A Plan For Student Writing - Don’t Over-Plan!

Over the years I have frequently reminded young writers that it helps if you know in your head where and when your story will end before you commence writing. You can stop off anywhere along the way, but at least know where you’re heading. It’s easier to map out the plot if you have a sense of direction for your writing. It represents the most basic form of planning.

Planning begins with  the rehearsal of broad ideas. Rolling words and phrases around in your head, telling your story to yourself and others assists in the formation of solid ideas. It crystallizes thought. Writers are storytellers and often tell their stories many times before they write. Young writers need to know this important fact. Talk is a powerful ally of the writer. Classrooms that foster quality conversations around writing intentions greatly assist the inexperienced writers to identify and enact writing intentions.

Planning should provide support to students with their writing.  A brief outline may help students shape their writing piece.  Identifying characters, setting, the conflict/ complication in the story and an idea for bringing it all to a conclusion are elements that can be briefly sketched out. It’s a map of their writing intentions.

However, it concerns me that in some classrooms planning gradually morphs into something so incredibly detailed that the importance of the writing gets sacrificed on the planning altar. Detailed planning for all is the dominant practice in some classrooms. I firmly believe this type of over planning acts as an impediment to the development of quality writing.  Why do student writers with five years experience in the structure and development of narratives need to spend a number of workshop sessions planning their piece? The gaps in their writing will become apparent when they write. This informs where the teaching emphasis needs to be focused.

Detailed story planners often become impediments to writing. All the energy required for the actual writing is often exhausted in the lengthy planning that precedes it.

This type of approach runs the risk of leaching all the spark and spontaneity out of the writing. It results in writing being delivered to the page, practically dead on arrival.  The voice of the writer is lost somewhere in Planning Land!

Too often I witness the disillusionment reflected in the faces of student writers. –exhausted and appearing as energized as limp lettuce leaves!

I recently worked with a teacher who had what amounted to an epiphany regarding the ‘over planning’ taking place in his writing classroom. He had just watched his students engage in writing lesson that required them to write a flash draft.

They were asked to identify the following elements as part of their planning for writing:
  • An interesting character
  • A setting
  • Something that might happen that was somewhat unexpected. 
They talked, they shared ideas and then after about five minutes they were released to write.
The writing task was approached with enthusiasm. The volume  far exceeding normal output for these students. How do  I know this? The teacher later informed me of this fact. ‘The difference was quite stark,’ he declared. ‘Their writing today was so different. The quality and the volume. I think I have been asking them to over plan and they have been giving me writing that is mostly formulaic.’
By using the flash draft approach room was left for surprise and discovery. The writing certainly contained surprises. It had the power to surprise the reader- in this case, the teacher of these students. 

We need to adopt a flexible approach to planning. Sometimes a writer just needs to be released to write. The teacher’s role might be to  get out of the way.
 Sometimes planning can be used to assist a writer to gain perspective and direction for the writing. There will always be a number of students who would benefit from the scaffolding planning a piece of writing provides. Differentiation is the key.

Our role might be to assist the writer to find out what it is they want to achieve as a writer. How often does a student writer say, ‘I know what I want to write about, I’m just not sure how to begin.’
‘Well, let’s look at the ways other writers approach introductions and leads.’ I say. ‘We need to do some investigating and see what we can discover.’

However we approach planning, flexibility is the key. The writer needs to understand they can change their mind and alter course from the original idea. We must offer students a range of planning possibilities from which to select, as suits the needs of the individual student.

  • Storyboarding
  • Drawing
  • Talk before writing
  • A combination of tasks
  • Story mapping


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