Creative Writing and Self-Regulation
Self-regulation is an act of awareness – being aware of: what you are doing; how you are doing it; why that is; actively considering how you might do it better, and adjusting your own behaviours accordingly. In The Metacognition Handbook, I defined self-regulation as: ‘the learner’s ability to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning whilst completing the task itself (…) actively applying metacognitive knowledge in real time.’ (Webb, 2021)
The self-regulating student is the ultimate goal. They:
- know what success looks like
- know their own tendencies and weaknesses
- have a clear sense of what they are going to do
- are able to self-correct at the same time as doing a complex task
- take ownership of their learning and work output
The problem with creative writing
- Creative writing is creative. How can students have a ‘clear sense’ of anything when the final product is inherently creative and, as yet, undefined?
- Writing is an extremely complex set of processes. How can students know enough of their own weaknesses when there are so many potential areas of the craft to work on?
- ‘Success’ in this arena is, arguably, subjective.
These problems are real. Creative writing is a challenging term. We tend to use it in the English classroom to denote anything which is not a literature essay or piece of functional ‘transactional’ writing, such as an article or an advert. That is, anything which does not have a distinct purpose. This is difficulty because some might argue that ‘creative’ writing is the most purposeful of all – it transcends the mundane everyday experience and functionality required to exist in the word and is, essentially, art. What could be more meaningful than that?
In my view, the only way to tackle the broad and infinite possibility of ‘creative’ writing is to shrink it so that it is classroom sized. This is not about limiting student ambition or putting a ceiling on their efforts. It is simply about selecting a small focus area and working at that in a conscious, deliberate way.
English teachers teach writing all the time. Writing is a skill we continue to hone, even when we are teaching something which is traditionally considered a ‘reading’ topic. Even when we teach a novel or a poetry unit, students will use writing as a servant strategy to develop their notes and thought processes, and also as a way to express their ideas in more formal academic writing. When teaching any kind of writing, I have a set structure.
Writing unit principles
These are the key principles I apply when planning and delivering a writing unit. The examples alongside are from a Gothic writing unit I recently taught to Y7. It was their first explicit writing topic of secondary school.
1. Set intention
Choose a narrow, specific set of knowledge and skill which you will focus on developing during the unit. Ensure that this is something which is borne out of your knowledge of the students and where they are. I usually select:
- 2-3 areas of knowledge and skill which are new
- 1-2 areas of knowledge which are a continuation of a previous unit
- 1-2 things which have been misconceptions which I want to continue to reiterate as we go along
Intentions for the unit:
2-3 areas of knowledge and skill which are new
- Exposition (creating atmosphere and setting tone)
- Pathetic fallacy
1-2 areas of knowledge which are a continuation of a previous unit
- Modification and expansion (building on knowledge of word classes, function and clause structure from Y6)
- The Gothic (building on reading unit from September)
1-2 things which have been misconceptions which I want to continue to reiterate as we go along
- Concrete/abstract nouns
- Run-on punctuation
2. Live models which springboard CHOICE
Ensure that all modelling is done live under a visualiser, highlighting the skills and knowledge which you are chosen as your intention. Ensure that there is dialogue about what is written, how it is written, what else could be written and which the students prefer…
I modelled live almost every lesson. There were a range of models, from single word choices in single sentences, to longer descriptive pieces. Often there would also be opportunities for me to put student work under the visualiser and model marking and feedback, or model how their writing might be enhanced. By the end of the unit, a handful of students had also been confident enough to come to the visualiser themselves and model a skill for the group.
Examples of some models:
This demonstrates the difference between a descriptive sentence (top), one with a modifier (silver), then with the modifier moved so that it is post-modifying, then with expansion (addition of a phrase: silver with age), then with that phrase moved so that it is fronted.
This model shows students how we might write using more precise nouns and verbs – dog becomes wolf; moving becomes stalking; road becomes alleyway.
With each of these models I ask questions like:
- How does this new element change the meaning?
- What would a different choice look like?
- Which one do you prefer?
- Does this capture what we want to say, or is there still something which isn’t right?
All the time, we are stressing the importance of choice in writing. There are many, many options open to students – there is no right answer here. The only ‘right’ answer is the one which most closely voices what they really want to say. I would highly recommend the work of Myhill and the team at Exeter University to anyone interested in Grammar as Choice Pedagogy: https://education.exeter.ac.uk/research/centres/writing/grammar-teacher-resources/grammaraschoice/
3. Reflection wraps practice
Prompt student reflection before they write, while they write and after they write. Ensure that the reflection is precisely linked to the unit intentions.
I used a four-part frame to scaffold student reflection before, during and after writing. They just take a page I their exercise book and divide it into four.
Students write down what they understand the task to be – e.g. it will be three paragraphs of prose describing a tree in a park. It will use X devices, etc.
Students reflect on when they have done something like this before – how did it go? What were their errors or areas for development? How will they build on previous successes and learn from previous weaknesses?
What is their ‘battle plan’ for this task? This should be a really clear, simple breakdown of what they will do in order. There might also be some reminders here about what they might do to avoid specific errors they tend to make, e.g. checking for capital letters.
This is completed AFTER the task has been done and feedback has been given.
How did it go? What were the key successes? What prompted them? What were the key areas for improvement? How might they be tackled in future? Did my ‘strategy’ work? How will it change next time? What questions do I have? What are my priorities moving forward?
This reflection enables students to process all their key understanding before beginning. It then also acts as a prompt during the writing process. When students are first learning to self-regulate, I remind them at intervals during their independent writing, to look back at their reflection plan and ensure that the strategy and key areas of focus are at the forefront of their minds. We also return to it explicitly during the proof reading stage before students hand in.
4. Promote the practice of ‘book dialogue’
Train students to have an ongoing conversation with their exercise book. This means that they are in the habit of writing notes and commentary in the margin of their exercise book as they go along.
5. Insist that the piece of writing isn’t the point – it’s all about the ongoing craft
Highlight the idea that they aren’t working on a piece of writing, but on themselves as writers. The work in their book is their working memory externalised, not a shiny, polished, finished piece. Ensure that each shorter writing task pulls through to the next, and that it is a continuous thread of skill development.
These two steps are critical and inextricably linked to one another. A piece of student writing is NOT a perfect, publisher-ready manuscript which should be put on a pedestal. The process of writing itself is generative and messy. I liken writing to painting or clay modelling – students need to see that you have to make a mess, make errors, cross out and reflect on your work at intervals in order to craft something effective. A beautiful tidy book is not the end-goal, here.
An exercise book is:
- A space to work out problems
- A space to try out techniques
- A space to jot down ideas, externalising them and extending your working memory capacity so that you can build and develop your thinking.
- A space to draft, reflect and re-draft
To get students thinking like this, we need to change their mindset about their writing. This is what I did in this unit.
- After their first drafted piece of writing, I asked students to highlight the sentence they were least happy with and write a comment in the margin about why.
- After their next draft, I asked them to do the same for two sentences AND a word choice they were unsure about.
- During the next draft, I ask students to just make any notes about uncertainty or challenges they experience in the margin as they go. I model this under the visualiser, and show them, for example, how I might highlight a word and make a note in the margin to show that I want to come back to it because I’m not sure it’s the right choice.
- Over time, I built this into a consistent part of their writing – students didn’t need to be asked to do this by the end of the unit, because they were doing it automatically.
Over the course of the unit, I was aiming for students to develop one or two really strong pieces of writing. This might have become repetitive or static, had it not been about writing short pieces and then tying things together and synthesising their shorter pieces. This is what I mean…
Writing task 1: A short, literal description of a scene as depicted by a photograph they had brought in.
Writing task 2: Taking task 1 and transforming it into a gothic description by changing specific elements of lighting and temperature.
Writing task 3: Looking at a model exposition (the opening to Rebecca), and then reflecting on task 2 and how it might be improved to create a more compelling atmosphere.
Writing task 4: Students looked at pathetic fallacy as a technique, and wrote a paragraph using pathetic fallacy. They then found a way to combine this with their work from task 3. They reflected on things they should keep, things to discard and things they might want to introduce in order to make those two pieces of writing work together.
This is just a short example of how this might work from one piece to another in a continuous thread. This is something which we sustained across the whole unit, so that students could develop ideas from one piece to the next, but also introduce new ideas and experiment with new things.
Fundamentally, creative writing requires a firm foundation of knowledge, paired with the mindset of someone with agency over their own work. By giving students excellent explicit instruction in areas of key knowledge, and demonstrating high-level models and processes, we provide the base.
But this knowledge alone is nothing. Students must take that knowledge and have the confidence to play with language, make choices, change those choices and see themselves as writers.
It is so easy for writing instruction to become a stale series of exercises where the teacher models and students mimic. However, when we have an open dialogue about choice and self-regulation, our young people actually become writers.