As a sometimes aspiring writer of children’s fiction I can say that being part of a writer’s group is just about the most productive thing you can do, and don’t just take my word for it. Successful writers such as Libby Gleeson, Richard Harland and Oliver Phommavahn have spoken about the benefit of writer’s groups and keeping company with other writers.
In writer’s groups you are not only challenged to produce a piece of writing of at least 1000 words for each meeting, but you are also challenged to justify those words. If you are lucky, you get a first peek at what might go on to be an international best seller, and realise that most writers in your position are asking exactly the same questions, and some have even found answers.
In 2009 I was part of a writers’ group to which, among others, Oliver Phommavahn, Jenny Hale and Aleesah Darlison belonged. At this time all three were officially unpublished but have now gone on to become successful writers. If you are unaware of their work I recommend you Google them now. The advice I received from this group was absolutely invaluable, but furthermore was the expectation that to be part of this group I must take my writing seriously and make the committment to write regularly, and to build on the suggestions of my fellow writers.
The writers’ group model is also very effective in classroom situations. In the writer’s group we shared copies of our work and opened them up to critique. It is amazing how many obvious flaws make it through even our toughest self editing, though we are so much more careful when we know a group will be reading and pointing out every typo and the like.
As a teacher I have made it a practise to take writing seriously. By this I mean, when I critique children’s work they understand that my suggestions are made to help them communicate their ideas more effectively. It is also part of my regular practise to scan a child’s writing, display it on the interactive whiteboard and have the whole class point out things the child did well and areas for improvement.
Unfortunately, in classes I visit children do not regularly share their drafts with others – this seems to be left only for “published” writing. Often times I have seen students bring their book to the teacher who glances over the work and tells the child it is good, as if good is good enough. The child then walks away without even having been asked what improvements they made to their draft. The piece of writing is then shut away, never to see the light of day again.
In the writer’s circle model, whether in the classroom or at the local library or writers’ centre, the work is analysed for potential improvements, with the idea of communication with an audience as central. How can students be mindful of an audience if there is never any accountability? If no-one other than the teacher ever reads the majority of their words?
It is never to early to ask a child to share their work with the class, and have the class respectfully point out ways it could be further improved. I always tell the students that Mem Fox re-drafted Possum Magic 40 times, so the least you can do is re-draft your own writing once or twice before you show it to me. Spoken word artist and highly talented poet Miles Merril has the rather graphic analogy that when he is writing he vomits words out onto the page. From that gloop of word vomit the writer must extract the dainty morsels that can be tidied up and served to an audience. It is up to the writing teacher to explain to his or her students that it is not polite to serve raw word-vomit to your guests (possibly in a more polite manner so as to avoid complaints from parents).
I also get the students to use coloured pencil to show me where they have edited their own work, and if they bring it to me and there are still full stops missing or capital letters in the wrong place I will send them back to correct these simple errors till the cows come home. Inspire the heck out of your class so they are dying to show you their writing, then demand they present it to you in a way befitting the masterpiece they have created. These self editing skills are essential for lifelong learning and are quickly acquired when the students realise their peers will be reading their work.
Richard Harland wrote in The Company of Writers (p. 24, August/September 2009, Newswrite) that
The great thing about workshops is that it doesn’t matter who produces the ideas; everyone can learn from everyone else’s moves.
When you have your class thinking like that you aren’t just one teacher against an army of wildly apostrophe wielding youths with no regard for the proper use of capital letters. When your class holds themselves and their classmates accountable to the conventions of written language you have yourself a company of writers.