What I wish I’d known about writing when I was teaching full-time by Pippa Wilson

Reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” this week has had a profound effect on the way I see myself as a writer.

The intimate and frank description of his approach to writing (and the inciting events in his life that lead to the development of his style of writing) have made me reflect a lot. It’s made me realise how far I’ve come with own learning as I shuffle along the path to becoming a professional writer.  What Stephen King has done so well in his book is explain what drives him to write; and how writing is a key aspect of his personality and how he interacts with the world. Behind every book in the bookshop there’s another story: the writer’s journey.

I can see looking back on my childhood and adolescence that I was always reading or writing, and loved making books. I am deeply envious that Stephen King started his quest to become a writer at a young age, and with such determined confidence in his abilities. When I was 16 I had no idea that an ordinary person like me could become a published author. Up until the age of 40 I thought it was just a fanciful fantasy. After taking a literature based course at university I became a teacher, and soon gravitated towards the Literacy and English side of things, becoming a Leading Literacy teacher in my Local Authority. As much as I was immersed in children’s literature back then, and tried to keep up with all the latest research into how children learn to write, I don’t think I had much of a handle on how the writing process actually works.

The introduction of the “Literacy Hour” certainly sharpened my focus. There were things we did well as a team: bringing in writing partners, choosing good quality texts for the pupils to model their writing on, encouraging peer feedback and questioning, scaffolding the structure of texts. But the bigger picture-of how writing is part of a much broader creative process- vanished along with the pressure of pupil targets and “raising standards”.  You have to feed children’s minds with experiences and a variety of creative stimulus if you want a good quality writing output. Simple as that. Somewhere along the line the importance of that seems to have been pushed to the back of the queue (hooray for the teachers and schools who value this!)

I wish I’d had a better understanding of how the initial creative stage, the first draft if you like, should flow freely and without fear of critique. If you think how pupils are dragged full speed through lessons, and expected to come up with “WOW” words, and “ISPACED” sentence starters and fulfill the teacher’s long wishlist in the form of Success Criteria, it’s a pretty tall order. I’d love to see how professional writers would fare under the same conditions! For some children the lack of time and space to formulate their ideas must be deeply off putting and counter productive.

If I could turn the clock back, I would have given pupils much more time to play around with their ideas in a free, creative way; and give them more opportunities to self edit and correct before sharing with peers before marking. Now I realise that if you wade in correcting/challenging the child’s writing, you’re robbing them of the opportunity to learn to evaluate and be critical of their own writing. Stephen King describes the private “Closed Door” phase of writing the first draft. The one that’s just getting the story out of your head. He talks about the individual beat of a piece of writing that emerges as you write. He explains how the “Open Door” phase happens only when he feels the story is in a readable state.

Looking back, I feel I should have given pupils more time to edit, refine and redraft their own writing. In the course of learning to be a writer I’ve discovered that editing takes a heck of a long time. It requires analysis and logic and problem-solving, as opposed to the creative stage of the first draft. Unfortunately, the pressure to prove pupil progress within the course of a lesson can lead to children being rushed through tasks, which is nuts!

Now I can see that meaning and truth in writing are much more important that fancy prose or pretty imagery. The number of times I’ve seen people struggling to convey a point on Twitter or Facebook demonstrates how tricky it can be to express oneself effectively. I think if I return to a school post, that’s what I’ll try to get across to the kids most of all. I think I’ll try to do less, better.

But in the words of another well-known author Maya Angelou, “Do the best you know until you know better. Then when you know better, do better”.

Pippa

P.S Any teachers reading this: get a copy of “On Writing”, it’s a great read!

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