By Lucy Oliver, Research Fellow, University of Exeter
‘Should we plan it out before we write anything?’ Just one of the questions students have asked writers during the co-teaching phase of the Teachers as Writers project. But a telling one perhaps, in that it signals some of the ritualised practices we’ve come to associate with school writing. The old edict ‘plan-draft-revise-proofread’ is hard to shake off. For most of us, of course, the assumption that writing proceeds in an orderly sequence of steps is not one we recognise in practice. As the writer in this classroom explained, it’s usually much less predictable:
I just write. Even if you plan it out, when you’re actually writing it goes somewhere else doesn’t it? So the real process of writing is seeing where it goes, then making changes… the best thing about writing is you never know where you’re going to end up.
It’s intriguing then that the linear model of writing process has survived so long in curriculum policy. No doubt it’s in part because it serves the demands and constraints of school tasks well – a pragmatic response to the problem of generating text that meets assessment criteria in a limited time. But the perspectives of those engaged in this project – professional writers, teachers and students alike – remind us how disabling any fixed set of procedures can be.
In many of the conversations I’ve had, the requirement to pre-plan has emerged as a particular bugbear. Writers are ‘forced to do it because if you’re going to get something commissioned you have to tell them what it’s going to be, but I think it’s a way of killing writing’. Teachers feel obliged to teach in ways that don’t reflect their experience: ‘I still ask them to plan, which I don’t do; I get them to amass vocabularies – I don’t do that. To me that’s a surface way of doing things. I’d rather get in and tell a story and then come out of it with questions’. And students resent having to hang back when they just want to get stuck in: ‘I hate planning because I feel like it stops the freedom, it’s just really irritating, especially if you already have the entire story plot in your mind’ (Yr8).
It’s been exciting therefore to observe teachers and writers working together to turn the procedural model on its head – to challenge students to start writing before they know what they want to say, to defer planning and shaping till later. The emphasis on writing to ‘discover’ has certainly been liberating: ‘it sets my mind free’ (Yr9); ‘it lets my ideas flow’ (Yr8); ‘it helps us use our creative thinking…it lets you access your imagination more’ (Yr7). It may even change attitudes: ‘(writing before) was pretty boring, but this is more exciting…I like it when I can write without having to think about it’ (Yr9).
That’s not to suggest we should replace one monolithic model with another. ‘Free writing’ hasn’t worked for everyone. Some found it pressured: ‘These past few weeks have been rushed writing. I like to plan and just pause and think… setting what it should be, the structure, knowing what to do’ (Yr9). Others saw benefits and disadvantages: ‘the just write thing is freeing in some ways but also it pins you down because you know you have to produce a good piece within five minutes of thinking of it… often I don’t have ideas straight away’ (Yr8). I’m struck by the obvious: that just as there’s no right way to write, there’s no one approach to teaching writing process that will work for all – only possibilities and different strategies for different purposes. And young writers need as many strategies as we can help them find.
University of Exeter