Blogstitute Week 3: Leaping over the void of doubt

July 9th, 2012

We are very excited to continue our Summer Blogstitute with some words of wisdom from Jeff Anderson, author of 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know, Everyday Editing, and Mechanically Inclined.

We have all stared at a blank notebook page or computer screen for hours, waiting for divine inspiration to hit. Or even worse, avoided even sitting down to write. In this week’s Blogstitute post, Jeff encourages all of us — teachers, students, wannabe writers — to put “ass in chair” and get those first awkward, rambling words on the page.

How do you help your students — or yourself — get over the fear of writing? Share your thoughts in the comments section — three lucky commenters will win a package of five Stenhouse books at the end of the Blogstitute.

A writer in motion stays in motion

Confession time.

When I started writing my latest book, 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know  (Stenhouse, 2011), I came up with the title first. Then I went back and worked for four years on figuring out what the ten essential “things” were, and how I could create a space in my classroom where these writing behaviors would flourish and become a part of my students forever. To this end, I mined my experience as a teacher and a writer, and those of others through casual conversation and reading what writers say about their process.

The list changed several times, but I knew, somehow, some way, one truth had to make its way into this book. The big truth is that most writers doubt themselves and only get anything done by just diving in and beginning to write.

Seems rather obvious, I know. Most wisdom is.

From Donald Murray saying the secret is simply putting “ass in chair” to every other writer’s advice about having the courage to begin to Peter Elbow’s insistence that we have to be okay with writing some garbage to get to the good stuff, the only secret is to eke out or feverishly spill those first words on the page. This is the only way to leap past doubt, slam some clay on the potter’s wheel, and make something.

We can and will keep shaping it, but the only way to shape is to first have something to shape. However “wrong” it looks, keep writing. Even this blog entry became something to conquer. I was putting it off. It was due last week. I knew it was, but I let the busyness of life be my excuse. In reality, it wasn’t going to be completed until I started it. So, here I am still learning about the first of the ten things every writer needs to know: “A writer in motion stays in motion.”

So how do I bring this idea of motion to my writing process classroom? While I can certainly share my experiences as a writer—procrastinating, doubting, waiting for inspiration—the only real way I can teach my students is to have them experience, from the inside out, what it feels like to leap over the void of doubt, to actually experience the magic of more words coming the moment they start scratching a few down on the page or typing them on the keyboard.

Many writers and writing teachers share the value of timed writings to get themselves or their students in motion. My students’ favorite comes from longtime educator and researcher Leif Fearn. This is the first writing activity my students actually begged me to do, and, as it turns out, this writing experience is the best way to show kids—through experience—that they can conquer the blank page or screen.

Fearn’s power-writing activity is built around a simple process.

  1. Students are presented with two words—any two words—and are asked to choose one they will use once when they write.
  2. Once students choose a word, the teacher tells the students, “Write as much as you can, as fast as you can, as well as you can, in one minute.”
  3. Students write for one minute. At the end of the minute, the teacher says, “Lift your pencil in the air, count the number of words that you have written, draw a line under what you wrote, and record the number of words under the line.”
  4. On a table or chart that students can see, the teacher records the number of words the students have written as a class. “How many of you wrote 0–10 words?” (Continue with 11–20, 21–30, and so on.)
  5. Repeat this process for two more rounds, having students choose from two new words each time.

In this way, power writing not only develops fluency, it also helps students see that once they start writing, more words really do come. And something about the challenge or the competition with themselves makes the students actually want to write more.

Though I know that thinking in our classrooms takes time, setting a limit can also help students see their unlimited potential. This isn’t the only writing activity that works; it’s just one that warms students up and keeps them going when doubt creeps in.

If you’re interested in more information on motion or power writing, see the free preview chapter from my book. Even more important, instead of reading this blog, ask yourself if there’s something you are being called to write. Sit down, open up a Word doc or your notebook, and, for goodness’ sake, write.

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

19 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tracy  |  July 9th, 2012 at 8:13 am

    What a great idea to have kids choose from 2 words to get them started. I use “quickwrites” in my classroom often; I agree, it does help to build writing fluency. I have used poems, sentence stems or borrowed lines from books to give children a seed for beginning. At first, I was worried that this type of exercise would encourage the all too familiar phrases, “Is this enough? Is this long enough?” in their writing workshop pieces, but in fact it has had the opposite effect. Kids aren’t bogged down and ideas flow freely once they have begun.

  • 2. Mrs. V  |  July 9th, 2012 at 11:18 am

    With my students I also use quick writes. Often I have them write lists first and move into quick writes. Sometimes I have an oral rehearsing step in the middle and often let them know that the items on their list that they choose to share with a partner may be the topics that they already have the most ideas about which to write. Once they are comfortable with the process, they know that it is an option of something that they can do independently during writer’s workshop when they are in their gathering ideas stage.

    For myself, I always have a writer’s notebook close by. However, I do a much better job of writing out ideas when they are already flowing but not so good at having a set time every day to write whether it is flowing or not. That will be something I will continue to work on. I know that anything I learn about myself writing even when it is hard, will help me to better understand my students. I have had glimpses into this with certain pieces of writing, but have not made myself stick to a commitment to write every day for a minimum amount of time.

  • 3. Laura Komos  |  July 9th, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    Thanks for reminding me of how important it is to think of our own writing lives when we ask our students to write, Jeff! We have to walk the walk, don’t we? And when I ask my first graders to put their words down on paper, they have to know that I also struggle with doing just that. We do a “Quiet 10” minutes of writing, but I like the idea of mixing it up with the one minute quick write. Thanks for giving me some food for thought!

  • 4. Nicole Medina  |  July 9th, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    I’m writing! I’m writing! I do feel compelled to comment on this line, “A writer in motion stays in motion.” I have never been one to remember a quote precisely, but this one sticks with me. I feel like there are layers for myself and my students to peel back about those seven words.

  • 5. Rose Cappelli  |  July 10th, 2012 at 8:35 am

    Yesterday I bought a new notebook – always a big deal when I start a new notebook. For some reason, I always am a little tentative making the first entry or writing the first words. It seems those first words or lines set the tone for the whole notebook. Today I opened up my lovely new notebook and wrote “A writer in motion stays in motion.” Thanks, Jeff!

  • 6. Val Ruckes  |  July 10th, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    I have become more and more aware that as I write, I learn more about myself as a writer and I learn more ways to support my students in their writing endeavors.

    One of the things that helps my first graders get their writing on the page is by starting with a picture. Once they have a picture/drawing they can use it to jump-start their writing. Another helpful technique is “talk”. When students share their ideas with a partner or the entire class, it helps them to develop their writing verbally and they have an easier time of getting their words on paper. These conversations also spark ideas in others.

  • 7. Dollie Evans  |  July 10th, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    Jeff-as always your voice speaks to me-My number one problem as a writer is getting started-I am a great editor and revisor but it seems putting the first words down is the hardest step-thanks for the encouragement-can’t wait to read this book-my students and I are big fans

  • 8. Laura Straus  |  July 11th, 2012 at 9:21 am

    I use a couple of different timed power-writing techniques with my students (who are preservice teachers), but this one is new to me. I look forward to trying it this fall. This is an excellent post. I appreciated your final comments about the importance of allowing time for thinking in our classrooms, alongside the importance of at least occasionally nudging our students to have a bit of a race with themselves as they write. Some of my students have never felt that feverish writing pace within themselves, and it is a great discovery for them.

  • 9. Andrea Payan  |  July 11th, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    “the only way to shape is to first have something to shape” I love this image of the potter’s wheel and the insistence that we need to write in order to have things to revise and shape into something spectacular. I love the idea for the quickwrites and building that into a little competition with themselves to improve in word count each time. The other plus is that in less than 10 minutes kids could have 6 or more seed ideas for writing. Thank you for the ideas and the reminders.

  • 10. Kelly Mogk  |  July 12th, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    Some great ideas here and good quotes to share with students, too! I may need to make a sign for “A writer in motion stays in motion” — I could use reminding of that quite often, too!

    I like the power writing technique! It reminds me of building stamina with reading in The Daily 5, and also makes me think of how runners build up endurance! Long runs, sprints, jogs… it takes many different ways of using our muscles to become an expert runner — why not the same truth for writing? Thanks so much!

  • 11. Kathryn Holt  |  July 20th, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    When students feel safe to express themselves, without fear of criticism, they are much more willing to engage in the writing process. Once they feel safe, students begin to write in ways that are meaningful for them. So often, once they begin, students find themselves deeply involved in writing, and are eager to continue writing. In fact, in my experience, once high school students feel they can write freely, they enjoy the process so much that they find it hard to stop. After freely writing, students are much more willing to go back and reconsider their writing, revise, and edit as needed. Once students have written, they are more able to reconsider their writing from the perspective of readers.

  • 12. Judy Puckett  |  July 21st, 2012 at 7:58 am

    Oh Jeff, your wisdom always speaks to me. I am drawn to both quotes: “A writer in motion…” and ” Slam some clay on the potter’s wheel…” Stamina in our writers is critical, but they are “thrown” by the clay. I will definitely use both of these images with the teachers I work with. Of course as reminders to myself too. Thank you my friend.

  • 13. Kathy  |  July 21st, 2012 at 8:43 am

    Great ispirational post. I like the classroom idea and will use it. I am adding “A writer in motion stays in motion” to my bulletin board in my mini office.

  • 14. Linda Moyer  |  July 21st, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Wow! Great writing “stuff” on this blog. Not only do I do something similar with my students, but also with my teachers. In an effort to motivate all teachers to be writers and teachers of writing, regardless of the content, educators also need to be taught this tools. Thanks so much!

  • 15. Mary  |  July 22nd, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    Thank you for the wonderful post. Has anyone tried oneword.com? My third graders LOVED it and often begged for more.

  • 16. Jenna  |  July 24th, 2012 at 7:19 am

    Thank you for this insight. I just finished a summer writing institute and we often explored this idea of how to get started with our writing. The “writer in motion” quote hits home. This is something I want to not only remind myself, but my students, too. I have seen power writing in action in some middle school classrooms, but have yet to try it myself. Students are often thrilled to see how much they can write in a minute and always have more to say when a minute is up. And then they are begging to do it again! Great strategy. It also gives them lots of future writing ideas to refer back to when they are once again stuck wondering what to write.

  • 17. Tara M.  |  July 24th, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    Some of the best advice on writing was given to me two years ago when I was told by a writing instructor to “honor the time for writing.” I chose, at the time, to devote two class periods a week to writing and nothing else. With demands of testing, it would have been easy to allow myself to cancel the writing days and do something else, but I promised myself and my students. It was the best class I have ever taught, Now I would make writing a part of every class day.

  • 18. Peggy S.  |  August 6th, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    Modeling writing is one way I have found to get my students writing. I share with them all the things I do to get it right.
    I do a collection of digital pics to remind myself of topics I wanted to write about. Especially those every day things. I use my garden as a theme to follow in doing a lot of my writing. I take pictures of my tomatoe plants ,when they bear fruit and then write about anticipating the taste of them using alot of descriptive words. I will list all the words that I can use to descripe the taste of those tomatoes as I take my first bite straight from the garden.
    I take pictures of slugs and the holes the leave in my plants and why my veggies aren’t picture perfect because of these slime slugs in my garden. My students pick up on this and start taking their own pictures to help them remember what to write about and helps them think about word choice for their sentences.

  • 19. Leif Fearn  |  May 21st, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    I appreciate Jeff getting it right. Power Writing is as Jeff describes it. Unfortunately, there are several people in the field who do not get it right and who also use the term and then redefine i9t their way. Thank you, Jeff.

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