The idea for this post came to me at 10:35am whilst I was boarding a train at Amsterdam Centraal. We were heading to Cologne to check out the Christmas markets. I spent the entire two-hour journey scribbling down the idea on a piece of paper my husband had been using as a bookmark. (I normally carry a notebook but on this occasion, had left it at home to make more room for Cologne Christmas purchases.) My notes were messy and incoherent as I rushed to get everything down:
The next day I sat at my desk and transferred my notes into a first draft. It was still incoherent: just a list of points I wanted to make that needed to be fleshed out into full sentences. During the drafting stage I am always comforted by Hemingway’s claim that, “the first draft of everything is shit.” I used to have this quote written on a post-it and stuck to my laptop as a reminder for those “this is so crap and you’re deluded if you think anyone will ever read it” days.
That draft was written about a month ago and since then I’ve been editing and rewriting. The idea that had come so suddenly and easily proved to be harder to write than I’d thought. But I liked the idea so I stayed with it. Yesterday I had 1,700 words in a sort of coherent structure but still wasn’t happy; I dropped the laptop into my husband’s lap and said, “Can you work out why this is so rubbish?” I just couldn’t get it right – I had been so enthusiastic about the initial idea it was as if any attempt to create the post didn’t do the idea justice. Once he’d read it he commented how ironic it was, given the subject matter of the post, that I was struggling with it so much.
Then last night, as I was getting into bed, it clicked; I realised what I’d been doing wrong. I grabbed my notebook and quickly scribbled out a new plan ready to be typed up the next day. And here it is- you’re reading it which means I’m finally happy enough with it to post it – hooray!
You’ll notice I haven’t actually mentioned the idea that came to me on the train to Cologne – so far this has just been a blog about blogging (meta-blogging?) The idea itself is something that I was always slightly aware of as a teacher but has been highlighted since I started writing professionally:
Why is there such disconnect between how we as adults write and the processes we ask pupils in schools to follow?
It starts with asking children to generate ideas on demand. Yes, we provide plenty of discussion and stimulus but essentially a child can walk into a classroom and be told that in that hour they have to come up with an idea for a report/story/diary entry etc… That’s a big ask. Even when I’m pitching ideas to my editor they are ideas I’ve developed in my own time. Of course time is the main constraint here and generating ideas is just one part of writing (and the part that normally involves the least writing) so we can’t afford the luxury of allowing children endless time to generate ideas and develop them. Equally, if the objective is “To write a diary entry” there is no reason why you can’t provide the pupil with the idea just to get them writing.
Once they’ve had/been given the idea it is commonplace to ask children to complete some sort of plan. Google “KS1/KS2 planning formats” and you’ll be presented with dozens of versions of essentially the same document: a page of boxes for the children to complete.
In the early stages of their education, when children need to be taught HOW to plan, there is certainly a place for these but once they’ve learnt the process I would argue that these templates can be more of a hindrance than a help. On a practical level the boxes are small which means you have to think about keeping your handwriting neat to make sure your ideas fit in. It also limits the amount you can write which doesn’t allow for those ideas to lead to other ideas – there just isn’t the space for that!
My plans are messy and illegible to anyone else and that’s fine because nobody else needs to read them. What is the main barrier to children being allowed to plan their writing freely? I would argue it’s presentation policies and policies that state there should be a certain number of completed pieces of work in a book each week. I’m not saying children shouldn’t take care over their presentation and learn to underline the date etc… but it shouldn’t take priority over the learning. Children need a space where they can write freely without worrying about cursive script or drawing in a margin. Some schools have draft books or jotters for this purpose but I’ve heard of schools getting rid of these books because they were “messy” or hiding them when Ofsted turn up.
Once they’ve planned, children start their first draft. In the ideal world the children would have the option of typing a first draft because the process of editing and rewriting is laborious enough without having to do it by hand. If you’ve written a four-page draft that you want to edit and then rewrite, it means turning back and forth between pages and squashing notes into a margin or rewriting sentences in that little gap between the original sentence and the line. Once again, when you’re first teaching editing, it’s essential that children see the process modelled, either by watching you mark their work or editing a piece of work together as class. By upper KS2 children should be able to edit their own work with the support of a checklist of criteria and a dictionary. Their editing would need to be checked by the class teacher but most of it could be done independently. The problem with editing is that it takes time – time that schools don’t have. This post took weeks to edit but even when I’m on a deadline the process can take days and includes a cooling off period where I walk away from the piece for anything from an hour to a day.
Finally we ask children to write up their work. As in rewrite the whole piece again. By hand. For what could be the third or fourth time depending how many drafts they’ve done. Out come the line guides, paperclips and ruled margins which will end up being elaborately decorated. Had they been word processing from the beginning the final draft would be there waiting to print once they’d finished editing and even if that isn’t an option I question how valuable “copying up” lessons are. You could perhaps argue it is a handwriting exercise but there are other ways to teach handwriting. By the “copying up” stage only the keenest of children are still interested in this piece of writing.
Conversely, how often do children get to scrap their work and start again from the very beginning if they want to? I had a child ask to do exactly that when the rest of the class were on their final drafts and I said no because we only had one more lesson to spend on this and next week we’d be moving on to something new. That was the right answer. Children have to learn to meet deadlines and follow instructions and I’m not suggesting we abandon our plans every time a child changes their mind but I do wonder whether if I’d agreed that he could start again on the condition he’d have to work on it at home he might have produced a better piece.
Obviously we’re not teaching children to be “writers” any more than we’re teaching them to be astronauts, doctors or civil servants. We are teaching them to write which requires practising the basics over and over again. It means showing them how to construct complex sentences and how to use punctuation and grammar and giving them time to practise it. Writing is bloody hard work and learning to write even more so.
This post isn’t a criticism – just a general musing. I would love to hear about how different schools teach writing – please get in touch. I’m also not suggesting that the way I write is how we should teach children to write – I’m not Michael Gove. It’s just that if we are serious about children mastering a “writer’s voice” we should, at least occasionally, allow them to behave like writers.