Accelerated writing

For teachers: what is ‘accelerated writing?’

‘Accelerated writing’ is an imperfect name for a fast and fun way of writing stories. It speeds pupils through the tricky planning stages and gets them writing in pairs.  I Am Spartapuss author Robin Price, first coined the term in 2012. Here is an article from Robin explaining the thinking behind it.

Whilst running writing workshops in schools over the years I’ve noticed that there are at least two* types of writer:

• ‘Planners’ who love to map out their whole story in detail.
• ‘Jumpers’ who hate extended planning and feel the need to get going ASAP.

Traditional techniques like the ‘story mountain’ are ideal for ‘planners’ but they leave others struggling to focus.

Different creative personalities

It’s no surprise that children have different ‘creative personalities’ – adults do too.  Some actors (like Dustin Hoffman) love to painstakingly build up a detailed character from scratch, step by step. Other actors – Michael Caine comes to mind – take a flying leap at the character and ‘find’ it in a sudden flash of creativity. Both approaches can give great results. Some writers love planning and like nothing better than mapping out complex worlds. J.K. Rowling famously planned out all 7 Harry Potter books before writing book 1. However, other writers like Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel describe ‘channeling’ their characters spontaneously. Mantel does not write her books in order, (often writing the middle chapters before the beginning). There is no single ‘correct’ approach. Every writer needs to find a way that works for them. Schools cater a lot for the ‘planners’ and quite rightly stress the importance of having a road map to get ideas down (instead of rambling on randomly). This is hardly surprising. There is a widely held belief that some of us are ‘creative’ and others aren’t. Moreover, how can you be expected to teach children to come up with ideas in a flash of creativity?

This has led to an over emphasis on ‘planning’. By breaking down story writing into a series of set steps – like the ‘story mountain’- it is possible to get good results from ‘the planners’ in your class. The flip side of this is that you may be alienating the rest of the class. (Incidentally, you are also fostering a sequential way of thinking more easily replicated by A.I.’s and machines).

What we need is an open ended writing framework that guides writers towards the creative flash point in a couple of minutes. Check out this Anglo-Saxon story app and you’ll see what I’ve come up with so far.

When a child tells me: “I don’t like writing” they often mean: “I don’t like planning.”

‘Thor is cool but we’ve been doing the Vikings for three weeks now.’

Many teachers are amazing planners. I know this because both of my parents were teachers. Being a ‘planner’ doesn’t mean you are not creative. Many writers admit to liking planning more than the writing itself (because you don’t need to commit to the idea). However, if by nature you are a ‘planner’, it may be hard for you to understand your creative counterpart – the ‘jumper’ personality. While the planners are merrily working out the fine details of their epic (and the next three books in the series) the unfortunate ‘jumpers’ are thinking: ‘Why can’t we just get on with this?’ and ‘Why do we even have to think about all this stuff?’

As one boy in a London Academy put it: ‘Thor is cool, but we’ve been doing the Vikings for three weeks now.’ He was dressed as Thor at the time. It was World Book Day week. The class had been studying the Vikings for three weeks and I don’t know how long they’d spent working out how to write a viking story using the ‘story mountain’ technique but judging by the artwork on the class walls they had been at it for a long time. But the boy dressed as Thor hadn’t put pen to paper yet! I couldn’t help thinking that this was a writing opportunity missed. Are we spending too much time planning?

‘Every story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end!’

Well, not really! A case in point is Don Quixote published in 1605. If you haven’t heard of it, (or you’ve heard of it but not read it) then please check it out. The author conjures up two brilliant characters: a lanky day-dreamer called Don Quixote who thinks he’s a medieval knight and his servant, a pot-bellied pragmatist called Sancho Panza. Unlike many ‘comic types’ (mentioning no names Shakespeare) these two characters are brilliantly funny – imagine Captain Manwaring and Private Pike from Dad’s Army but on horseback in 17th Century Spain. The author throws this duo into random situations (and people) that they encounter on their travels. Don Quixote famously ’tilts at windmills’ – trying to take them out with a broomstick lance.

Don Quixote has a beginning, but it doesn’t really have a middle and it only ends when Don Quixote dies somewhat randomly at the end. It’s a classic piece of ‘revelation’ writing yet it doesn’t adhere the writing rules that are often taught in school (or in creative writing classes for that matter).

A typical class of Year 3 students are not Miguel de Cervantes. (Well, you never know… there’s always one!) I am not arguing that we should be encouraging children to ramble randomly in their writing. However, I believe that by trying to make it easier for children to write, there is the danger of introducing so many ‘rules’ that it becomes daunting and complex for many of them. Asking kids to think about, a ‘build up’ and ‘a climax’ and a ‘resolution’ and so on is all great brain fuel for the ‘planners’. But pity the poor ‘jumpers!’ There they sit, on their horses, waiting to tilt at windmills – baffled by rule after arbitrary rule. These rules have emerged out of creative writing classes for adults. (Who does a publisher go to when putting together a creative writing course for children? Someone who teaches creative writing – to adults.) Rigid writing rules about story construction might help to get Bloomsbury to read your YA novel, but do they have any place in school?

The solution: ‘accelerated writing’

Of course there is no a single ‘correct’ approach to writing (or any art for that matter). Any process that results in a piece of work is a good process. To be good, a piece of work can inspires a wide audience, or move one individual deeply. Whatever works, works!

What does this mean for the classroom? Practically speaking, assuming that they are already being given the language tools (vocab, similes, structures etc) the only way to get better at story writing is to spend more time actually doing the writing (and not planning). Spending less time on planning keeps the ‘jumpers’ involved and gives everyone more practice. With this in mind, I’ve created ‘flash writing’ frames. Armed with a single page A4 framework (like the ones on this site), anyone armed with even a basic bit of background info about a topic can zoom through the planning and their get story onto paper. A single hour is enough to start a piece of writing in pairs – which can be built on in the next lesson (if you like), or finished for homework.

Flash writing - write your own Stone Age story

Tips for using these writing frames in class

Do one example first on the Interactive White Board. Doing a ‘demo’ gets them to vote on options and introduces the concept.

1. Put the class into pairs. Give them the writing frame to each pair. Get them to pick one option each.

2. Rather than the complex rules about ‘stages of a story’ and ‘resolutions’ etc, Flash writing asks a single question:

What is the problem that needs to be solved? (e.g. In Cinderella – the problem is that Cinderella can’t go to the ball. In Batman, Batman has to defeat The Joker).

In easier Flash writing frames, the ‘problem’ choices that are built into the writing frame for pupils. In ones like the Stone Age frame – the problem will occur naturally out of the choices on the frame. A ‘You choose’ option is often included (encouraging them to include their own ideas).

3. The frame tells students to write from the most exciting part of the story (not the beginning). This is deliberate and it is a great way for you to tell who is a ‘jumper’ and who is a ‘planner’. ‘Jumpers’ will love working this way! ‘Planners’ will sit there and stare at you for a moment but they will usually have little problem writing from the exciting bit. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that no matter how much I stress the point, some children will insist on starting at the beginning because this is they way they know and because they feel this is right. Of course this is fine. It is the ones that can’t get started that will benefit from starting in the middle. However it is sometimes good to put able writers out of their comfort zone.

4. The frame tells them take it in turns to write ‘One sentence each’. (Make sure you give them a single sheet of A4 between two writers.) This is also deliberate because writing a single line is easier than writing a whole story on your own. You can pick mixed ability pairs or put able writers with each other. It’s up to you.

5. After doing a demo story on the board ‘5 mins’ then you should aim to get them through the frame in 5 minutes of planning. Everyone will be writing (in pairs) for about 40 minutes. This leaves 10 mins to share out their stories with the class (honing their presenting skills). If you have more time for the activity that is great – it can easily be extended.

If you like this approach there are a lot of ways you can develop it and use it in class. You can introduce or practice new vocab or structures, practice dialogue or even use two flash stories (a few weeks apart) to assess their progress. Flash stories are also ideal for assisted learning (where the adult takes the part of one pair).

*At the start of this article I mentioned two types of ‘writing personality’ – ‘planners’ and ‘jumpers. There is also a third ‘writing personality’ – children who love planning but for various reasons, hate actually writing anything down. This is a small but significant subset. They usually do far better using these ‘flash’ writing materials because they are only being asked to write one line at a time (and then their partner writes the next line) – so it is less daunting for them than staring at a blank page. I am working up some new materials to help these writers.

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Acknowledgement: I could not end this article without a word of thanks and acknowledgement to Nick Harman  – the Head of English and Classics at Bishopsgate School. Nick’s writing tips and advice to ‘start at the heart of the story’ – made me take a closer look at how to get children writing. Over many workshops I’ve found that the instruction to: ‘Start at the most exciting part of the story’, got a slightly better response from the less motivated writers than ‘start at the heart of the story’ – but it’s the same idea. Thank you Nick!  The idea of starting in the middle mirrors the practice of many writers who like to write out of order. One notable example is Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel.


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