Where’s your plan?

By Professor Debra Myhill, Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, The University of Exeter

I remember my A level English Literature teacher well.  She bubbled with eccentricity, a non-standard teacher in a girls’ grammar school of very standard girls.  Like so many of my teachers, she was a spinster, but unlike them, many of whom had lost fiancés during the Second World War, she quite simply had not found the right man.  She was a somewhat gawky figure with a bouffant of white hair, desperately short-sighted and always slightly bent in her efforts to see.  But she knew her literature and taught it with a passion that eclipsed the more nonchalant attitude of my class. To our adolescent embarrassment, this included relishing any hint of sex in any text in a way that precluded teenage giggles and left us blushing at her directness.  The lesson where she explained the meaning of ‘queynte’ in The Wife of Bath and its modern equivalent is etched forever on my memories of school!  But, but, but …  she was a stickler for planning and insisted that we submit a full plan with each of our literature essays.  I hated this because my essays always took me in directions I hadn’t planned to go, creating just the mismatch plans were supposed to prevent.  So I did the obvious thing:  I wrote my essays, then wrote the plan afterwards to match the essay.

I often wonder why, of all the aspects of the writing process, so much value should be attributed to ‘the plan’, when actually the teaching of writing plays relatively little attention to the broader process of planning.  Our curriculum, which invites teachers to help young writers plan, draft, revise and edit, draws on research in cognitive psychology, showing that text creation comprises three key thinking processes – planning, generating the text, and reviewing.  But crucially, the research emphasises that this is not a neat linear or chronological process, but messy and recursive; and equally crucially, the process of planning is much more than writing a plan for a text to be written.  The planning includes drawing on memory, setting goals for the purpose of the writer, organising oneself and generating ideas: the neat written plan, our outline, is much more a construct of school writing.

We have been asking our team of professional writers in the Teachers as Writers project about the way they approach writing, and their responses are very much in line with the cognitive research.  At the heart of the planning stage is the germ of an idea and giving it mental space to grow: this is not a stage for pinning down but for letting ideas run free, ‘having ideas knocking around at the back of your head and just following little threads through’.  It’s a period which combines ‘day dreaming’ with more concrete activities such as note-taking or research.  One of our writers explained how he visited a fishing village because he knew his novel was to be set on the coast: ‘I really wanted the details so I’d go and just feel what a stack of nets would feel like because I wanted to get in to the… I knew it was going to be about a fishing community so I wanted to know a bit more what those nets feels like…’    This is a time-free stage where ideas have free reign and it is one which writers seem to relish in contrast with the more hard slog of actually producing a text.  Indeed one writer notes that ‘the most delicious time is when you’ve just got this little whisper of an idea that just drifts in your head’.

But for all writers there comes a point when they sit down and start to write the first draft.  Here there are diverse practices: some writers do indeed make a written plan, though it may not be detailed, or it may be more concerned with knowing the end of the story.  For others, the first draft is a more ‘unconscious process’ of letting a story grow and unfold onto the page, but this is often accompanied by an iterative process of writing and revising and one author noted that in this stage of getting ideas onto the page ‘sometimes I’d delete pretty much everything I wrote’.  There is also a recognition that different types of writing may need different approaches – one writer was aware of approaching the writing of murder mysteries differently from other creative writing – ‘I did have to plot those very, very, very…in great detail beforehand.  So I will do a skeleton structure of those in huge detail so I know exactly what’s happening in each chapter.’

So what might this tell us about the teaching of writing?  For me, there are two clear implications for the writing classroom.  Firstly, before children start to write drafts they need playful, experimental creative space to let ideas mull and ferment and dissolve and re-surface.  They may also need time to investigate a subject and immerse themselves in it.  This is where encouraging free-writing, jotting in notebooks, or sketching images has a hugely valuable role.  Secondly, we need to re-think the traditional school writing plan and think more about what a plan is for: a murder mystery or fantasy world may need detailed mapping in advance to ensure coherence;  a quick outline of a narrative plot may be helpful for another writer, or perhaps just a feel for where it will end.  A plan should give a young writer a sense of the whole text in broad terms, a sense of authorial destination, not a rigid route map set out to avoid deviations.  And, of course, some children need to ‘just write’ to create their first draft and written plans may not help them – their challenge is in managing the discipline of revision!

Professor Debra Myhill
Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean
The University of Exeter

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