Sweet letters from my students: how to write conversationally

betty ming liu Relationships, Writing how-to's 8 Comments

At colleges everywhere, the spring semester has sprung without me! But at least my former students are still around. Some even send nice notes that are great examples of ways to grow as writers. 

When they email, I weep tears of joy — which is more pleasurable than the frustrated sobbing that comes with grading piles of homework. Their act of reaching out always shows me how much they’ve matured. The reconnection also puts us on new turf as fellow writers, adventurers and friends. 

Below are recent emails from three students that I consider good examples of the conversational writing process. This is a journalistic approach that strives to interact with people on a down-to-earth, accessible level. I hope these illustrations are helpful because conversational writing is super-difficult to teach: 

  • The second folks hear the words “homework” or “writing professionally,” they get tense.  
  • People seem to think that they look smart when they write tangled, comma-filled sentences. 
  • Writers suffer from chronic self-doubt. 

So my solution is to trick students into a conversational head. After they’ve struggled a few weeks in one of my journalism or personal essay writing classes, I make an announcement:

“Okay people. There’s no homework for next Thursday. Instead, shoot me an informative email. I just want to understand where you’re at in terms of pulling together your pieces. Keep the sentences short and easy to read. Try for decent spelling and grammar too. But that’s it. You can work on your actual stories two weeks from now.  Oh — and by the way, I am NOT grading this.”

Eureka! Now everyone relaxes enough to really write. So maybe next time you’re wrangling with Important Stuff, this email exercise might do the trick for dealing with everything from journalism and fiction to an artist’s mission statement or marketing brochure.

After nailing the email, you’ll have enough dynamic concepts to move forward. From here, it’s much easier to layer in the reporting/research and refine the writing. Once your confidence is up, it’s even possible to pen long, lovely fluid sentences. 

The three emails below are examples of the power of our natural voices. The students come from three different schools that I’ve taught at over the years. And yes, they each gave me permission to share their beautiful, heartfelt words. 


Don’t overthink!

JudyLee Martinez and I met at the Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute. During our personal essay classes, she told us about her quarter-life crisis. But trying to write about it overwhelmed her. She was practically paralyzed by too much to say. Then at last, she settled down to examine one traumatic moment in her life.

Now she’s finally 25 and juggling her work as a nanny while growing as a writer. JudyLee dashed off her email to me on her iPhone. She didn’t labor over it; the tone is fresh. This is always the first step. Just get the material down. You can always rewrite later. JudyLee continues to practice her craft on Twitter and her Tumblr blog.

hey Betty! 

I’ve been thinking about you and the classes I took with you a lot lately. I wanted desperately to take another class with you this semester but I’ve had intense family health issues and making frequent trips back to Wisconsin so i just knew I wouldn’t be able to give it the attention it deserves. 

I’ve been keeping up with you through your blog and am so incredibly happy that you’re continuing a dream and becoming a full time journalist again but also deeply saddened that I won’t have the opportunity to have you as a teacher again. Your class was so vitally important to my life. I honestly don’t think I would be who I am today if i hadnt ventured into my past as intensely as i did with all your amazing writing topics. 

I don’t know if you remember but the fellowship paper I was working on in your class was about my dad. Well, this Christmas I will be seeing him for the first time in 18 years. I would have never asked to see him if all that writing hadn’t worked its therapeutic healing on me. Besides that, there’s been many changes since I last you….changes I would have loved to have shared with you and that old classroom. 

All this rambling I guess is just me trying to say, thank you. so much. you made me re-write and re-write and re-write again and again. Most importantly, you heard/read sans judgment. I grew up in your class and  am forever grateful. I’ll keep an eye out for your name in bylines for always. 

with much, much respect and gratitude, 


Sent from my iPhone


Journalistic writing can power any kind of writing

Next up, Emily Ranager of NYU. During our intensive reporting/writing class, this ace journalism major  decided that she’d actually rather teach. Today, she’s Ms. Ranager to the third graders at P.S. 89 in Elmhurst, Queens. But journalistic training has sharpened her go-getter skills and voice. Please check out her DonorsChose.org page and consider helping her kids.

Recently, Emily surprised me with a hello on Facebook. Her  message mentions a framed picture. For this post, she supplied a shot of her “prize.” It’s something I picked up at a tag sale. I used to love scouting for junky items to give away as classroom prizes. And aren’t her students adorable?

Hi Betty,

I haven’t been very good about keeping up with all the Very Important Happenings on the Internet, and I’ve fallen a bit behind on reading your blog. I just saw your wonderful news about going back to reporting full-time–big congratulations!–and I hope the transition back to that world is going well. 

I just wanted to tell you again how much you meant to me as a teacher. Even though I didn’t stick with journalism, your passion for your craft, enthusiasm for your students, heartfelt feedback, and creativity have helped shaped who I hope to be as an educator. I have sold back every book I owned from college classes, except for Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (and those wise authors have created a version for elementary school students, which I frequently use to teach my third graders the joys of good grammar). 

On our last day of class, you brought in a box of prizes, mostly things you’d gathered from yard sales that would soon make their own journeys to Goodwill. For writing a decent story, I chose a framed picture of  Verb, its definition illustrated by a gentleman riding a horse. It is now hanging above the bathroom sink in its third little Manhattan apartment, and I am fondly reminded of you each morning as I brush my teeth. 

I am so thankful I was blessed to have you as a teacher, and I was really sad when I heard today that that part of your life had come to an end. You truly have a gift; thank you for sharing it with me. 

Best of luck in all you choose to do,



Conversational summaries pack in a lot of info

One of my early gigs was running a month-long high school journalism boot camp for New York City kids. The program was based at my alma mater, Baruch College. When I met Gavin, he reminded me of someone I once knew….we are both Stuyvesant High School graduates who were raised in Chinatown by Chinese immigrant parents.

Below is a holiday letter that he sent out as a mass email. If it wasn’t for the fact that he addresses me as “Betty Liu” rather than just “Betty,” I never would’ve guessed. After all, this reads like a warm, personal note — like he’s talking to only me.

I really enjoyed the concise summaries of all the things going on in his life. He even sums up our connection in the last paragraph. Gavin is now studying journalism at Dartmouth College. You can follow his journey on Twitter.

Dear Betty Liu:

I just got back from the first American-style Thanksgiving dinner I have ever had – ironically, it was in a hotel in Beijing with a group of friends and teachers on a study abroad trip. It is unexpected moments like this that I cherish the life I have, the friends and family I am with, and the educational opportunities that I am afforded through the support of many generous people like you who offer guidance and wisdom.

In the past three months of my experience here in China, I have mingled with ancient history in the Forbidden City, rubbed shoulders with Tibetans in the Potala Palace, encountered giant pandas in Sichuan, and marveled at modernity amongst the skyscrapers of Shanghai. While traveling to all these different places and encountering vastly different cultures, I have never stopped thinking about home and the people who have helped me along the way, the people who have made my life possible.

I have discovered in these past three months that the world is a very small place, that every small interaction is precious. That is why this Thanksgiving, I would like to give thanks to everyone who has helped me along in my life, in both large and small ways. I am forever indebted to the journalism program at Baruch, the guidance you provided in my academic, professional, and experiential growth, and of course your blog posts. Even though I am half a world away from home today, I am grateful for the people 8,000 miles away who have helped me get here. I hope this holiday season, you find yourself too enjoying the company of those you love and cherish.

Best wishes,

Gavin Huang


So that’s today’s post. As you can tell, I really miss the classroom. Of course, I love my new job as reporter for the hyperlocal news website that Newsday plans to launch soon. I started my digital journalism job on Jan. 1. But students filled my life for the last seven years and they’re very hard to forget…

With this post, I’m exploring new ways to keep teaching. What if do more blogging about the writing process? Would that be useful?  If you feel like chatting about this, your own work or anything else, please feel free to drop us a comment. Looking forward to hearing from you. xo

Comments 8

  1. Betty it would be awesome if you blog more about the writing process, that would be sooo useful for me. Im taking a writing class at st.johns now and its killing me!! Its a twice a week class and twice a week there are papers due. I would love to get some tips on how to keep up in this class. btw this post was awesome.

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  3. Even outside of the classroom, I’m still learning from you. Doing my best to stop over thinking and just write.

  4. Betty: Actually, the teaching part of your life, you will find, is not over. If you are a real teacher, which you are, it is never over. Opportunities to provide guidence, caring and even instruction to young people will just naturally come your way and as a true teacher, you will recognize and act on them without hesitation – because it is an integral part of who and what you are. You will even find that some of your most successful and rewarding teaching experiences will have nothing to do with a classroom setting.

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    judylee — i’m also trying not to overthink things. just be in the moment!

    and toby, dealing with change can be a little scary. the classroom was always a safe space. but i appreciate what you’re saying here. we bring the best of ourselves with us, where ever we go, whatever we do.

  6. Recently a web site called Students First ran a contest in which students were invited to submit 6 word essays discribing great teaching. The top 30 entries are as follows. I found them to be remarkable and very inspiring. One can only hope that, as a teacher, one has to some extent lived up to these expectations.

    Encouraging the discouraged to defy obstacles.

    . Building confidence; Opening doors; Shaping futures.

    . Teachers hold the ladders students climb.

    . Handing out keys to the world.

    . Stretching imaginations, expanding knowledge, multiplying opportunities.

    . Changing the world by expecting excellence.

    . Teachers illuminate darkness to reveal possibilities.

    . Planting the seed of I can.

    . Destroy chains. Shape wings. Inspire flight.

    . I struggled; she never gave up.

    . All thirty students raised their hand.

    . Spark interest. Ignite curiosity. Fuel dreams.

    . Sees a star before it’s discovered.

    . Selflessly dedicated to someone else’s success.

    . Believes I’m a superhero in disguise.

    . Challenge limitations. Raise expectations. Inspire achievement.

    . Transforms barred windows into open doors.

    . Instill knowledge; invoke passion; inspire greatness.

    . She said I can be anything.

    . Holds all students accountable to greatness.

    . That all my students surpass me

    . Point out the stars. Provide rockets.

    . Teachers inspire dreamers to become doers.

    . Dedication, patience and never ending encouragement.

    . Open books, open minds, open doors.

    . Molds ‘I can’t…’ into ‘I did!’

    . Watch them soar, then demand more.

    . I remember her fifty years later

    . They doubted, you believed, I succeeded.

    . Spark wonder. Challenge thinking. Dismantle myths.

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      toby, this is beautiful. makes me all teary. love the brevity of their heartfelt “essays.” trying to respond in kind, with a short comment! thank you for taking the time to post this. xo

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