Tuesday, November 13, 2012

If We Could Write 10,000 Words...

I've been thinking about writing and how to evolve my students into better writers, but to be honest, I don't really consider myself an accomplished writer. The irony should be slapping you, dear reader, in the face:  I am an English teacher, so shouldn't I be an accomplished writer? Other than the publishing I've done on the copier at school, what I've written here on this blog and starting to write for Teachercast, the answer, sadly, is no.

English teachers are the jacks of all trades in the academic world: we juggle reading, writing, analysis, standardized testing with a myriad of texts and techniques. While the Common Core Curriculum Standards are supposed to provide English teachers with a common core of skills and texts, English classes are not standardized because the scope is too broad.  Writing gets sandwiched in context with the literature taught in class, and while I've written before about the merits of peer editing, I still feel as if there isn't enough time to get the students to become better writers.

The same dilemma is mirrored in my own life. Here I am typing on my laptop perched on the counter next to the onions caramelizing on the stove and surrounded by my daughter's first grade homework marooned on the kitchen island. And there's dishes and lunch boxes scattered about waiting to be corralled. But here I am, striking while the iron is hot, typing up this post.  I'd like to think that I'm producing quality work, but I'm sure I will be editing this piece when I am less "distracted".

How can students become better writers when they too are distracted ... hold on I got to stir the onions...  by all the other "stuff" that is covered in class?

I came across a FaceBook post by David Blixt, an author I've been reading and following online.

I've been asked, due to how much I'm able to produce, if I sleep. Yeah. I need 7 hours, or I'm pretty useless. And my productivity has plummeted since I became a father (that's not a complaint). Back when I banged out The Master Of Verona, I had a lot of 10,000 word days. My best was a 22,000 word day. These days 5,000 is a good day. But I'm also a better writer, and better editor, than I was ten years ago. I'd rather have 5,000 good words than 20,000 ones that have to be pared, replaced, and eventually cut. (The second draft of MoV was 300,000 words. The one St. Martin's bought was 192,000.) I don't know if that makes me prolific. But it does keep me busy.

(Swap out quote above for screenshot of FB post after dinner is finished... Oh no! I forgot to start cooking the porkchops! Be back soon!)

10,000 words a day-- to write 10,000 glorious words a day. What a feat! Granted, this feat requires the desire to write. How long does it take to write 10,000 words? I'd like just 10 minutes of uninterrupted time (hold on, stirring onions again).

I wonder how many words my own students write in a day and what type of writers would they be with that quantity (and desire).  If anyone out there in cyberspace has read Malcolm Gladwell's The Outliers, there's that magic number appearing again: 10,000. Granted Gladwell points out that it is 10,000 HOURS that are needed to create mastery, but I wonder, could students master writing in 10,000 words total? (We don't have 10,000 hours!) And, here comes the obvious questions, when and how do we implement writing 10,000 words in and out of class? 10 x 1,000 word essays? 2 x 5,000 word research papers? 20 x 500 word activities?

I've never taught a dedicated writing course that was exclusive to writing, but I do remember being tortured by a Creative Non-fiction class during my undergrad years.  While that class was dedicated to writing, I know for a fact that it didn't make me a better writer. I did not connect well with the professor and my own insecurities about writing did not foster improvement by the end of the course.  I'm sure there are plenty of other students who have had similar experiences.

The other piece of this puzzle is the use of technology to foster writing. Students have access to writing in forms that were not available to me way back when: Facebook, Twitter, blogging, email, etc. Technology has enable us to return to an epistolary society. Granted, most of the writing is in short bursts, but I do know that Twitter's 140 character limit makes me rethink sentence structure and how to be concise. I've done some quick Do Now type writing assignments where students compose a tweet in the voice of a character, but writing on paper doesn't have the same affect as using the app-- so more Twitter-type assignments will have to wait until students are allowed to have access.

So, thinking further about writing and technology, how else can I evolve my own teaching of writing into something that connects to the students, makes them think, and is fun? While using plug and play strategies with paragraph and essay structure has worked to get students started, I want to evolve their writing into something that is beyond cookie cutter. Traditional teaching strategies are not enough anymore.

For story writing, I've stumbled upon Google's Story Builder which uses text, music, and video to build a creative story that has moved beyond the bounds of paragraph structure. I'm excited to explore this with my students. I'll be starting Canterbury Tales with my not-as-academic seniors after Thanksgiving and Google Story Builder could entice the students to tell their own creative traveling tales or adapt the tales told by Chaucer.  My freshmen students have excelled at using the netbooks in class, so I'm sure this tool will keep them enthralled when writing creative stories of their own or those that connect to Of Mice & Men, The Odyssey, and Romeo and Juliet.

I have this song in my head now while trying to conclude this post...


If we could write 10,000 words, could we write 10,000 more...?

(Off to finish dinner!)

PS-- I think my blog post turned out better than dinner. Multitasking is definitely not the answer for cooking or writing...


Part Deux: I Need a Contractor for Google Story Builder

Using Google's Story Builder 

So I started playing with Google's Story Builder today to create an example for this post, and while I like it for the potential use and the innovative way to show creative writing, I'm having an issue writing up my own example story. I feel like I'm back in that dreaded writing class again and having writer's block. Creative writing is just not my forte because it involves building and thinking forward. I think in a backwards direction by analyzing and deconstructing what is already present; I break things down instead of build them up. If I don't know where I want my story to go, how can I write the story?   I am such an analytic thinker and my creativity is a MacGyver type: I synthesize things in front of me and manipulate to create something new.

Here is an example from Google and the characters of 30 Rock, which is better than any example I tried to create, and frankly, captures the process I went through.

The Writing Process

I'm fascinated by the process authors use to write because I want to learn how they create. When I am writing a blog post or an essay, I start with my subject or theme and then the post evolves as I write. I go with the flow instead of planning everything out beforehand. I just write and wander on the page and the style evolves during the editing process.

I attempted humor in part one of the post and tried showing how my life mirrors writing in the English classroom (not a dedicated writing class). The humor evolved as I was writing: I didn't start the post thinking, "Gee, let me write a humorous piece." I actually intended to write a straight forward review on the Google Story Builder, but the post just went in a different direction.  I'd like to think I was funny, but only you the reader can tell me....  maybe I don't want to know....  (my attempt at humor again... ok, I know it isn't funny to have to point out the jokes and explain them....)

Teachers, writers, and authors, how do you write and what other tools have you found that students could use? Does your muse hit you on the head with divine inspiration while in the moment? Or do you go charging in with a map of what you will write and leave your strategic mark?


Part Three:  Update 11/15/12

I shared the above blog post with author David Blixt last night on Facebook and received this reply below.

This has made my week! 


  1. Thanks for the follow-up. I teach a high school creative writing class and it is hard. And besides my blog, I do write. We talk about process and how everyone is different, but it's still a hard thing to "teach" to kids. Even in high school, they think the ideas should just magically be there. I like his explanation and will be using it with my two groups next semester.

  2. Very thoughtful post. Now I need to get back to writing. ;)

  3. ~~Deb, you are very welcome! Process is doing, so the only way to improve is to DO! I just wish there was more time to do. I would love to read/hear more about what you do with your students in class. Also, be sure to check out Blixt's post on the inspiration for Master of Verona. I will be using this with students in the Spring when we study Romeo & Juliet. http://themasterofverona.typepad.com/the_master_of_verona/the-origin-of-the-capuletmontague-feud.html

    ~~FLETCH! Get to it! ;-)