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'I'm in another world': writing without rules lets kids find their voice, just like professional authors

Ask a child why they write and you might receive a common response: the teacher told me to. Kids often lack confidence as writers and find it emotionally draining. The problem might be the classroom and its detachment from what writers do in the real world.

In some classrooms, students learn writing techniques and then apply them to a writing assignment. In others, students are given freedom over their writing with little teacher intervention.

Authors spend a lot of time writing freely. Julia Joppien/Unsplash

Both approaches work to develop the writing craft, for similar reasons they work for authors. Authors learn discrete techniques from mentors to improve their skills and also write freely to experiment with style.

Teachers have a lot of influence over their classroom writing environment. But, while most identify as proficient readers, not many know what it’s like to be a writer.

Studies show teachers who identify as writers have a positive impact on their students’ writing. This is because they empathise with the experiences of writers at different stages of the writing process.

I conducted a study to help teachers understand what the creative writing experience is like for the students they teach. I interviewed eight children in Year 6 (10-11 years old) throughout a creative writing unit in class to find out.

Another world

When children write freely, they often feel as though they’re stepping into a different world. All kids I spoke to talked about this experience, with one student summarising it this way:

I feel like I’m in that place, another world, another zone. So I go into that place where I’m writing. I take my characters there, this large meadow or something. When I come back I’m like, where’s the meadow gone?

Most feel as though writing is a momentary “escape from your everyday thinking”. One student felt they don’t need to think very hard, because “my head is creating that and not me”.

This other-world experience is like watching a movie in vivid detail. Ideas “come out of the blue” and “pop in and out like a slideshow”. One student said ideas “flow into words like water, through your brain and onto your page”.

Published authors have a similar experience. In Writing Down the Bones, a book on the writing process, author Natalie Goldberg writes:

Of course, you can sit down and have something you want to say. But then you must let its expression be born in you and on the paper. Don’t hold too tight; allow it to come out how it needs to rather than trying to control it.

My thoughts have been caged up

All students I spoke to talked about the frustration of being pulled out of this other world. One student recounted moments when he thought his writing ideas did not meet the task set by his teacher:

My mind is stuck inside, like, a perfect writing thing. It’s like all those sections where all my thoughts have been […] have to be caged up.

For these children, it is impossible to be a student and a writer at the same time. Being a student means maintaining awareness of task requirements, grade-level standards and rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Addressing school requirements made one student feel as though they “need to put away good ideas, and think of what would give me an A”. Another said doing this means they “can’t let my brain fly” and “can’t add my own words”.

This leads to “so many mental blanks because I’m afraid I’m gonna fail”.

Balancing the student and the writer

Most students I spoke to expressed being frustrated when free writing time gets interrupted.

A progressive view of teaching suggests teachers allow children to explore their writing world, encouraging them to make decisions at each stage of the writing process. This is called the process approach to writing and it helps kids develop their writer identities.

A traditional view favours providing students with fundamental writing skills aimed at developing a finished product, known as the product approach. This develops kids’ knowledge of texts.

But are writing identities and knowledge mutually exclusive?

The students I spoke with understood the need to learn explicit knowledge such as text structures, vocabulary and literary techniques to grow as writers. But they did not think of these things when writing freely.

Even Hemingway admitted to bad first drafts. Sergey Zolkin/Unsplash

Authors think more about these things, but not necessarily in the first instance. Ernest Hemingway is famously known to have said: “the first draft of anything is shit”. And Anne Lamott advised:

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.

We can teach kids to think more like authors.

The solution may be in striking a balance between kids as students and kids as writers. Kids, like published authors, need space to write freely first without distraction from teachers and expectations. This helps them generate ideas, motivating them to find a purpose for their writing.

Then they become students. They write another draft, but this time they seek advice from teachers to use literary techniques, like authors and their mentors.

By The Conversation
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