I founded the WNY Young Writer’s Studio eight years ago. A community of writers and teachers of writing, Studio is a place where writers of all ages and experience levels come together to study and produce real things for real audiences free from the constraints that schools typically impose. This makes it a phenomenal place for teachers to study writers and the development of writing, and over the last four years, I’ve had the opportunity to sink into an action research project that completely transformed my teaching.
I used grounded theory methodology. Resisting the urge to pursue narrow research questions, I cast a wide net and gathered as much data as I possibly could. Then, I allowed that data to teach me things I was not expecting to learn.
The process delivered.
These were the five biggest discoveries I made:
1. Given a choice, writers pick up the tools that help them communicate their ideas as efficiently and fully as possible, and this changes, given the projects they are working on and the needs that emerge. Investing a lot of energy in debating the worth of digital devices over paper isn’t just a waste of time, it’s actually a little dangerous. When writers have access to abundant tools, they use them in diverse ways and produce complex stuff that communicates the message that matters to them in the best way possible. Sometimes, devices are necessary. Sometimes, paper is more powerful. Who am I to choose their tools? Who am I to limit their choices and potential?
2. Letting go of that tension illuminated the fact that the flat and static nature of screens AND paper often creates a barrier for many writers. Many of them need to move. Physically. They need their writing to move as well. It isn’t a linear process. It looks far more like design thinking. These writers need to lift their words, cluster them, bump them up against each other and look for the sparks that fly. They need to tinker with their text. They write bit by bit on sticky notes and plot and re-plot on foam boards. They sketch their thinking across white boards and invite others to standa around and talk with them about their thinking. They invite their friends to wrap their minds and their hands around their writing. They structure drafts using boxes, grids, and entire tables. They doodle their storyboards across long scrolls of paper. Many of them are makers. They need to make writing.
3. Making writing isn’t about the product. It’s about design. Iteration. Drafting and revising bit by bit. This is important. Writers need time and ample space to brain-dump. They need tools that allow them to articulate a billion incoherent bits of information free from the pressure to organize or even understand them. Sticky notes and index cards are the most powerful tools we use, because they empower writers to capture one tiny bit of information on each, and none of the ideas have to make sense at first. They cluster the bits. Categorize them. Move them around. Consider the possibilities. Eventually, they set some aside, but nothing is lost. Their thinking changes. Sparks fly. Ignite. New ideas emerge. This is the point.
4. Making writing requires us to not only embrace but to truly value amateurish work, abandoning our need to move writers past it. Writers must be encouraged to live and play in this space, because this is where iteration occurs. They open themselves up to a wide range of mentors. They access to those with varied interests and experiences. They connect to entire networks that exist outside of our community. I cannot be the only source of expertise. In fact, my greatest responsibility as a teacher involves creating time and space for exhibition rather than simple celebration. Technology has made this increasingly possible. The walls that kept writers isolated are permeable now.
5. Great writing happens when we value prototyping over publishing: we create something imperfect, we test varied iterations with real audiences, and improve upon our idea quickly, tinkering with it bit by bit, in response to what we learn. It’s not about arriving at an adequate final draft but about topping and even surprising ourselves as we discover and create the unexpected. It’s about chasing greater satisfaction and sharing the very specific things we learn along the way. It’s about growing our knowledge, expanding our vision, and enriching the experience.
This has been exciting and often, overwhelming and even unsettling work. I’m very passionate about traditional writer’s workshop. It’s worked for me and for you and for hundreds of writers we’ve taught over the last few decades, right?
I’m learning a whole lot by letting kids across western New York transform my little workshop into a makerspace, though. Here are a few of our favorite approaches.