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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.

The school writing workshop: trying my three “secrets”

Last week I described my three “secrets,” one for each main phase of the writing process, that I’ve shared with students around the country as the core of the creative-writing workshops I’ve led, when asked, in schools. Here’s how I invite students to try those “secrets,” within a class period of 45 minutes to an hour:

1. Brainstorming: I ask if anyone has a way of brainstorming on paper that works for them. Always some do: writing a list, filling a page with random scribblings, making a “spider web” with the main idea in the center. One girl said she writes a song about her topic. I'll say, “Great, and here’s one other way — the ’t’ chart.” I’ll draw a lower-case t on the board and say, “We’re going to create two characters, a boy and a girl your age. Which should we start with?” I’ll ask for a first name; we may vote on several suggestions. Then I’ll ask for attributes, interests: what is she like with her friends? what does he like to do? does this person have a secret? The ideas I like, I write on the ’t’ — and in a few minutes, we have two characters.

Now I’ll say, Whatever method of brainstorming on paper is fun for you, do that, because that’s what your brain likes — but do it on paper. Don’t skip this step, because it makes the next phase, starting the draft, much easier and less scary.

2. Drafting: I give them the secret of writing your draft a little fast, to help leave behind your fear. We talk a little about that fear of writing, which everyone has. I may say, We want to open up your flow, and leave that fear behind — so I’m asking you to try this. For just four minutes, I want you to start writing a story or a scene with our two new characters. Anything you try is fine; the main thing is to just start writing, and try to keep going a little fast. If you hear yourself thinking “This is dumb” or whatever, keep going anyway. Try not to stop! You won’t be graded and you won’t have to share this; it’s just an experiment. Four minutes of your life. Ready, set ... go.

A sound that I love is all the scratching of all the pens and pencils moving across the page. When four minutes is almost up, I’ll ask, “Do you want one more minute?” Invariably they’ll say, “Yes!”

3. Editing/revising. I usually ask if anything was surprising about that writing experience. Usually students will say, “It was much easier,” or “I was surprised by what came out” — things like that. There generally isn’t time to actually revise, but I explain the third secret (see last week). And I’ll say, You can try this approach to any type of writing; and as you grow from year to year, you’ll be able to be confident in doing more and more challenging writing work. If you keep on trying it, you will see.

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