5 Reasons Writing is Harder Than it Looks

Writing assignments are a fact of school life, from middle school through college (and beyond). While all that writing practice is valuable, it’s also stressful. 

Why? Because writing is a macro-skill. To write well, students have to develop a series of underlying skills. Given the wide range of skills involved, most students will struggle with writing at some point. This may be especially true for students whose underlying skills are lagging due to learning or attention differences or executive function challenges.

The good news is that understanding why writing is so hard is actually half the battle. It helps us isolate the things students need to work on so they can start feeling more confident when they write for school.

Here are five underlying skills that form the foundation of solid writing. 

1. Graphomotor coordination

Graphomotor development is a bigger factor for younger kids but, if your child’s graphomotor skill lags behind what their early elementary classes demand, the sheer act of getting words on the paper can be painful. (Literally, in some cases!) 

If a young student is spending most of their mental energy on forming letters legibly, they won’t have much cognitive bandwidth for thinking about the content of what they’re writing. One sentence may not look like much, but it sure takes a lot for kids who struggle in this area.

It’s important to keep an eye on how early skills like this can affect a student’s long term confidence in themselves as a writer. If they’ve spent all their energy on one sentence, there’s still value in asking them to dictate what sentences two through five might have said. A parent or teacher can write as they speak so they start to see that they have a lot to say, even if their little hands won’t quite let them say it all yet!

2. Brainstorming/open-ended ideation

College essays, anyone? “Tell the committee about a time you faced a challenge and grew from the experience.” Can we blame our kids if it takes a minute to identify and elaborate on examples that might fit this question? It takes a lot of self-awareness and the ability to apply a large, open-ended idea to specifics in their life.

As our friend and colleague, Kim Lifton of the WOW Writing Workshop, often says, writing well is about learning to reflect. This is true but also challenging! 

Younger students will see a more basic version of this question when their teachers ask them to keep a summer journal or write a reaction paper. Whether they’re in 5th grade or 12th, the fundamental task is the same: You’ve just experienced something; now tell us in your own words what that experience meant to you and how it affected you.

We, and our students, can all benefit from pausing more to reflect on life’s big and small moments. It starts wiring our brains to be better writers and, even more importantly, helps us become better humans.

3. Planning

If your student is in middle school, high school, or college it’s likely that their writing assignments will require more than one sitting to complete. For many students, estimating how many steps are involved in an assignment, how long each step will take, and then breaking the work up accordingly, is a big challenge in itself.

A typical summer assignment in the middle school years is to read several books, choose one or more, and then complete a writing assignment based on what you’ve read. Planning this assignment requires a student to predict how long it will take them to complete the assigned books and how long it will take to write the response. 

Should they be taking note of certain things in the book while they read? Marking key passages? Is there a rubric for the assignment that they should use when they revise their work? All great questions, but none of them are helpful if they’re first asked the night before the assignment is due.

4. Organization

As we say in our new writing curriculum, “writing is like a puzzle.” Your student may be done reading The Hobbit  and “ready” to write their summer essay but feel stuck. Maybe they’re not sure how the essay should start. Or maybe they’re not sure how to structure the paragraphs so that they address their teacher’s prompt in a logical way.

Pre-writing exercises can help immensely. Outlining is a common one that many parents probably remember from their school days but it’s far from the only one. Different types of organizational tools work well for different students on different assignments. 

5. Mechanics of writing and style

The “one” sub-skill is really a catch-all for many (many!) skills. In fact, even great writers are constantly developing their abilities in this space.

Experienced writers have a very solid understanding of voice, audience, rhetorical devices, the various types of writing, like personal narrative and persuasive essay. Powerful writing also involves having a strong vocabulary, a solid grasp or grammar, sentence structure, and more.

Is your hand cramping yet?

It’s ok. Shake it out and start with one skill at a time. The next time you see your student struggling with a writing assignment, you’ll be surprised how empowering it feels to have a more nuanced idea of what’s actually happening beneath the surface. 

Start with one skill that’s lagging and coach them in that area. Did they dive in to start writing without thinking through the structure? Are they having trouble reflecting? Whatever’s getting in their way, you can coach them through it with helpful questions, support, and patience. 

Our tutors are here to help, too! Using our Writing Workshop curriculum, our tutors can work 1-1 with your student to help them develop the skills they need to be a more confident and effective writer. To learn more about how we can support your student with 1-1 writing tutoring, book a time to speak with an Applerouth Program Advisor.


Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 202-558-5644 or info@applerouth.com.