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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

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