Blogstitute 2016: Getting Started with Close Writing

June 16th, 2016

The next post in our #Blogstitute16 series comes from Paula Bourque (@LitCoachLady), author of Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2-6. Paula shares her strategies for creating a habit of close reading — the first step in developing close writers. Be sure to leave a comment or tweet about this post using #Blogstitute16 for a chance to win some amazing new Stenhouse books!

Getting Started with Close WritingClose Writing approved cover
Paule Bourque

I love coaching in classrooms during writing workshop. I love to watch students take ideas from their heads and magically transfer them to paper. I love listening to the talk that floats above the flurry of writing. It was from these opportunities that I noticed the varying range of connectedness students had to their writing. The most successful writers seemed to be very connected to their written work, while those who struggled more were often quite disconnected. This translated into some students frequently rereading and revisiting their writing and others who saw writing as a one-way process: get it down and done.

I started observing the most accomplished writers to analyze which behaviors and habits supported their success. The thing that jumped out at me in almost every instance was that these writers were close readers of their own writing. They reread their work with purpose and focus, and they did so frequently. I thought about how we have been teaching students to closely read the work of other authors but not how to apply those strategies to their own pieces of text. That was the genesis for my book Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2–6 (2016).

What started as a book about teaching students close reading strategies for their own work evolved into a plethora of approaches for creating stronger relationships between writers and their writing and building awareness of their writing identities. That process was a genuine path of discovery for me, and it continues to this day.

I am now frequently asked by teachers who have looked at the collection of ideas and strategies in Close Writing, “Where should I start?” I think that’s such a relevant question because teachers sometimes find writing instruction “messy.” Writers’ needs are so varied, and their styles are so individual. One size rarely fits all. I usually suggest that they start where I did—encouraging writers to create a habit of close reading.

The premise for Close Writing is that writers reread, reflect, and revise with a variety of purposes and lenses. Writers cannot reflect or revise if they aren’t aware of what IS and what IS POSSIBLE, and that can happen most effectively when they first reread what is in front of them. So I now emphasize teaching students to reread (closely read) their writing to raise that awareness as the first step in becoming a Close Writer.

Three Aspects of this Initial Process

  • Awareness
  • Purpose
  • Practice


Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things they are transformed. —Thich Nhat Hanh

You can’t be intentional without awareness. You can’t purposefully change a behavior you aren’t aware of. So how can we raise this awareness?

How Do Other Authors Do It?

We can start by sharing with our students audio or video of published authors reading their work. These are obviously successful close writers! Some of my favorites are Neil Gaiman, Eric Carle, Mercer Mayer, and Suzanne Collins. We can ask students to describe what they notice about how they read their work and why they made certain choices. I found many of the techniques could fall into one of these categories:

  • Pace—How quickly or slowly authors read
  • Pause—Where authors stop at various points
  • Punch—What words or phrases authors choose to emphasize
  • Play—The dramatic quality or style of authors’ voices

I then invite students to try these techniques in their own writing and to think about their purpose to help them share—as well as reflect on—their writing.

How to Read Your Writing

Once students are aware of techniques and purposes for reading their work, we can reread with a variety of lenses. Close reading often answers a question for the reader. You change your lens or focus to answer questions. We can ask questions of our own writing that can be answered with a close read, such as these:

  • How do I show transitions of time or place to my reader?
  • How natural does my dialogue sound?
  • How varied are my sentences?
  • Which verbs are my strongest? My weakest?

The questions are limitless. Whatever craft element, technique, or convention you are working on can be monitored and strengthened by close reading.


“Children work very hard in their purposeful endeavors in the world, when they have ends they want to accomplish themselves.” —Frank Smith

Almost all of the students I know want to get better at what they do. Most recognize that this requires work. When we understand the purpose and can see how that work could pay off, it is much easier to invest time and energy.

  • Why is close reading important? I contrast a “fast forward” style of reading (quick, mumbled, inattentive) with a purposeful “writer reading” (intentional pace, pause, punch, play techniques) and discuss the difference between “getting through” a piece of writing and really “getting into” a piece of writing. I invite students to consider which style will help them to be more aware and purposeful with their writing. I believe that if they don’t understand the purpose behind a skill, it doesn’t become a strategy.
  • How does this close reading help me? The idea isn’t that they can turn their writing into readers’ theater. The focus is on the purposeful choices they make to interpret and convey the meaning of their writing more precisely. Slowing down, thinking about what is important, and listening to how those written words sound when spoken aloud can help readers to better reflect on what they have written.
    • One of my favorite lessons to demonstrate the effectiveness of rereading is “Rewind and Find.” I ask students go back and read a piece of their work for just two minutes to see what they might find to revise or edit that their teacher would find if he or she read it. We then list everything they notice, and those lists are often quite extensive. I say, “Look at what we were able to find in just two minutes. Do you think if you took two minutes each day to go back and reread your work that you would become a stronger writer?” At this point, most students are convinced!


“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you are good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” —Malcolm Gladwell

We can’t just tell our students to reread their writing and expect them to be more attentive and intentional. How often have kids told us they have reread their work only for us to discover a myriad of errors, incomplete sentences, or gaps? They may have reread it, but they weren’t sure what to look for.

  • Teach it. I don’t assume that this comes naturally to students. I model how it looks and sounds using my own writing and then give them plenty of opportunities to practice it themselves with feedback and reinforcement.
  • Prompt for it. Once I teach a technique such as Flash Editing, Rewind and Find, or Listen and Learn, I can then quickly prompt for it so that students can practice independently without a lengthy lesson. If every time students said or thought “I’m done!” they heard a prompt for closely reading their work, they would very quickly begin to develop that approach as a classroom expectation.
  • Make it a habit. If we put structures and routines in place that foster close reading, it will more easily become habituated. We need to make it easy for our students to develop these close writing behaviors.

There are so many more strategies and approaches that I have written about that can help our students become Close Writers, but if we can begin by making them aware, helping them to understand its purpose, and giving them opportunities to practice closely reading their writing, I am confident that they will become much more accomplished writers. I welcome you to continue this exploration with me on Twitter @LitCoachLady, on Facebook, or at my website. You can find resources for my book Close Writing at the accompanying Stenhouse website.

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. LeAnn Carpenter  |  June 16th, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    What great tips for close writing! How often do kids just buzz through reading their writing without truly reading it like and author reads. That could be a game changer.

  • 2. Amber Garbe  |  June 16th, 2016 at 7:44 pm

    Five years ago I discovered Katie Wood Ray’s work and it forever changed my approach to teaching writing. After reading this blog entry, I feel another shift coming on. I can’t wait to read Close Writing and ponder the ideas presented.

  • 3. Jennifer Laffin  |  June 18th, 2016 at 9:07 am

    I am so enjoying your book, Paula. It has so many AHA! moments in it. I plan on bringing it to my school for a book study this fall. These are words and ideas that can benefit all of us!

  • 4. Fran De La Rosa  |  June 18th, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    I am anxious to explore these ideas further when we start the new school year. Our focus is going to be on writing, and truthfully, it is not my most successful area. Your work will certainly enhance my practice. Thank you for sharing.

  • 5. Julie O'Neill  |  June 18th, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    Your framework of awareness, purpose, and practice is so clear and can be applied to all types of learning. Thanks for describing the “Rewind and Find” strategy — can’t wait to try it with students.

  • 6. Lisa C  |  June 19th, 2016 at 6:17 am

    Often I ask students to read their own work to me in a conference. Some of them can’t do it! Their writing is too messy, or they have so much invented spelling it is impossible. I love the idea of having the class learn specific strategies for reading their own work!

  • 7. Diane Anderson  |  June 20th, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    I think “Rewind and Find” will be a winner. Students like working in bursts of time, especially when they see real results. Teaching them what to look for and prompting them to practice doing it so it becomes habit surely would help them get better at writing.

  • 8. Lisa Maucione  |  June 21st, 2016 at 6:52 pm

    I really like the idea of teaching students to read their work by sharing videos of published authors. I still need to get this book. It sounds great!

  • 9. Tracy Mailloux  |  June 22nd, 2016 at 9:40 pm

    Rewind and Find…definitely adding this to my repertoire of writing strategies to teach next school year. Even though this post seems focused on narrative / fiction writing, I can already see how I might adapt it to argument writing in my science classroom. Thanks Paula!

  • 10. Elisa Waingort  |  June 23rd, 2016 at 10:27 am

    Love these suggestions! I can see how it would help kids improve their writing AND take ownership of it as well. I agree that we need to teach kids what it means to reread their writing and to listen for places where they can revise and edit their work. I like the idea of demonstrating this with our own writing. I am a little timid about doing this in front of the class, but I know that it is a very effective instructional strategy when I have taken the time (and found the courage!) to do it.

  • 11. Teresa F  |  June 25th, 2016 at 10:48 am

    Teaching students how to read their own writing is a great idea! So is Rewind and Find! My struggling writers prefer to write a one and done essay. When I have them read aloud their essay to me, many of them realize that they left out words or it doesn’t make sense. Using your strategies, especially the quick Rewind and Find, should help my students become better writers. This book is on my shopping list.

  • 12. Christie  |  June 28th, 2016 at 6:02 am

    As a kindergarten teacher I find its a challenge for students to really listen to their writing. They need loads of practice (thank you, Malcolm Gladwell!) in knowing what to listen for. The best way to teach that, I think, is for me to model this for them. I sit and write alongside them (at first they stare, which is always funny!), then I share at the end of workshop, as I have them do, and then I model editing right in front of them, often taking their suggestions to prove they can do it. It’s so powerful!

  • 13. Carol A  |  June 30th, 2016 at 8:25 am

    I am with Fran. I too want to use your practices in the coming year. We are going to 80 minute classes and I am hoping to have more time to put emphasis on writing. Your ideas will definitely help.

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