Reaching the Resistant Writer

By Mark Overmeyer, author of Let’s Talk: One on One, Small Group, and Peer Conferences, Stenhouse

Mark Overmeyer (1)

Mark Overmeyer will be speaking at the 2016 Literacy for All Conference at the following sessions. 

  • Sunday, October 23rd 11:00AM-4:00PM “Let’s Talk: Developing Writers Through Intentional Talk (GradesK-5)”.
  • Monday, October 24th 10:30AM-12:00PM “Scaffolding Instruction for All Learners in the Writing Workshop (Grades K-5)”  (This session will be repeated Monday, October 24th 1:30PM-3:00PM)

Reaching the Resistant Writer

One truth I have learned about resistant writers has helped me more than any other:

Resistant writers are better at resisting than they are at writing. They resist because they have practiced resisting.

I need to figure out how to nudge them toward practicing writing more than they practice resisting. And if I have a resister sitting in front of me, I am already behind because they have become very good at avoiding.

These kind of negative thoughts about resisters don’t help: “They just won’t write! They hate writing. It’s making me crazy. I’ve tried everything. If they won’t write, I can’t do anything about it.”

This kind of thinking is more helpful: “I wonder why this writer resists so much… I notice some days are better for him than others. What do I need to know about this writer to help him write more?”

When I think about my resisters as opportunities to learn – when I “love” the resistance – then I am more likely to provide meaningful support.

I do not claim to be an expert on working with resistant writers, but I have certainly had a lot of practice. I have become better at figuring out what to say and what not to say when working with resisters.

One resistant writer who taught me a lot was in my fifth grade class a few years ago. Jonathan was a passive resister. He didn’t say much at all during writing time, and he preferred to be left alone. Some days, Jonathan wrote nothing. Other days, he would write a few lines of text during writing workshop. I made the mistake of being overly enthusiastic about his progress one day, and he shut down for the next few workshops.

As I continued to observe Jonathan, he taught me that some resisters respond to an invitation to talk. Instead of being too enthusiastic – “That’s awesome, Jonathan! You got so much done

today! I knew you could do it!” – I started to talk to him more like this:

“Jonathan, I noticed you wrote more today than yesterday. What do you think made the difference for you?”

Allowing Jonathan into the conversation is what I was missing at first. When I started asking him what he thought, he engaged more willingly. I began respecting Jonathan as a writer who could articulate something about his own process. Our talks allowed him to learn strategies that he could replicate later. Peter Johnson, in his book Choice Words, would say that I am helping Jonathan build his identity as a writer here: I am no longer telling Jonathan what to do. I am including him in the conversation so that we can figure things out together and to build his agency.

One strategy I use now to help all writers, but particularly resisters, is to name specifically what seems to work. For example, if a conference reveals that choice makes a difference, I might say: “So today, it seems like choice helped you. I gave you some choices, but you also made a good choice about what to write. So one strategy that works for you as a writer is to choose topics you care about.”

On another day, we might come to the conclusion that talking with a partner supports writing: “Do you see how talking out your idea for even a few minutes helped you? You seemed more excited to start writing today because your partner liked your story.”

Slowly, over time, resisters like Jonathan who practice writing more than resisting start to change. As the months go by, writing replaces resistance.

Instead of being frustrated by resisters, try loving the resistance. Embrace the challenge. See resisters as opportunities to learn, as writers full of possibility.


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