When I’m not working on my Spartapuss and London Deep books, I run writing workshops in schools and for organisations like Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust and The Young Archaeologists Club. I have visited around 200 schools in the UK and in International Schools in Malawi, Qatar, Thailand, China, Kuwait, Jordan, Bangladesh, Cyprus, Egypt, Germany and Kazakhstan. The materials in Creative Writing Club were developed as a result of these workshops. For want of a better term – I’m calling it ‘Accelerated writing’.
Different writing personalities
On my travels I’ve noticed that there are (at least) two different types of writer:
• ‘Planners’ who love to map out their whole story in detail.
• ‘Jumpers’ who hate extended planning and feel the need to get going ASAP.
Traditional techniques like the ‘story mountain’ are ideal for ‘planners’ but they leave many children struggling to focus.
It’s not just children who have different ‘creative personalities’. Some actors (like Dustin Hoffman) love to build up a detailed character from scratch, step by step. Other actors take a flying leap at the character and ‘find’ it in a flash of creativity. Many writers love planning and mapping out complex worlds. J.K. Rowling famously planned out all 7 Harry Potter books before writing book 1. However, other writers like Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel describe ‘channeling’ their characters spontaneously. Mantel does not write her books in order, (often writing the middle Chapters before the beginning). There is no single ‘correct’ approach. Every writer needs to find a way that works for them.
The planning vs writing balance
In the classroom I’ve noticed that schools cater a lot for the ‘planners’. They rightly stress the importance of having a road map to get ideas down (instead of rambling randomly). However, when a child tells me “I don’t like writing” they often mean: “I don’t like planning.” Many children are ‘jumpers’ who get bored and lose focus during the planning stage and are demotivated before they even start. Too much planning can really alienate the ‘jumpers’. They just drift away if they don’t get going.
We need to be so, so careful about gender stereotyping. However in my practical experience more girls seem to fall on the ‘planner’ side of the spectrum and more boys seem to be on the ‘leaper’ side. (On my travels I have also come across ‘leaper’ girls and ‘planner’ boys – but generally speaking the adverse seems to be the trend. This would be a brilliant research topic – so researchers please get in touch if you want to test this).
According to this BBC article, dept of Education – 85 percent of UK primary teachers are female. In my experience these are for the most part creative, patient, committed women who are trying to everyone into writing, especially boys. But they need better strategies to engage their ‘leaper’ type pupils – especially the boys. If you are a ‘planner’ it’s worth taking a moment to consider your creative counterpart – the leaper.
‘Thor is cool but we’ve been doing the Vikings for three weeks now.’
If by nature you are a ‘planner’ (and many teachers are consummate planners), it may be hard for you to understand your creative counterpart – the ‘jumper’ personality. While the planners are merrily working out the fine details of their epic (and its three sequels) the unfortunate ‘jumpers’ are thinking: ‘Why can’t we just get on with this?’ and ‘Why do we even have to think about all this stuff?’
As one boy in a London Academy put it: ‘Thor is cool, but we’ve been doing the Vikings for three weeks now.’ He was dressed as Thor at the time. It was World Book Day week. The class had been studying the Vikings for three weeks and I don’t know how long they’d spent working out how to write a viking story using the ‘story mountain’ technique but judging by the artwork on the class walls they had been at it for a long time. But the boy dressed as Thor hadn’t put pen to paper yet! I couldn’t help thinking that this was a writing opportunity missed. Are we spending too much time planning? Are the things we teach kids about story writing actually helping them to write?
The planner’s point of view…
Many of the authors I have met on my travels are planners. We like nothing more than pushing plot points around in our book outline over a nice double shot latte, rather than actually writing. Planners are sometimes more self-critical about their work and can be worried that what we are going to write is not good enough, or afraid of making mistakes, getting stuck etc. They like getting stuff right and ticking things off a list.
If you are a ‘planner’ you might feel intuitively that there is something wrong with starting to write from the middle of the story. You might wonder how you can be expected start writing you I know what is going to happen. But when you try jumping in – you’ll find that your brain starts to make the connections for you – like gazing at the stars and seeing constellation – your mind will start to join the dots for you.
It took me a while to realise this – and it is really powerful. But it can’t happen unless you take that leap.
‘Every story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end!’
Well, not really! A case in point is Don Quixote published in 1605. If you haven’t heard of it, (or you’ve heard of it but not read it) then do check it out. The author conjures up two brilliant characters: a lanky day-dreamer called Don Quixote who thinks he’s a medieval knight and his servant, a fat-bellied pragmatist called Sancho Panza. These two are brilliantly funny – imagine Captain Manwaring and Private Pike from Dad’s Army but on horseback in 17th Century Spain. The author throws this comic pair at random situations (and people) that they encounter on their travels. Don Quixote famously tilts at windmills, mistaking them for giants.
Don Quixote has a beginning, but it doesn’t really have a middle and it only ends when Don Quixote dies randomly. It’s a classic piece of ‘revelation’ writing. It doesn’t follow the writing rules that are taught in school.
A typical class of Year 3 students are not Miguel de Cervantes. (Well, you never know…) I am not arguing that we should be encouraging children to ramble randomly in their writing. However, I believe that by trying to make it easier for children to write, there is the danger of introducing so many Do’s and Don’ts that it becomes daunting and complex for some of them. Asking kids to think about, a ‘build up’ and ‘a climax’ and a ‘resolution’ and so on is all great brain fuel for the ‘planners’. But pity the poor ‘jumpers!’ There they sit, on their horses, waiting to tilt at windmills – baffled by rule after arbitrary rule.
What are we looking for?
I don’t think there is a ‘correct’ approach to writing (or any creative art for that matter). Any process that results in a good piece of writing is a good process. In particular as writers we are looking for:
a) a ‘finished’ piece of work. (Not necessarily ‘polished’ but something that you satisfied with).
b) not finished but has some good touches in it.
c) something that inspires a wide audience or moves an individual deeply.
Resources for writers
What does this mean for the classroom? Practically speaking, we need materials that will get the pupils writing quickly. The materials
should provide a basic framework for the writing but allow a lot of choice and encourage pupils to go depart from the plan where necessary. With this in mind, I’ve created the ‘flash writing’ frames that form the basis of the Creative Writing Club site. Armed with a single page A4 framework (like the ones on this site), any child armed with even a basic bit of background info about a topic can zoom through the planning and their get story onto paper. A single hour is enough to start a piece of writing in pairs – which can be built on in the next lesson (if you like), or finished for homework. These paper writing frames are also available as apps on the site – so you can work on the computer or paper – or you can do a demo to the whole class as an example before the paired work starts.
Tips for using Accelerated writing frames in class
I often do one example first on the Interactive White Board using an app for the topic For example: the Anglo Saxons. Doing a ‘demo’ will only take 5 mins. It’ll show the class what is going on, they can vote on options and you can pre-teach any tricky vocabulary.
1. Put the class into pairs. Give them the writing frame to each pair. Get them to pick one option each.
2. Rather than the complex rules about ‘stages of a story’ and ‘resolutions’ etc, Flash writing asks a single question:
What is the problem that needs to be solved? (e.g. In Cinderella – the problem is that Cinderella can’t go to the ball. In Batman, Batman has to defeat The Joker).
In easier Flash writing frames, the ‘problem’ choices that are built into the writing frame for pupils. In ones like the Stone Age frame – the problem will occur naturally out of the choices on the frame. A ‘You choose’ option is often included (encouraging them to include their own ideas).
3. The frame tells students to write from the most exciting part of the story (not the beginning). This is deliberate and it is a great way for you to tell who is a ‘jumper’ and who is a ‘planner’. ‘Jumpers’ will love working this way! ‘Planners’ will sit there and stare at you for a moment but they will usually have little problem writing from the exciting bit. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that no matter how much I stress the point, some children will insist on starting at the beginning because this is they way they know and because they feel this is right. Of course this is fine. It is the ones that can’t get started that will benefit from starting in the middle. However it is sometimes good to put able writers out of their comfort zone.
4. The frame tells them take it in turns to write ‘One sentence each’. (Make sure you give them a single sheet of A4 between two writers.) This is also deliberate because writing a single line is easier than writing a whole story on your own. You can pick mixed ability pairs or put able writers with each other. It’s up to you.
5. After doing a demo story on the board ‘5 mins’ then you should aim to get them through the frame in 5 minutes of planning. Everyone will be writing (in pairs) for about 40 minutes. This leaves 10 mins to share out their stories with the class (honing their presenting skills). If you have more time for the activity that is great – it can easily be extended.
Check out the themes area of Creative Writing Club – we have over 50 writing frames and counting.
If you like this approach there are a lot of ways you can develop it and use it in class. You can introduce or practice new vocab or structures, practice dialogue or even use two flash stories (a few weeks apart) to assess their progress. Flash stories are also ideal for assisted learning (where the adult takes the part of one pair). For my free .pdf ‘7 Tips for teaching story writing’ please email firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Tips’ in the subject line or call 0844 884 1742 to discuss a workshop.
*At the start of this article I mentioned two types of ‘writing personality’ – ‘planners’ and ‘jumpers. There is also a third ‘writing personality’ – children who love planning but for various reasons, hate actually writing anything down. This is a small but significant subset. They usually do far better using these ‘flash’ writing materials because they are only being asked to write one line at a time (and then their partner writes the next line) – so it is less daunting for them than staring at a blank page. I am working up some new materials to help these writers.
Acknowledgement: I could not end this article without a word of thanks and acknowledgement to Nick Harman – the Head of English and Classics at Bishopsgate School. Nick’s writing tips and advice to ‘start at the heart of the story’ – made me take a closer look at how to get children writing.