Sequenced Writing

Brendan Ryan





    When I was in undergrad I took a lot of creative writing classes, and I even took some writing workshops after I graduated to keep myself involved in that process.  One of the exercises we would do at the beginning of classes was to write for five minutes or so without picking our pen up from the paper.  It was an unprompted, free-association, mental “stretch” activity to get us engaged, especially on days when we were going to be doing some actual writing in class.  When free associating like that, some interesting things can come out, even topics or ideas that you weren’t consciously thinking about.

    The first assignment would consist of just that.  In their writing journals, students would spend five to ten minutes writing whatever comes into their heads without picking up their pen.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to write in cursive, or scribble on the paper so that all their words connect.  The idea is to keep writing, even if your sentences don’t have anything to do with one another.  It can even take the form of an outline, or notes.  Given a prompt to write about an experience they’ve had, students will usually tap into memories that they wouldn’t normally choose if they’d had time to premeditate or pitch a topic.  After the writing exercise is over, we’d discuss what kinds of things we’d written down either in small groups or as a class.  This is a good opportunity for teachers to participate in an assignment alongside students.  Because there is no instruction beyond “write whatever you want to” and no rules except to keep the pen moving on the paper, those ten minutes shouldn’t require any teacher involvement.


(The modification to incorporate computers is to tape a piece of paper over the monitor, and have students type that way.  Nobody should worry about spelling errors or punctuation, and removing the visual can sometimes help free up your mind.)


    On the day following that exercise, the class should reconvene to expand on the conversation from the previous day.  Here there are a few options on what to do next.  Students with similar topics can partner up to brainstorm, or just pair off to work on outlines regardless of topic.  If you want to restrict the topics to classroom experiences, that can encourage the class to come up with things that everyone has in common, and can help the workshop along.  This is also a good time to reinforce the elements of writing that make up a good story.  Setting, description, dialogue, and recalled emotions are some examples.

    By the end of the workshop, everyone should have an outline that they can work from.  This can be a visual diagram, or just a page or two of notes.  From here, the topic for the final writing assignment will be established, so the homework for that evening is to write out the first draft.  


(Technology modifications can include infographics, powerpoint, or a visual media project)


    On the third day of this assignment, students will pick a new partner and workshop their draft.  This can mean that students read out loud to each other, or just read their partner’s paper silently to themselves.  Everybody should have a red pen and be encouraged to spell check and proofread as a teacher would.  This way, everyone can turn in a final draft the following day.

    Students shouldn’t spend much time talking about grammar and spelling, however.  This class session is mostly about fleshing out their stories, giving constructive criticism, and brainstorming ways to complete the assignment.  This is where classmates can go a bit deeper on things like plot, descriptive language, adjectives, and narrative pacing.

    Having students proof read and workshop for one another takes the burden off the teacher, and gives them an appreciation for the grading process.  Ideally these assignments will result in better drafts, or at least a better understanding of what a teacher is looking for in a writing assignment.  It’s important to remind everybody to keep the comments positive, and to try and be as constructive as possible.  That doesn’t mean that all the input needs to be positive, it’s perfectly acceptable to criticise, just as long as it’s done in the right way.  For example:


Instead of saying, “I don’t like this part,” students should say, “I think this section needs to be expanded upon, or clarified.”


Instead of “The story is confusing,” students should talk directly about what confused them about the piece.  If characters are hard to distinguish from one another, then the suggestion should be to develop the characters a bit more, or include more information on what makes them different.

    All of this is basic writing workshop stuff, but it will be new to elementary students.  These assignments may skew a bit older, so my recommendation would be to save them for 4th and 5th graders.  There are ways to modify for younger students, but that inherently devalues the assignment somewhat.