One of the earliest hurdles that young writers face is unfortunately one of the highest: mastering logical organization. As someone who personally wrestled with organization for years (my mom can attest to this, as well!), I wanted to put together a few suggestions for working with students or children who are also struggling with structure and cohesion. These are either practices that have helped me or ones that I used with middle and high school aged students to help them further develop both their writing and reasoning skills.
This first exercise may seem antithetical to the end goal of writing with clear organization, but I promise you that it is crucial to implement freeform writing as a regular practice. When working with young writers, your highest priority should be fostering in them a love for writing, and it is all too easy to injure an innate aptitude for writing by requiring that students only ever write in highly structured formats. (An appreciation for organization will come!)
To avoid this outcome, I would encourage any teacher to give their students at least as many opportunities to write in a freeform style as assignments to write structured pieces. These aren’t meant to be graded exercises or pieces that a student spends hours perfecting – they are intended to offer an opportunity for students to begin expressing their thoughts without any of the pressures that often accompany writing. This sort of writing is frequently and fittingly called “prewriting.” If a student is already a fluent writer, freeform and/or more open-ended creative writing exercises will give them an opportunity to further experiment with language and also to explore their ideas more deeply. If a student is a less fluent writer, freeform writing may help break down any mental barriers they may have, and, by removing the demands of formality, the student can recognize that the way to begin writing is to simply to begin jotting down whatever it is they are thinking. The primary objective here is to reinforce the relationship between the hand and the mind, between thinking and writing.
I like to do this exercise in conjunction with a reading, whether it be a selection of chapters, a poem, an essay – it can even be done with a piece of art or music. I begin by giving the students a prompt, question, or topic and then set a timer for a relatively brief period of time. Somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes seems to work well for the scope of this exercise. As a side note: your topic or prompt should be on something that the student has seen or read already and will have had some time to think about prior to writing.
You can do this activity before a class or family discussion, as a “prewriting” exercise before beginning a more formal writing project, or just as a short, isolated writing activity. As an alternative to timed writing, you could ask a student just to complete a one to two page journal entry on a chapter, poem, or idea – whatever is being studied – and give them however much time is needed to complete it, so long as they are not re-reading and editing their work as they go. I emphasize to students that they should try to write continuously for the duration of the time, and I also ask them not to revise as they go. They can rethink their ideas in their writing in the subsequent sentence, but they shouldn’t erase or strike anything out. There will be plenty of opportunities to work on editing in the future.
On the rare occasion that I do collect these writings from students, I do not grade them or give feedback on sentence or paragraph structure, but I will write down notes about their ideas and the connections between them. To help either open up or narrow the focus of their inquiry and also to cause them to think about their topic from a new perspective, I might ask questions, simply because it’s interesting for me and because students seem to love getting written feedback. But ultimately this writing is just for them and they should be aware of that.
The main point of this practice is to get students to start writing and to begin recognizing for themselves that their writing should simply be an extension of their thinking. This jumping in and out of writing will eventually help students to develop the ability to sit down and write at any time, instead of dreading and forever postponing the process. It helps develop the ability to write efficiently – when you only have a few minutes, there really isn’t time to waste on circumlocution. The practice also obliquely helps students accept that their first drafts will never – and should never – be perfect: the most important part of a first draft is just the fact that it gets done. Lastly, I think this practice can help anyone realize that you don’t need to carve out an hour of your day in order to reap the benefits of writing. Even working during the odd 5 or 10 minutes between other activities can be tremendously productive and rewarding.
Have you ever done this sort of prewriting or freeform writing exercise? Let us know in a comment below whether it’s something you, your family, or your students have ever used before. And if you’ve never done it before and try it out for the first time, we’d love to hear how it goes!
In order to write well, we believe it is first necessary to read widely and often. We also believe that the desire to write is a natural consequence of maintaining a strong reading practice. Writing enables us to engage and grapple with the ideas and characters we have read about; it allows us both to question and to clarify for ourselves just what it is we do and do not understand about what we have read. It can deepen our understanding of a book, and also teach us to become more careful readers. Eventually, the relationship between reading and writing becomes dialectic: one practice informs the other, which in turn informs the first, and so on.
As writing removes us from what we have read in one sense, it simultaneously gives us the ability to contextualize it within a broader framework. We must leave the all-absorbing world of the book to write about it, but in doing so, we are able to bring the book into the greater world of our lives: writing helps to situate the ideas presented in a book within our own intellectual domain. This is especially important to do for more challenging texts and topics or for anyone reading a high volume of books, stories, essays, etc. It is all too easy to read a piece, then, absent a sense of resonance or immediate identification, set it aside both physically and intellectually.
Writing can also be an important preliminary step in discussing a book, allowing us to collect our thoughts on paper before engaging in conversation with others. We may even discover that we hold beliefs we had not realized! Similarly, when we write about what we have read, we are asked to think about it more deeply, despite the fact that our notes may seem to us to be simple, sometimes even superficial. These simple notes will often initiate a cascade of thinking that both surprises us and enriches our relationship to the text. The act of writing also helps our memory encode what it is we have just read – it can be startling to discover that most of what we remember of a book has been largely determined by what we wrote.
So, as we discuss reading and books here, we also plan to address different elements of writing, as well as the relationship between reading, writing, and thinking. Our first series of posts is all about structure in writing and how to help adolescent writers begin to gain an appreciation for structure and logical organization without giving them cause to dread writing or damaging their innate creativity. Our aim in this series to open up the act of writing, not constrain it.
Check back here next Monday for the first piece and please let us know in a comment below why you write, or what struggles you have encountered in your own writing practice.