I love to bake—especially around the holidays. One year, I decided I would bake and build a gingerbread house. I had never done it before, but my neighbor Tina always had one, and it looked delicious. After baking the gingerbread, I was ready to go into action. I put the house together by using frosting as the glue. It looked ugly, but nothing a little candy wouldn't hide. It was also a bit wobbly, but I thought it was good enough.
I started with the fun part: decorating. I piped frosting around the bottom edges of the house and patterned peppermints: green, red, green, red. As I started to pipe the frosting onto the roof, it wouldn't stick. So I used my finger to gently—ever so gently—push the frosting down. By the second push, my house had collapsed. Gingerbread walls came tumbling down, one on top of another. All I had was a pile of cookie walls with some frosting on them. I had to rebuild. By the third time I rebuilt my house, I was too tired and frustrated to care about the decorating.
Building the gingerbread house (and rebuilding it) is how some students write. Their first draft is so structurally weak that revising is focused on rebuilding the story. As the deadline looms, the student gets more and more frustrated and finally just recopies her poor draft neatly. As a teacher of students like this, I'm just as tired and frustrated as they are with the writing. I'm relieved to be done with that piece and move on to another.
But am I really helping a student who never truly gets to revise? There is nothing like seeing a student stunned by his own writing because of a revision he tried and knowing in his heart he has written well. But students who can't get past the drafting phase with a solid structure of their story never really get to the good part of revising.
In response, I have refocused my efforts to help my students write better first drafts. This means using a writer's notebook to hold ideas and try things out. It also means teaching writing strategies or habits that will strengthen my students as writers. I know that if my students are going to write for a lifetime, they need to be able to write strong first drafts so that they can feel the power that high-quality revision offers.
The Path to Better First Drafts
What would happen if kids wrote better first drafts? I turned from my teacher professional library and looked into what writers say about this to other writers. It turns out writers' blogs are festering with this very notion: a better first draft. My research focused mostly on writing better first drafts with nonfiction, but several of the tips work for all forms of writing. Why is this important? If a strategy fits all forms of writing, it's worth knowing well. As teachers, we're teaching writers, not the writing. The strategies and lessons we teach must carry over not just to the writing at hand, but also to the writing that has yet to be done.
Here are a few of the common threads from blog sites applicable to how we teach children.
- Know the basics of your story or article. Jot this down in your notebook. This includes the basic story and any "what-if" situations that may stem from it.
- Play with language. Use your notebook to keep lists, free associate with words, and collect headlines or lines of text you wish you had written.
- Understand who is involved with the story. Whether they're working with fiction or nonfiction, writers need to understand their characters.
- Do enough research (or prewriting in the notebook) to have a point of view. Understanding the writer's point of view is key. It's also a good habit for writers to explore other points of view. For example, Jon Scieszka helps us see the wolf's point of view in the book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. During the story, we see the pigs' point of view, too—they're afraid the wolf will eat them. Whether fiction or nonfiction, point of view matters.
- Think about the ending. Children write memory stories easily because they know how the story ends. JK Rowling is known for having written a seven-book outline before going to an editor. She also wrote the seventh book's ending before the series was concluded.
- Concentrate on the flow of the story. Whether fiction or nonfiction, the writing needs to flow from one scene to the next, from one fact to another. This is where some structure may help students. For example, with fiction, I tell my students to aim for one big problem and three little ones before reaching the climax. For example, from the book Scaredy Squirrel, the one big problem is that Scaredy Squirrel is too afraid to leave his tree. The smaller problems are that he sees a bee, he falls out of his tree, and he loses his survival kit. In the climax—or resolution of the story—nothing happens. Scaredy Squirrel survives outside of his tree and goes back home. He then changes by going outside of his tree each day. However, his survival kit is still missing in action.
- Focus your writing around a key question. What's the big question your story will answer? For Scaredy Squirrel it may have been what would happen if Scaredy Squirrel fell out of his tree and didn't have his survival kit.
- Reread your work. This is a hard one. Kids—and some writers—don't like to read their work because . . . well, they just wrote it. However, while writers draft, it's possible to get stuck. I've found kids just abandon what could be a great piece because they got stuck. Writers often reread what they wrote to get the flow going again.
Even if writers follow all of these tips perfectly, they still need to revise. Ideally, the writer can focus on the tone and voice of the piece with revisions rather than the core structure and development of the story. It's always more fun to decorate the gingerbread house, but first, you have to build it well enough to stand on its own.