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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Help Students Set Up an Effective Writing Routine

For students to write with ease and creativity, it is helpful for them to understand writing processes and writing routines. The paragraphs below take up the latter.

What is a writing routine?

To instigate this lesson, tell students that it is common to feel overwhelmed by writing. But they can briskly move through anxiety into the Land of Win by creating a writing routine?thinking or doing something repeatedly in order to compose with less angst.

Real writers employ writing routines

Invite students to hook into one of the authors' rituals listed below. Maybe one or two will resonate. The routines may be adapted to the students' preferences.

  • Stephen King (The Stand)
  • "I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you're going to be dreaming soon." DailyRoutines

  • Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones)
  • Commit to a specific amount of time. Don't stop writing to erase or redo the spelling. "Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)" (p. 10)

  • Michael Lewis (The Big Short)
  • "I've written in awful enough situations that I know that the quality of the prose doesn't depend on the circumstance in which it is composed. I don't believe the muse visits you. I believe that you visit the muse. If you wait for that 'perfect moment' you're not going to be very productive." DailyRoutines

  • John Grisham (The Firm)
  • "The alarm clock would go off at 5, and I'd jump in the shower. My office was 5 minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, at my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5:30, five days a week." DailyRoutines

  • Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections)
  • The author cannot start writing until he has found the right tone?one that makes him uncomfortable, but that might not make the reader too uncomfortable. He calls this dynamic "risk" in this Big Think Video (4 min.).

  • John Updike (Rabbit Run)
  • The author supposedly sharpened an entire box of pencils at 9:AM, cueing his brain to begin writing 1000 words a day, even after he switched from handwriting to using a Wang keyboard. The anecdote, which my research cannot substantiate, underscores the idiosyncratic nature of establishing a mental set.

    Routines invite "Flow"

    Students need abundant time?months, maybe?to create a routine, but an effective one can catapult them into a flow state where "[e]very action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz" (Csikszentmihalyi). Because writers are pack animals, rehearsing routines with a whole class can aid flow. Students will feel the collective energy shift; their heads will nod with satisfaction.

    The next section details a routine that may be adapted to fit most classes.

    The 5 S's

    Toyota's approach to quality improvement, The 5 S's, prescribes skills critical to writing that many adolescents (and adults) have not developed.

    • Seiri = organization/sorting
    • Seiton = neatness
    • Shitsuke = implementation and improvement on the routine
    • Seiketsu = standardization
    • Seiso = cleaning

    Allow 3 minutes for all but the 3rd interval, Shitsuke, where an appropriate block of writing time can occur: 15-40 minutes, depending on the maturity of the learners. The short stages are MacGyver challenging. Use a kitchen timer or online timer (Nextup or E.gg Timer) to keep everyone conscious of the stage lengths.

    Here is one illustration of how the 5 S's could be used:

  • Seiri = organization/sorting
  • Using a checklist, the writer gathers all the materials relevant to the task: sharpened pencils, erasers, pens, notebooks, reference material, Vitamin water, daybook, thesaurus, the writer's portfolio, etc. The practitioner should also store non-essential materials out of view, such as phones, combs, or homework from other classes.

  • Seiton = neatness
  • Writing materials are aesthetically and ergonomically placed on the students' desktops. If unorthodox gear is helpful (iPods, puffer balls, etc.) during writing, allow their use, as long as you can see that they serve productivity.

  • Shitsuke = implementation and improvement on the routine
  • Begin silent writing time. Afterwards, ask students to report on any innovations or breakthroughs that occurred during their routine.

  • Seiketsu = standardization
  • The teacher provides specific feedback on how successful the students engaged in the first three tasks. Organizational creativity is identified and praised. Goals are set for the next iteration of the routine.

  • Seiso = cleaning
  • The process isn't finished until the tools are placed where they can be easily retrieved.

    If a learner cannot gravitate to any of the recommended writing routines and resists the 5 S's, he or she might have one of those remarkable artist brains. In that case, point her to The Artist's Way Every Day: A Year of Creative Living by Julia Cameron.

    Japanese psychology and quality processes can direct our attention and energy on a pathway for creative accomplishment. But finally, the writer just has to write.

    --Todd Finley's Twitter address is @EnglEduProf

Comments (9)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Janis Seminara's picture
Janis Seminara
Writer, Writing tutor

Love this information, and I agree. When I do a writer's workshop for a group, or even when I tutor one to one and sense that 'fear' about starting a paper, I often break the ice and address the writing process. I describe my own writing process, and explain that sometimes, taking a walk or simply laying down and thinking about what you need to write is part of the process. I particularly agree that because many students do not have their own process, organization skills are lacking and because organizational skills are lacking, they don't have a process. Many of my workshops address this issue alone.
The Japanese system you described is quite intriguing. Where can I read more about this?
Another technique I use is trying to identity the students Multiple Intelligences, and nudge them to a process that flows with their strengths. Sometimes when I start a workshop, the first questions I ask are what films do you like? What video games do you enjoy? Then I speak about how films and video games start with a story. This usually get them going!
I also use very unusual methods to give my students the impetus to get that seed germinating. This is my passion; to get them to discover their process for writing, which I believe will ultimately help them learn to communicate in all aspects of their lives!

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia
Staff

Hi Janis - I'm sure Todd will have some great resources for you but I wanted to jump in because I'm fascinated by the 5S's. Toyota uses a number of these systems (including the 5Sa and another one called Kaizen, or continuous improvement).
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaizen

Here's a video for how the 5Ss are used @ Toyota
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbDMNa-4PSk

Here's another overview of the 5Ss:
http://saferpak.com/fives_art1.htm

Seems like a very valuable approach.

I like this blog a lot, as he shows that there are a variety of ways to create a routine and they all take work, but it can be a fun and almost devotional experience once you get going.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Assistant Editor (Contractor) and Blogger
Blogger 2014

[quote]many students do not have their own process, organization skills are lacking and because organizational skills are lacking, they don't have a process.[/quote]

Janis, I like the tension you describe so cogently. The 5S is something I ran into by following the trail from my interest in Edward Deming and the accessible Buddhist books by...

--> David K. Reynolds: http://bit.ly/DavidKReynolds.

Shifting perspectives and/or routines can flip a mental and emotional switch in a writer, resulting in exciting work. If a student can manage to adjust her processes to find her own switch, all the better.

Thank you for the resources and links, Betty.

Janis Seminara's picture
Janis Seminara
Writer, Writing tutor

Thank you both. I look forward to this blog. I am reading a very interesting book, Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, Kendall Haven. This book speaks about the brain and storytelling and writing. I am thrilled to read this because I had been creating writing/storytelling workshops for pre-schoolers and early childhood, specifically to teach organization using props and pictures instead of them actually writing. A colleague told me to tread carefully because there needed to be research and this book has the research I needed to validate my projects.
Currently, I have been giving writing presentations for training sessions at a community college involving twice exceptional students. Some of the students I tutor fall in this category; they have no shortage of ideas and information, yet lack the organization to uphold and communicate their information. I will look into all of the links provided and look forward to more.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Assistant Editor (Contractor) and Blogger
Blogger 2014

Janis, I'm putting Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story on my reading list.

The students with ideas bubbling off their sleeves need a place to catch them and the discipline to choose just one to develop. As I mess around with desktop widgets and attend to just the right milk to ice mixture in my chai tea--anything to avoid writing, I realize that I belong to a community of writers that are all facing the page. And this gives me strength to rely on the support--the routine--I've constructed for myself. Thank you for your generous comment!

Janis Seminara's picture
Janis Seminara
Writer, Writing tutor

"As I mess around with desktop widgets and attend to just the right milk to ice mixture in my chai tea--anything to avoid writing, I realize that I belong to a community of writers that are all facing the page."

I am also part of this tortured community! I sorely needed the information regarding routine myself, to "get going". I did manage to find a Natasha Bettingfield's song "A pocketful of Sunshine" which somehow turns my writing buttons on! The problem for me is that I am so interested in the art of teaching writing as well, that there is that constant struggle to balance my time for both. Enough said, off to find that pocketful of sunshine.
Thanks again.

Shontey Moore's picture

I like this blog because he shows that there are a variety of ways to create a routine and they all take some hard work, but it can be a fun and a devotional experience once you get started.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Assistant Editor (Contractor) and Blogger
Blogger 2014

It's remarkable to me how much of what you are saying I identify with, from the (iced) chai to fascination with process. Thank you.

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