Dale Carnegie, the famous personal development writer and speaker, once said, “People convinced against their will are of the same opinion still.” Well, the easiest way to convince students about everything in writing is to let them convince themselves. In fact, most every model in modern writing instruction attempts to place the ownership of student writing into the hands of student writers. The Timed Writing System is an effective step in that direction.

Purpose of the Timed Writing System

Early in my teaching career, I was confused by all the rhetoric from writing researchers and writing gurus. I wanted to know what really worked. I decided I needed an objective apples-to-apples method for monitoring my students’ writing growth. When I began using the Timed Writing System, my students and I breathed a sigh of relief, as the truth was finally clear.

This Timed Writing System will bring objectivity to your writing instruction. That objectivity will help you discover what works and what does not work in teaching writing. As such, you will become an even more effective writing teacher. As you will see, I don’t just outline the system; I also attempt to place it in a broader context. Hopefully, the system is something you can use, and then grow and adapt. Objectivity in writing instruction is something that is lacking.

You will know your writing instruction is right on track when your students tell you this: “I can’t even read what I was writing before.” The Timed Writing System lets student compare apples to apples and objectively verify that they are indeed becoming effective writers. When this happens, it becomes easy and fun to teach writing!

Warning: If your students are not making great progress in their writing, this Timed Writing System will reveal that as well. If this is the outcome, I suggest you check out the Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay writing curriculum on the homepage.


Evaluation is an extremely important component of writing and writing instruction. In one sense, an ability to evaluate writing is an ability to look at a piece of writing critically. We want students to be able to critically analyze and evaluate others writing and their own writing. A student who can do this is likely to be an effective reader and writer.

Here are three commonly used methods for evaluating writing:

1.  State writing assessments; district writing assessments; teacher graded writing assignments.

2.  Writing Portfolios.

3.  Rubrics: A common and popular rubric is the Six Traits of Writing rubric.

Skilled writing teachers try to make students an active participant in all this, and not just an observer. The Timed Writing System connects to or can be connected to all three of these forms of assessment. In fact, the Timed Writing System is a first step in making all three of these forms of assessment student owned and effective.

The Timed Writing System: Beginning Writers, Struggling Writers, and Advanced Writers

I developed the Timed Writing System with beginning writers and struggling writers. These students largely felt that writing edicts were handed down from mountaintops, and it was their job to simply and begrudging accept the edicts. The Timed Writing System helped change all that.

Although I began the Timed Writing System with lower level writers, I’ve adapted the system and grown the system to let teachers use the system with all levels of student writers. Additionally, teachers can grow and adapt the system right along with their increasingly effective student writers.

If you use the Timed Writing System and get nice results, be sure direct next year’s teacher to this webpage so they can continue to build upon your success!

Do you teach beginning writers or struggling writers? Be sure to check out Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay on the homepage!

Remove Bias: Objective Writing Results and Objective Writing Progress

Have you ever been to a student science fair? Well, a big problem at these science fairs is trying to figure out who really did the work. Similarly, when I look at a piece of writing, I wonder what the circumstances were for creating the piece of writing: i.e., How much time? How much assistance? What resources were used?  Without knowing the answers to these questions, I have no idea how to evaluate the piece of writing—at least objectively. Of course, I can offer a biased opinion based upon my assumptions. If it’s really good, I assume it took a great deal of time and has the teacher’s fingerprints all over it. If it’s poor writing, I assume the teacher did not teach the students to write properly. Of course, I would not say any of this aloud. In fact, I might not even be aware that I was thinking it.

In contrast, when I look at a state or district writing assessment, I understand exactly what I’m looking at. I don’t need to ask any questions. I am not biased; I am objective. And that’s a good thing.

The Writing Evaluation Quadrant

Quadrants are a nice tool when you have two categories that interact. In this case we do:

1.   Biased vs. Objective
2.   Writing Results vs. Writing Progress

writing evaluation quadrant
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These two categories create these four quadrants. Cleary, we want to evaluate writing only using quadrants 1 and 2. However, teachers enter quadrants 3 and 4 more often than you might think. When speaking conversationally, teachers are almost always in quadrants 3 and 4.

Writing Progress

We have three important categories of student writing, and writing teachers should care about all three:

1.  Daily schoolwork.

2.  Whole compositions (essays, reports, stories, research papers, articles, and letters).

3.  State and district writing assessments.

In all three categories, we want to see Objective Results and Objective Progress. Of course, with advanced writers, Objective Progress is more difficult to see than it is with beginning writers and struggling writers. Personally, I’ve spent most of my career teaching ELL students at Title 1 schools. With these students, there is room for lots of progress, so I want to see lots of progress.

The better a person writes, the more difficult it becomes to spot Objective Progress. At a certain point, one must be a literary critic to notice progress. If you teach fantastic writers, a year later their writing will still be fantastic. With fantastic writers, writing portfolios are likely to have greater value as students can simply reflect on their writing and think about about genre and the choices they make. They can evaluate and think about who they are as a writer.

But if you teach students who have room for a great deal of writing progress, NOTHING motivates them more than showing them their Objective Writing Progress.

Apples to Apples Comparison

Let’s look at three examples of apples-to-apples comparisons in education: 1) Standardized Tests, 2) The Timed Writing System, and 3) District Writing Assessments.

1.  Standardized Tests: Standardized tests are the main method we have for objectively measuring both results and progress. Standardized tests are an apples-to-apples comparison that measure year-over-year results and growth. Apple-to-apples means that everyone takes the same test in the same way according to the same rules. In addition to that, all modern testing services have a bias panel that examines every aspect of the test in an attempt to remove all hidden biases. For example, students won’t read a passage about living in the mountains because it offers an unfair advantage for students who live in the mountains.

2.  The Timed Writing System: As you will see, the Timed Writing System is the fastest, most effective, least obtrusive method for showing students an apples-to-apples comparison of their writing results and writing progress. In fact, it’s so objective that the teacher doesn’t even need to comment on the results and progress. Students can see it for themselves. Because it’s an apples-to-apples comparison, over time, the results and progress (or lack of) is so clear and obvious that no one need comment. In short, the Timed Writing System lets the chips fall where they may.

3.  District Writing Assessments: School districts often assign two or three timed-writing assessments each year. The genres on each of these district writing assessments will be different, but other than that, these writing assessments show an apples-to-apples comparison. Districts often let teachers keep the assessments after the scores have been entered, and teachers should make use of them. Unfortunately, these district writing assessments are too few and too late in the year to help students monitor their own writing progress. (Note: State Writing Assessments are of no value as an apples-to-apples comparison, as students are only tested once every few years.)

Writing Portfolios

Teachers use writing portfolios to show a variety of stakeholders writing growth, writing process, and writing achievement. The use of portfolios may be optional or required. I mention writing portfolios now because, in one sense, the Timed Writing System is a high-octane portfolio system where students monitor and verify objective growth. In contrast to traditional portfolios, the Timed Writing System is quick and easy and lets students compare apples to apples.

Most of the benefits people attach to writing portfolios are also found using the Timed Writing System:

1.   They help demonstrate growth and achievement.
2.   They help empower student writers.
3.   They help create student ownership of writing.
4.   They help students learn to reflect on and analyze their own writing.
5.   They help foster authentic assessment.

When used skillfully and with purpose, writing portfolios offer great benefits. But like everything in teaching writing, certain strategies work for certain teachers and with certain students. Everything in teaching writing is a choice of how to best use TIME. Because of the time required to maximize the benefits of writing portfolios, I don’t think most teachers get great results with them. It’s a triumph just to teach students how to use portfolios in the way researchers and theorists say they should work. Truthfully, the way most writing portfolios are used is similar to how a photo album is used. They are just a walk down memory lane. Naturally, proponents of writing portfolios want them to be much more than that.

The main problem with portfolios is that they are not apples to apples comparisons, which means that every piece of writing has different variables that went into creating the writing. This creates many analysis problems for already confused student writers. How much progress have they actually made? In short, students know that with enough time and with enough help, anything is possible.

The Timed Writing System: Getting Started

Please keep in mind that the Timed Writing System can be grown and adapted. In fact, there comes a time when the system should be built on and adapted. (We will talk about that soon.) As you will see, I point out a number of different strategic options that you can choose from in order to meet the needs of your students.

The Timed Writing System: Writing Prompts, Advanced Notice, and Genre

Students need to write about something, and teacher have two choices: 1) Let the students choose what to write about. 2) Use writing prompts. Let’s look at each of these.

1. Students’ Choice: For many years, I let students choose what to write about on their timed writings. I’ve always taught students that anything and everything can be written about and explored in writing. I’ve even encouraged students to write about everyday items e.g., chairs. (I’ve read many wonderful essays about chairs!) However, my writing instruction is now significantly more focused and targeted than it used to be. Also worth mentioning, struggling writers often choose to repeat the same topic and essay over and over again almost verbatim. That hinders writing progress, along with the analysis of their writing progress.

2. Using a Prompt: For many reasons, this is probably the better method. First and foremost, you can make sure students understand how to correctly dissect a prompt, address a prompt, and then stay on topic – all while a timer is ticking. If you are going to use a prompt, I recommend using these Released Writing Prompts from State Writing Assessments. Because of the limited time, be sure to choose simple prompts that all students will find easy to address. Note: Be sure to keep a list of the prompts that you use so that you will be able connect the writing samples to the prompts later in the year.

Advanced Notice: I give students at least a 30-minute advanced notice before we do a timed writing. Whatever type of advanced notice you give, try to be consistent. If you use the prompt method, write the prompt on the front board or tell them what it is when you give your advanced notice. Truthfully, I haven’t found the amount of advanced-notice time to be a significant factor. In fact, when I began using the Timed Writing System, I often gave students just 5 minutes notice and it was never a problem. However, I now think it’s fair to let students mentally prepare for a piece of writing that’s not going to vanish.

Genres: If students choose what to write about, genre is not an issue, as it is the students’ choice. But if you are choosing writing prompts from these Released Writing Prompts from State Writing Assessments, I recommend choosing from expository, argument/persuasive/opinion, and narrative. In short, just like the CCSS, skip descriptive writing. Keep in mind that the rules, strategies, and techniques used in an effective narrative story (as opposed to a basic narrative, narrative report, or narrative article) are quite different from those of expository and argument writing. You may wish to exclude narrative stories, as they require a unique set of skills. Of course, all of this depends on the genres, techniques, and strategies that you teach your students. You want to monitor and evaluate that which you teach.

The Timed Writing System: Directions

The system is surprisingly simple!

1.  Students do a 5-minute prewriting.

2.  Students do a 20-minute writing session. (Note: Students are stopped mid essay. When the time is up, the time is up. Students will want to write more, and that’s a good thing!)

3.  Staple each student’s first timed writing to a piece of construction paper and post them on a bulletin board using pushpins. This will allow you to remove them and update them easily. Depending on the grade level, you may want students to illustrate a picture that goes side by side with the writing on the same piece of construction paper. It makes for a nice bulletin board. (Note: You can also store these in the same way you would store a portfolio, or perhaps, switch back and forth between the two methods.)

4.  After a certain amount of time, and after a certain amount of instruction, do another timed writing. Staple the new timed writing on top of the old in a way that the writing can be flipped, browsed, and compared. Have students evaluate their writing progress and then return their writing to the bulletin board.

5.  Note: Teachers don’t need to add every single timed writing to the collection of writing. (see below)

6.  Note: Tracking Prewriting – It’s certainly wise to track prewriting by stapling students’ prewriting together. Having said that, store the prewriting separately. Don’t attach the prewriting to the Timed Writing System.

The basic Timed Writing System as outlined here consists of just two sections:

1.  Prewriting: Initially students may not do any kind of effective prewriting. Don’t teach them how to prewrite before they do their first prewriting. Let the chips fall where they may. (Well, a quick review may be necessary just so students understand what Prewriting is.) The whole point of the Timed Writing System is to show progress. Students need to discover for themselves that what they learn about writing is important. Effective prewriting is an important skill in itself!

2.  Writing and Rewriting (editing, revising, proofreading): With most students, this is just Writing time. Students may also rewrite during this time, but are unlikely to. Most students will attempt to write a whole composition before they will seriously attempt to rewrite. Once students finish a whole composition, if they take pride in their writing, they will most certainly begin to rewrite.

3.  * Rewriting: We will discuss adding a separate Rewriting section in “Adapting and Growing the Timed Writing System.”

The Timing and Frequency of the Timed Writings: Consistency and Strategy

Teachers must balance these two highly valued qualities in teaching: 1) Consistency, and 2) Strategy.

Consistent Schedule: Consistency in teaching is always a wise strategy. As such, teachers can establish a consistent schedule. Having said that, I would also allow room for flexibility and strategy. The whole point of the Timed Writing System is to motivate students to improve their writing and to show students their improvement. For this reason, even with consistency, teachers should allow some room for strategy. For most teachers and students, every 2-4 weeks will work fine.

Strategy: I usually have a strategic reason for adding a timed writing to the collection of writing. My strategic reasons fall into three categories:

1.  I want to develop some of the “benefits people attach to writing portfolios” listed above.

2.  I want to show students their progress, or to verify what I suspect may be a lack of progress.

3.  I want to remind students that we are tracking and will continue to track their writing progress. If there has been a lackadaisical sense of writing purpose in the classroom, I may need to remind students of our commitment to writing growth. Or perhaps, students’ writing progress had been minimal on the newest timed writing, and therefore, I repeat the timed writing several times in short order for emphasis, and with the purpose of instilling a renewed commitment to writing growth. I may need to do 2-3 timed writings in a week to make this point clear, and I will be sure to follow up in another 1-2 weeks with another.

As I mentioned before, teachers don’t need to add every single timed writing to the collection of writing. There may be times when a few timed writings in short succession will help students to break through to new levels. Also, there are times when you might do a timed writing and tell the students that they will do another one in a week and that the later will be added to the collection. It wouldn’t be effective or worthwhile to add all of these to the collection.

Adapting and Growing the Timed Writing System

A teacher may choose to adapt or grow the Timed Writing System at three different times:

1.  Before the system has been implemented.
2.  While the system is in use (midyear).
3.  Both before and midyear.

Adapting and growing the Timed Writing System depends on three things: 1) the beginning configuration, 2) the students’ writing progress, and 3) how long the teacher will teach the students.

Most teachers teach students for one school year; however, this Timed Writing System can be grown over several years. Why toss aside a system that works? If you use the system and have success, please direct the following year’s teacher to this webpage so they can learn how to build on your success. So, we have three kinds of teachers who may need to adapt and grow the Timed Writing System:

1. The First Year Teacher: Teachers have the students for one year. These teachers may need to adapt and grow the system mildly throughout the year.

2. The Second Year Teacher: If the students used the system the prior year and achieved substantial growth, the Second Year Teacher would want to implement a more advanced version of the Timed Writing System.

3. The Multi-Year Teacher (e.g., homeschool): These teachers should start simple and grow the Timed Writing System, eventually combining with other authentic self-evaluation methods (rubrics, checklists, and portfolios).  The first step in getting students to self-evaluate is to get them to understand that they truly can improve their writing. The Timed Writing System is this first step.

Please consider how you may want to adapt the Timed Writing System before you implement the system. Remember, we are attempting to maintain an apple-to-apples comparison, so we don’t want to change the system midyear unnecessarily or significantly.

Getting the Beginning Configuration Correct

If you begin the Timed Writing System using an effective configuration, it minimizes the likelihood that you will need to change the system midyear. That being said, if your students demonstrate tremendous writing growth, you will likely need to modify the system in some way midyear.

Important Note: Every time you change the system midyear, you weaken the apples-to-apples comparison. Therefore, change the system midyear sparingly. Additionally, mark the papers where you make changes in the system. (Clip a corner or mark it with a dot.) If you make major changes, you may prefer to start a new and separate collection. Note: Adding a little more time lets the writing grow, but most people will view the improvement in the quality of the writing as unrelated to a meager amount of time being added. The writing growth, for the most part, will stand on its own.

As we move forward, keep these two types of student writers in mind:

1.  Beginning and Struggling Writers: Begin the system with or very close to the 5/20 basic system.

2.  Advanced Writers: Think about and strategize on how to best use this apples-to-apples Timed Writing System. (see below)

Modifications: Adapting and Growing the Timed Writing System

We have five changes we can make to the Timed Writing System. We can make these changes to the system before we begin using the system or while we are using the system (midyear). I do address a few more modification below, which are designed specifically for advanced writers.

Modification 1: Time and Dividing Up the Time

Modification 2: Add a Separate Rewriting Section or Combine Rewriting with the Writing Section (Rewriting = Editing, Proofreading, and Revising)

Modification 3: Add a Formal Evaluation System

Modification 4: Implement the Timed Writing System in Daily Writing Across the Curriculum

Modification 5: Implement the System with Genre Specific Writing

Modification 1: Time and Dividing Up the Time

There are only two components in the basic Timed Writing System: 1) Time, and 2) The Writing Process: Prewriting; Writing; Rewriting.

As you have seen, I break up the Timed Writing System into two parts: 5 minutes prewriting; 20 minutes writing. I highly recommend this 5/20 system. It takes just 25 minutes and provides all the information most teachers and students will need to monitor both writing growth and achievement.

That being said, teachers may choose a different configuration. I do recommend that teachers use their time both wisely and strategically. With the Timed Writing System, I want the students to want more time, not have too much time. When the system is first implemented, many students will not use the time provided with skill, but when they can use the time provided with skill, I may add on more time in order to allow more skills to develop and shine through.

In short, teachers must decided on an appropriate amount of time and decide how to divide up that time. Teachers must base their decisions on three things:

1.  Knowledge of students’ current writing skills.
2.  Expected growth.
3.  The genres, skills, and techniques the teacher plans to teach students.

As the students’ skills grow, change, and improve, the teacher may want to add additional time and divide up the time differently. Here are some other configurations:  ♦ 5/20  ♦ 7/20  ♦ 10/20  ♦ 7/25  ♦ 10/25  ♦ 10/30  ♦ 15/30  ♦ 10/35  ♦ 15/35  ♦ 15/40. (Note: All of these time configurations show only Prewriting and Writing sessions.)

Modification 2: Add a Separate Rewriting Section or Combine Rewriting with the Writing Section (Rewriting = Editing, Proofreading, and Revising)

My goal with the Timed Writing System is to get students to organize and write a reasonably good first draft of a complete essay in a short amount of time. When students have achieved this, they actually WANT to rewrite, and as such, it’s a good time to add on a separate rewriting section.

Adding separate Writing Process components accomplishes two things:

1.   It lets students know the writing process is real and required.
2.   It lets teachers and students monitor and evaluate both achievement and growth in each component of the writing process.

Teachers can add a separate Rewriting section if they wish. However, it does change the nature of the Timed Writing System. It turns the system into more of a deep analytical tool, as opposed to a quick and novel tool.

Unlike the prewriting section, there is no need to add a separate rewriting section until students are already somewhat effective writers and rewriters. That being said, don’t stop students from rewriting during the main timed writing session if they so desire. In fact, seeing this is a sign students will respond favorably to having a separate rewriting section added.

If you do decide to add a separate rewriting section, don’t let students use their rewriting time to write more. Naturally, students who have not finished their whole composition will try to finish their whole composition instead of rewriting. Once again, don’t let them. It would be better to add more time to to the writing section and allow all students to use their time as they please. Add a separate rewriting section only when you want to stress the importance of rewriting and monitor active rewriting.

Modification 3: Add a Formal Evaluation System

With the Timed Writing System, the evaluation system I cherish most is students exclaiming, “I can’t even read what I was writing before!” That’s what I call writing success. However, the better students can write initially, the more difficult it is to identify progress. As such, teachers may want to use more formal methods of analysis and evaluation. Needless to say, teaching students to evaluate their own writing using formal methods is invaluable.

Teachers and students can evaluate achievement, progress, or both. We have three basic tools for evaluating student writing: rubrics, checklists, and grades.

Keep this in mind: The evaluation process can be quick and easy. Sometimes it’s better to evaluate more writing quickly, as opposed to evaluating less writing deeply. Time management requires good judgment. In order to evaluate Writing Progress, teachers can simply give students a list of the Six Traits of Writing on a piece of paper and have students mark a plus sign, minus sign, or equal sign (+, -, =) next to each indicating progress or decline in each category. Teachers can also add additional categories and qualities of writing. On timed writings, I always use the category of “Prolific” i.e., quantity. Beginning and struggling writers need to become prolific as much as they need to become perfect. It’s relatively easy to teach prolific writers how to become perfect writers.

After every timed writing, formally or informally, students must reflect on, analyze, and compare their new writing to their old writing. Students enjoy doing this, and it’s easily accomplished while the teacher attaches the new writing to the old. But as you now see, teachers can also add other types of formal evaluation forcing even deeper reflection.

Modification 4: Implement the Timed Writing System in Daily Writing Across the Curriculum

Teachers can implement the entire Timed Writing System using the writing students already do. For example, in science and history, at the end of every chapter and unit students have comprehension questions to answer. Teachers can use this writing to monitor student writing. The key, of course, is to keep it apple to apples, and by now, I’m sure you can figure out how to that!

Keep in mind that teachers can do this Timed Writing Across the Curriculum in addition to or instead of the regular Timed Writing System.

Modification 5: Implement the System with Genre Specific Writing

Teachers can track different genres of writing. Naturally, the Four Main Genres (narrative, descriptive, expository, and argument) would be a great place to start. Realistically, this would be difficult to implement in a single year. However, multi-year teachers or a succession of teachers can track genre across several years.

Adapting the Timed Writing System for Advanced Student Writers

Time matters. Advanced student writers understand this. At least they had better, as they have a number of very important timed writing sessions coming forth. For this reason, teachers can still utilize the Timed Writing System even with advanced student writers. Put simply, the ability to objectively compare apples-to-apples always has value.

I suggest three possible modifications for advanced student writers:

1.  Replicate a State or District Writing Assessment: The biggest adaption possible to the Timed Writing System is to simply replicate a district or state writing assessment: one prompt and one undivided hour. If you teach advanced student writers who will utilize the the entire hour and the entire writing process without encouragement, this may be an excellent strategy. Because of the large amount of time required, I would only do this 4-6 times a year maximum. You may also want students to evaluate their writing using a simple Six Traits rubric.

2.  Make the Timed Writings a Small Component of a Larger Portfolio System: The Timed Writing System trains students to analyze and reflect on their writing. By the time students are advanced writers, they should fully understand genre and be proficient in using checklists and rubrics. In short, students should have all the tools needed to effectively use writing portfolios. Timed writing is still an important component of student writing, so it should be included as a small component of a larger portfolio system.

3.  Track Researching Skills and Writing from Sources: This kind of writing becomes more and more important in student writing as each year passes. Teachers can monitor progress in this kind of writing using the Timed Writing System. All teachers need to do is provide students with a few articles or experts and implement the Timed Writing System as usual.

You may also be interested in:

•   Writing Fluency: Teaching Students to Write FAST Using the Timed Writing System
•   Objective Evaluation: Student Writing Samples and Scoring Commentary

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