Slow Writing: how slowing down can improve your writing

slow

NB – my latest thinking on Slow Writing can be found here.

Exam season is nearly upon us and English departments across the land will be gearing up to the Herculean labour of training students to churn out essays which, they hope, will earn them the much coveted A*-C grade in English Language.

The AQA paper gives candidates just a meagre hour to write a short descriptive, explanatory piece and then a longer piece which asks them to persuade and argue.

This isn’t much time and most students default position is to race into it, cram in as much verbiage as possible and then down tools to watch the clock tick away the purgatory of the exam hall. This is not a great strategy for producing great writing. So, we teach them to plan (of which there’s a fine example from Lisa Janes Ashes here) and to proofread in the hope that maybe, just maybe they’ll approach their writing more thoughtfully and produce something that won’t make the poor examiner groan in anguished suffering.

But is less perhaps more? Over the past few years I’ve been experimenting with what, for want of a better idea, I’m calling Slow Writing. The idea is to get students to slow the hell down and approach each word, sentence and paragraph with love and attention. Obviously they’ll write less but what they do write will be beautifully wrought and finely honed.

Here’s how it works.

Firstly, I tell students that we will be drafting rather than writing.  Then I tell them to double space their writing. They find this inordinately difficult so I’ve taken to providing them with double spaced paper to get them into the habit. I then give them a topic and ask them to complete a set of seemingly random exercises. For example:

1. Your first sentence must starting with a present participle (that’s a verb ending in ‘ing’)
2. Your second sentence must contain only three words.
3. Your third sentence must contain a semi-colon
6. Your fourth sentence must be a rhetorical question
5. Your fifth sentence will start with an adverb
6. Your sixth sentence will contain a simile

And so on.

The point of it is that they have to slow right down in order to think about their technique. Generally speaking, students find it straightforward to write what they want but it’s much harder for them to think about how they’re going to write it. This process forces them to concentrate on the how instead of the what.

Once they’ve finished they get to improve. This is where the double spacing comes into it’s own. I ask them to interrogate every single word and consider whether there might be a better word. They look at every sentence and ask, could it begin differently? Should it be longer or shorter? Are they absolutely sure it makes sense? We look at the paragraphs and think about how they link: do they flow logically? Does each paragraph pick up where the preceding one leaves off? Is there variety? (The examiner is particularly keen on one sentence paragraphs.)

Hopefully they will be busily scribbling all over their draft and putting the new ideas in the acres of space made available by double spacing their writing. A neat and tidy exam script is one which has not been perfected, is full of mistakes and will get a lower grade.

Other Slow Writing ideas include:

  • pop a load of different sentence instructions into a hat and give everyone a random selection
  • giving students lists of numbers and telling that the number of words in their sentences must conform to these numbers.
  • paired writing – get students to write alternate sentences and question each other about their choices
  • use a professionally written text on a different subject and get students to copy the structure and techniques
And the impact? Well, not only do students perform better in exams, they’re much more confident and experimental and the writing they produce is hugely improved.
As always, the proof of the writing is in the reading. Here’s an example of an opening paragraph of a film review of Twilight written by one of my Year 11s using Slow Writing:

Ah, Twilight. That time of day when the boundaries between night and day begin to blur. The moment when the sun begins to set and when all those things that go bump in the night stretch, yawn and start feeling that unbearable urge to pee. The very name is a clue to understanding what this film is all about: you see it’s not one thing or another. It’s not just happy daytime romance and it’s definitely not all night-time terror. Just like the name implies it’s somewhere in between. So, is this a strength or a weakness? You could take the view that it’s this quality that helps the film to appeal to as wide an audience as possible: you get the chic flick crowd as well as the Goths. Or, on the other hand, does it make the whole thing impossibly and disastrously diluted?

Pretty good, huh?

I’m sure none of this is particularly original but it’s certainly helped me to help my student see writing as something which can, and should be consciously crafted. If you do anything else which helps, I’d love to add it to my repetoire.

Update

The heroically proportioned David Riley has already started work on an interactive version for his superb suite of teaching tools, Triptico. And it’s looking very nice!

Also, here’s a lovely post from Lindsay Mason on using board games to improve writing.

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56 Responses to Slow Writing: how slowing down can improve your writing

  1. Helene says:

    So many ideas I haven’t tried! Will start using ASAP! Thanks, David.

  2. James Theobald says:

    Thanks, David. Yet more incredible ideas from your creative mind. This makes perfect sense to me – I shall definitely give this a go next week.

  3. Paul says:

    This is fantastic. I’m continuing revision for the writing section of the exam this week with my students, and I’ll definitely be setting them this. They are all Foundation Tier students, but this has great potential for them. Getting them to think about the how of what they write has been really difficult, so thanks for this.

  4. Dave Bunker says:

    Thanks David, some lovely ideas.

    I’m also preparing a set of year 11s for the English Language exam. My lot are doing the language only route. It’s sometimes tough to get them to think carefully and reflectively about their own writing, especially when FFT and target grades are so low (despite me only ever using C grade or higher criteria in our lessons).

    This has a lot of potential for my group, especially those with a tendency to write extremely long compound sentences rather than developing paragraphs with a variety of sentence structures. I’ll try this Wednesday.

    Thanks

    P.S. Great way to subtly teach grammar as well!

  5. Jacqui Turner says:

    Hi David,
    These ideas have great implications for the MFL classroom too. I teach French and not only do students have to demonstrate a rich and varied vocabulary, but they must do so with an array of verb constructions too. The ‘writing to order’ idea combines these aspects beautifully. I also feel getting them to slow down would help them reflect on their overall linguistic accuracy and hopefully help minimise language errors. It would seem students dont proof read in any language! Many thanks for sharing.
    Jacqui

  6. nwinton says:

    Some great ideas here. Thanks for sharing.

    My mum (who was a Primary 7 teacher) used to make her classes write stories and every other sentence had to begin with an ‘-ing’ word. Another favourite of hers was that no two sentences in a story could begin with the same word (Checked by getting them to write the first word of each sentence in the margin as well). The “treat” for the class was that she did let them start sentences with the words they weren’t supposed to, like ‘because’.

    I’m delighted to stil use all these techniques with some considerable success. I suspect my mum would have loved your ideas here. ;)

  7. [...] webware ‘Popplet’ with the creative writing formula inspired by David Didau (@learningspy) slow writing processes. Combining the two methods, one untested with one tried and tested I hope will make a [...]

  8. [...] Writing It started with David Didau’s (@learningspy) blog post. BIF! Then onto David Riley (@David_Triptico), Triptico creator and education app designer.  [...]

  9. [...] addition to the tool itself there is a link to information about how teachers can use this in teaching English, as well as to further related teaching tools. ICT across the curriculum in Falkirk primary [...]

  10. [...] Slow writing – how slowing down can improve your writing [...]

  11. evelinasec says:

    Very interesting. I did write a longer comment, but logging in and being allowed to leave a reply has been a long long process!

    • learningspy says:

      Oh, how tedious. I’m sorry to hear how complex the commenting procedure is – I will sack some minions with immediate effect.

      If you want to give me some feedback on SloW Writing you could do it via Twitter – @LearningSpy

  12. [...] Slow writing – how slowing down can improve your writing Post a Comment    (13) Comments   Read More [...]

  13. [...] Slow writing: how slowing down can improve your writing [...]

  14. [...] Shona Whyte: This post by "Learning Spy" David Didau concerns teaching native language writing in high school, but has ideas that can apply to second and foreign language teaching too, as one reader points out:   Jacqui Turner Says:May 14th, 2012 at 5:46 pmHi David,These ideas have great implications for the MFL classroom too. I teach French and not only do students have to demonstrate a rich and varied vocabulary, but they must do so with an array of verb constructions too. The ‘writing to order’ idea combines these aspects beautifully. I also feel getting them to slow down would help them reflect on their overall linguistic accuracy and hopefully help minimise language errors. It would seem students don't proofread in any language! Many thanks for sharing.Jacqui  [...]

  15. Leon Cych says:

    It’s very much how I used to run poetry workshops for adults years ago – except we would take each word from a well known poem and find out what all the associations were. Each person had to take ownership of that word and all the things it conveyed. I wasn’t surprised to see the technique used in the Coursera modern 20th century writing course seminar videos – if you get a chance look at them.

  16. [...] heard @learningspy talk about Slow Writing and I looked through his blog post on it and had an idea. The premise of slow writing is that the children think about each sentence in [...]

  17. [...] 5. Slow Writing – how slowing down can improve your writing – 12th May [...]

  18. [...] finally, if you haven’t read my post of Slow Writing yet, give it [...]

  19. [...] < teaching < callmepolly Get flash to fully experience Pearltrees Slow Writing: how slowing down can improve your writing Exam season is nearly upon us and English departments across the land will be gearing up to the [...]

  20. Jan says:

    I really like these ideas, and am currently using them with various groups with considerable success.

    Another strategy that I picked up years ago from @RealGeoff Barton was this – to demand that every paragraph should consist of the following sentences, in this order:
    simple – compound – complex – simple
    The simple sentences at the start and end of the paragraph help some pupils to link their points more easily. Whilst the strategy can be quite restricting for more able pupils, it can easily be abandoned when you are happy that they can cope alone. On the other hand, it can provide a really useful reminder to many about the importance of sentence variety – and it amazes some kids that it helps to make their writing sound much more interesting!

  21. [...] next lesson I used slow writing to help the children write an introduction to the setting of Epic Citadel. But I didn’t just [...]

  22. [...] next lesson I used slow writing to help the children write an introduction to the setting of Epic Citadel. But I didn’t just [...]

  23. [...] for this very ideas – see here. Excellent practitioners, such as David Didau have advocated ‘Slow Writing’. In our department, we are moving towards rooting DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection [...]

  24. [...] ‘beautiful work’. For any kind of written work, I would heartily recommend that Slow Writing be part of this [...]

  25. [...] A perfect example would be the “Slow writing” technique, developed by David Didau (@Lear… which has worked wonders with my students’ writing and forms part of my presentation at Pedagoo London. A simple technique such as double spacing writing and the necessity to stop and think, combined with the dedicated time to review and change, with the key AfL concept of actually acting on feedback, means that, as well as potentially transmitting or “actively” teaching a skill we communicate something “about learning”: that it’s not finished until it’s as good as it can possibly be. [...]

  26. [...] describes the slow writing process perfectly on his blog. I began by simply taking David’s process directly and was amazed by the outcomes. I set [...]

  27. [...] describes the slow writing process perfectly on his blog. I began by simply taking David’s process directly and was amazed by the outcomes. I set about [...]

  28. [...] I began to think about writing and how this incident correlates.  Are you in a hurry?  Do you allow readers to grasp the situation or do you rush them into the next scene?  Do you take time to slow things down so your reader gets the full impact of the drama?  I think we can all learn a good lesson here about enjoying our journey through life by slowing down and about building a good readership by giving the public enough information to keep them riveted to the story we have written.  Here are two good links on slowing down the pace of your writing.  The Writer’s Magazine  The Learning Spy [...]

  29. [...] reflect on how rather than what they’re writing. If you’re interested my posts on Slow Writing and getting students to value writing both provide simple and (I hope) effective strategies for [...]

  30. Sazzadee says:

    Used Slow Writing with my reluctant year 9 class. All enjoyed apart from C who announced it was ‘stupid’ and ‘pointless.’
    I asked him to read out his finished paragraph. He had positive feedback from the class. I then asked him to read out an earlier piece of writing and the class compared the two. All agreed (even C) that the Slow Writing method had produced the most impressive work. Case closed. Class happy.
    Thanks.

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  32. […] Note how the prompts contain progressively less scaffolding as pupils become more proficient in structuring their ideas into complex sentences. This immediately struck me as an obvious and useful addition to Slow Writing. […]

  33. […] ideas with his students and shared the results in a fascinating blog here.   This caused me to read more of his blog and i found myself drawn to his idea of Slow Writing.  A fascinating phrase because I’ve had a bit of an epiphany of late about slowing down with […]

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  35. […] found one of David Didau’s ‘slow writing’ strategies to be revolutionary – read his post here. In short, the teacher gives students a series of instructions about how to form each sentence […]

  36. […] the solution? Part of the philosophy (if that’s not too grand a term) of Slow Writing is that students don’t write, they draft. And if you draft, there’s an assumption you […]

  37. […] read this blog by the excellent David Didau, I was inspired to try Slow Writing with my year 8 class, who are […]

  38. […] Slow Writing – David Didau […]

  39. Mike says:

    Will certainly be giving this a go – great idea.

  40. […] is to talk. I’ve written before about thinking like a writer, and the techniques of Slow Writing lend themselves very well to effective […]

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  42. […] first writing about Slow Writing back in May 2012 the original post has had almost 12,000 views and I’ve received regular […]

  43. […] David Didau’s ‘slow writing’ approach has been revolutionary in many English departments. Slow writing: how slowing down can improve your writing […]

  44. […] been a while since I first wrote about Slow Writing and in that time it’s rather taken on a life of its own. Today I had the interesting […]

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