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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

School writing workshops: sharing my “secrets” to the process

From 2005 until a few years ago, I was doing dozens of author visits each year to schools that were working with The Revealers — and at some point I was asked if I’d include a writing workshop in the day’s program. I said, sure. Then I had to figure out how.

I had been a full-time freelance writer since the mid-1980s (still am), and I’d written a number of books for middle-school and YA readers. I decided that, given a period of 45 minutes to an hour to work with, I would try to do three things: build on what students were already learning about the writing process; help them make it their own process — what works for them? — and help them open up to their own flow of thoughts and ideas. I’d keep it simple: I would focus on the three main phases of the process, and for each I would share the “secret” that, for me, has been key to opening up that phase. Each “secret” I have learned by trial and error. Error, mostly.

So here they are. I would write each of the quoted sentences below on the board or flip-chart paper, leaving the final word blank. I’d ask what that word is. Almost always, it would hit them as a surprise.

1. Brainstorming: “Do it on paper, in a way that’s [?].” The word here is “fun.” There are so many ways to brainstorm; but whether the way that works best for you is orderly or messy, linear or spider-webby, the key is to do it on paper, so you have something to work with in the next phase — and to do it in a way your brain likes. Thus, “fun.”

2. Drafting: “Write your draft a little [?].” The word is “fast.” I learned this early in my career from an essay by Malcolm Cowley, a legendary 20th century editor who worked with some of the great American writers of his age. He noticed that many of them wrote their first draft quite speedily. Doing this can help you leave behind your anxiety, your fear and your inner editor, which only gets in the way in this phase. So I tell kids, Your draft is not supposed to be perfect. Expecting to make mistakes, knowing you’ll come back to it, frees you to try things.

3. Editing/revising: “Think about the [?].” The word (which they never seem to guess) is “reader.” When you draft fast and fluidly, you're self-absorbed; it’s just you and the paper, or screen. If you then read your draft while thinking how it may present to someone else, you will see what needs to be done. Sentences too complex? Straighten them out for your reader. To little information, or too much? Do the work so the reader won’t have to.

I’ve now led this workshop many, many times. Next week I’ll describe how I invite the students to try these secrets, all inside 45 minutes to an hour.

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