucky to know a lot about what works in teaching writing. But sometimes “best practices” become not practices to interpret and make our own, but scripts or formulae to follow– little boxes, if you will.

I worry that little boxes on the page make for little pieces of writing, writing that takes no risks and, thus, offers readers no real reward.

And what do little boxes in teaching have to offer? Certainly not a compelling invitation to learn.


Bonus Audio: Malvina Reynolds






Slice of Life is the weekly writing Challenge on Two Writing Teachers. Come write along with us!

2 responses to “Little Boxes on the Desktop: Keeping Writing Small”

  1. Terje says:

    “Messy is better than nothing” – cheers to that. The writers should be able to create their own imaginary boxes, just the right size for them and purpose of writing. When I read the beginning of your slice, I pictured various boxes but somehow not in the context of writing more like an art form.

    • Karen says:

      “…just the right size for them and purpose of writing.” I love that you incorporate student agency here. Thanks for reading.

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