‘Becoming a Writer’.

Emma De Vito
Emma De Vito

Emma De Vito has been an English secondary school teacher for sixteen years – teaching across KS3-KS5. As a Teaching and Learning Coach in a school in Northampton, she enjoys sharing resources with colleagues and embracing new technology to adapt to ever-changing situations.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot
and write a lot.”

Stephen King

The thought of reading and writing “a lot” to be a writer might dismay some students, and if you asked a student, ‘Why do you write?’ their response might be, “Because I have to pass an exam.”

But the motivation to write should not come from the need to achieve a particular grade, but from the desire to express themselves. So, how can you instil this drive to write in students?

To be a writer, you must acknowledge you are one. Whenever I begin teaching a writing scheme of work, the first thing I tell students is, ‘From this point forward, you are all writers.’ In acknowledging this, and reinforcing the concept of ‘thinking like a writer’, they start to become more confident in the work they produce.

From here, I get students to create their own writer’s journal, collecting amusing anecdotes or real-life experiences which they can use to form the basis of a story. They might read an article and save vocabulary from it for future use or pick a historical event which they then consider from a different perspective. Like
detectorists, they are encouraged to go out searching for and collecting images, phrases, characters; whatever they want to, so they have a springboard for future stories. The writing journal enables them to visualise themselves as writers and in lessons – where creativity is needed – they have a ready-made bank of resources which they have ownership of and which they can turn to for help when faced with that tyrant we know as ‘the blank page’. They can even be encouraged to share ideas with others, sharing new vocabulary or scenarios, to help to create a writing community.

Making use of free resources online can also be an effective way to develop students’ writing skills. Future Learn is an amazing website with lots of teaching courses you can do for free, including ‘Using Film to Teach Fiction,’ and there’s a whole range of author masterclasses for free on Authorfy.

Moreover, understanding how writers and readers think is key to helping students write effectively. Try this visualisation activity based on a workshop I attended with writer Rod Duncan:

Imagine yourself in a forest; it’s a summer’s day. The forest is the kind of place where the trees are close together, so it is difficult for sunlight to find its way through. Listen and you will be able to hear bird song all around you. Take a deep breath and inhale the smell of the woodland – the scent of damp leaves underfoot from recent rainfall. The ground feels soft and bouncy.

You walk along the trail until you come to an open space; in the middle, there is a building which has been long deserted. Some of the roof tiles are cracked and missing; the paint work is peeling away on the doors and windows. You stop and take a moment to scan the outside – becoming aware the doorstep is uneven in the middle by the passage of feet over the years. In front of the building are several picnic benches. Look closely and you can see where the wood has become rotten over the years from lack of use.

  • As a reader, what did you see?
  • Did you have a clear image in your mind or was it difficult for you to envisage it (aphantasia)?
  • What kind of building was in the clearing? Did it have any specific features which stood out to you?
  • What colour is the peeling paint?

As a writer, we will have a clear image in our minds of what we see and describe – the image will be generated by the things we have been exposed to in our lives: childhood memories and experiences, previous reading, stereotypes, etc. What the reader imagines in their mind will be different depending upon the same things. But does it matter that what the writer describes might not be the exact same image the reader has? Of course not. But making students aware of this is vital as you will be reinforcing the importance of vocabulary choice and the significance of what information is provided and what is withheld by the author.

Another approach to supporting students with writing is providing some practical examples of how they can use their time to maximum effect. When they think of ‘writing’, they might associate this with lengthy essays and timed responses. However, by breaking up writing tasks into manageable chunks, students will come to realise that even if they only have a small amount of time to write, they can still achieve something.

The following resource was created over the course of several lessons. At the end of each lesson, as we reflected on the skills taught and learnt, my class and I collaborated on this revision document to help them to structure unsupervised revision time at home.

Time I
have to
revise:
Revision activity:
5 minutesUsing an image from your writer’s journal, spend five minutes planning a story.
Go on unsplash.com and collect photographs to put in your writer’s journal for later
use.
Make a list of titles for stories. (you could use a Shakespearean quotation, e.g. ‘The Dogs of War’; ‘The Head that wears the Crown’; ‘Light Through Yonder Window.’)
10
minutes
Read the opening paragraph of a novel and make a list of ways the writer engages you (e.g. structural features: withholding information, repetition, omniscient narrator, etc). Write an opening paragraph to a story which uses the same techniques.
Go on the website unsplash.com and choose an image. Spend five minutes writing a description based on the image.
Using one of your character profiles from your writer’s journal, write a short description of a character.
15
minutes
Watch a five-minute clip from a film and spend ten minutes writing a response (description/ story).
1. Watch a short clip from a nature documentary; 2. Make a list of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, literary techniques to describe the atmosphere/ scenario; 3. Spend five minutes writing a response. 4. Self/ peer assess the work.

Having a document like this to refer to at home allows students to understand how to revise writing independently and reduce what was previously thought as an onerous task into something more manageable.

Finally, you could introduce a ‘five a day’ motivation activity for writing (all the tasks below could be completed every day and should take no longer than five minutes in total):

  1. Write a title for a story.
  2. Write five synonyms for an interesting word you see in the book you’re currently reading.
  3. Find an image and write a ten word sentence to describe it.
  4. Summarise a story idea in 50 words or less.
  5. Spend one minute writing non-stop about anything that comes to mind.

Helping students to establish a daily writing routine at home will give them structure and encourage them to practise this skill regularly.

A teacher who writes themselves (and we all do when we model responses) or takes the time to understand what students need to become writers will be able to support and encourage students to think beyond the exam and develop their writing skills for wider application. In showing students how effective writing can be achieved, you could potentially be teaching authors of the future.

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