Write like J. K. Rowling (as easy as 1-2-3)

In Teaching English by Alex Quigley4 Comments

The saying goes that everybody has a novel inside them. Now, unless we are diagnosing an unfortunate epidemic that involves a misuse of pulp fiction, it indicates a very common social belief in the ‘magic’ of writing. But what if being a great writer rests not on inspiration or some  ‘magic’ bestowed on us, but the discipline of ‘deliberate practice’, with no little planning, checking and proof reading along the way?

Like Greek scholar Archimedes exclaiming ‘Eureka!’ in the bath, when he came upon a significant scientific principle as his skin wrinkled, we have a conception of genius as striking us almost independent of our labours. It is a conception that is as old as the mythic tales that our modern writing draws upon so commonly. We have the nine muses, who symbolised inspiration in the sciences and the Arts as an example.

The Writing Cycle

Now, we know that the Muses being the source of knowledge and creativity is not true, but are we implicitly influenced in our cultural attitudes to creative acts like writing? Excellent research on successful writing, undertaken by the What Works Clearinghouse, in their excellent practice guide for teachers, ‘Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively’, distills how teaching writing effectively requires teaching appropriate writing steps, with a ‘Model- Practice-Reflect’ instructional cycle. It offers a really useful cycle in a graphic:

Rather than nine muses, we should focus on the steps from this cycle. I think we can simplify the process even further for sake of clarity, with three key steps that define the writing process It is the steps our students undertake as they practice on the path to would be writers: a simple 1-2-3:

  1. Planning              2. Self-monitoring/Drafting        3. Evaluation

So we come to J. K. Rowling.

To many of our students she is a singular authorial hero and we can thank her for helping motivate a generation of children to read fiction. Rowling’s rags-to-riches story is well known. Even better is her wise advice for would-be-writers facing failure and challenges in life. The lesson in it all for our students? We need to put in the hard yards: plan, draft, and when rejected, plan and write some more.

Rowling’s hand-written planning spreadsheet for Harry Potter is a thing of beauty:

It also proves an apt model for step 1. in training to become an expert writer: 1. planning your writing. We know many students, and professional writers, eschew planning. Perhaps there are different methods to writing a great novel – I am not considering the imposition that we should all complete planning grids. Still, I think it is duplicitous for authors to preach being a ‘pantster’ (a writer who plans by the ‘seat of their pants’ – sans planning) when they have internalising the planning process so acutely after years of practice. Our novice students are better off planning and honing their craft first. Any advice otherwise can prove damaging.

The second stage in writing like Rowling…or Orwell, or whatever great writer you want to name is 2. Self-monitoring/Drafting. After the ‘Eureka‘ moment of a great idea or a spell of intensive writing comes the cool reflection of drafting and self-monitoring. Take a look at this draft from George Orwell:

You’ll notice the creative writing process: the messy to and fro of editing and checking and changing. It is tricky and frustrating work. Our students, too often, are spent mentally after the flush of writing, so the crucial process of self-monitoring and checking is done summarily. We need to help our novice writers develop the graft and craft of Orwell and Rowling, long after the  ‘would be muse’ of the creative act of writing has supposedly visited them.

So, the draft is done. The energy is spent. A relaxing bath inspired by Archimedes beckons….

Well, then we need to once more turn our nose and pens to the grindstone. We come to that third integral step undertaken by a successful writer – 3. evaluation.  I think another utterly modern writer captures it best – Stephen King, in his excellent essay ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’:

“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”

Not only does his apt forest metaphor fit snugly, he also captures the stepped, gritty process of writing, with his witty aphorism:

“To write is human, to edit is divine.”

The reference to the divine has a faint whiff of the nine Muses about it, but with the grounded realism of a writer mired in the daily work of writing. Successful novelists have a team of professionals to help them with evaluation; for our students, we need to help them internalize the act of revising, proof reading and evaluating.

If we return the romantic notion that we all have novel inside of us. Well, perhaps our students do have a novel inside of them, but it will no doubt be crafted and drafted with no little effort and practice, and not prove the product of some singular ‘Eureka!’ inspiration. As a teacher, we are in the position to help them craft, draft and write with success.

Comments

  1. Really useful post – great to see those examples of planning and drafting from Rowling and Orwell. How do you see this working under exam conditions? I’m really worried about how to train them under time limited circumstances.

    1. Author

      Hi Karen, I think that we need to get students to practise with such frequently and consistency (too often, students get taught how to plan and proof read by one teacher with one method, then it is all change the following year with a new teacher) that such thinking becomes both quick and internalised. I don’t think we should advocate planning with spreadsheets in exam conditions, but if we have scaffolding such thinking in depth, and with clarity, then we should see quick, dextrous planning that is exam-ready.

      I think we make a mistake in always training students using the full picture of the final exam in mind. If we deconstruct the complex process of a writing task in year 11 from as early as possible, we can then hone each requisite skill so that it becomes automatic, and later, exam ready.

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  3. Really informative post – I can empathise with students who may be inspired by writers like Rowling but can often be put off when they see all the work that went into her success; instead of her just writing a novel and it being an instant hit with publishers.

    I think this goes hand in hand with some critical thinking skills to give students the ability to evaluate their writing from a more neutral standing. And that’s not just good for writing either, it’s a valuable life skill.

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