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“It must be a piece of writing which, even if someone else reads it, doesn’t send any ripples back to you. It is like writing something and putting it in a bottle in the sea. . . . Freewritings help you by providing no feedback at all. ” Peter Elbow, 1973
“A quickwrite is a first draft response to a short piece of writing . . . . This is writing to find writing, but using someone else’s words to stimulate their thinking.” Linda Rief, 2018
Now comes the fun part – gathering ideas for writing!
Every writer can struggle to get started. Sometimes our commitments demand all of our attention. Sometimes our worries crowd out every other idea or thought. For many of us, our inner critic smashes down every inkling of an idea before it blossoms.
If all writers struggle, how does a teacher get a classroom full of students to write at the same time ? Quickwriting!
I first learned of this concept from Peter Elbow’s work. I was a new teacher at the time, and Elbow’s “freewriting” not only made sense for use with my students, but also helped me with my own writing through college. Freewriting as Elbow defines it is writing without stopping for a designated length of time. Then the writer chooses an idea from the freewriting and writes again. The goal is to keep going no matter what, even if you repeat a word or phrase over and over until a new idea comes.
In recent years, I’ve heard educators use terms such as “writing sprints” or “quickwrites.” Writing sprints increased in popularity alongside NaNoWiMo’s climb into the education world, and writers can even join a writing community of sprinters through Twitter ( See @NaNoWordSprints )Linda Rief uses the term quickwrite to combine mentor text models with writing ideas quickly as she described in her book The Quickwrite Handbook: 100 Mentor Texts to Jumpstart Your Students’ Thinking and Writing. Lots of educators, including me, use the term “quickwrite” to refer to a variation of freewriting and writing sprints.
All variations of a quickwrite have a few key qualities in common. They all
- Increase the amount writing in the classroom
- Help the writer focus on ideas without critique, either by an inner voice or the teacher
- Increase fluency over time
- Help writers of all ages find success, even enjoyment, in writing
- Utilize little class time
- Provide starting points for writing conferences
For our flash fiction unit, I used a variation that focuses the writer on brainstorming for a particular writing task. Although I altered the quickwrite prompt each year, here is an example:
Choose one of the following settings (or one of your own) and build the picture by focusing on imagery: What do you see? hear? smell? feel? taste?
- a real or imagined classroom
- night time in a woods (or city!)
- a childhood bedroom
- distant relative’s house
- an abandoned car on an embankment of a stream
- a setting of your choosing
My classroom routine for quickwrites looks like this:
- After I share the prompt and students have written the date in the quickwrites section of their notebook, students have a couple of quiet minutes for thinking. Then everyone, including me, writes for three minutes without stopping. I volley between writing and “kidwatching” to notice who might be struggling or to note someone to give a shout out to for their work.
- I quietly tell students when they have 30 seconds remaining. At the end of 30 seconds, I ask students to stop without finishing the sentence they are working on. If they know they want to come back to this piece, they can put ellipses.
- Everyone tallies their word count and writes it in the margin next to today’s quickwrite. I ask students to give me a thumbs up if their word count is at least 5 more words than their previous word count, a “thumbs to the side” if their word count is plus or minus 5 words, and a thumbs down if their word count is 5 or more fewer words than their previous word count. I make it clear that everyone is working on fluency at his or her own pace.
- Depending upon the goals for the day’s lesson, students might do a two-minute share with a shoulder partner, a few whole-group show of hands for who wrote to which choice, or a whole-group workshop session if a writer wanted to share his or her piece to get advice for next steps.
This routine is something I introduced every year, no matter which grade level I was teaching that year, in the first few days of school, and the classes practiced with high-engagement prompts until everyone knew the routine.
Yes, there were usually students who tried to avoid writing by writing “I don’t know what to write” over and over for the full three minutes, but that often stopped without my intervention. Students quickly realized how boring it was to write the same thing over and over, or they realized all writing was celebrated and none of it was perfect. If we were a week into the routine and the avoidance behaviors were still in place, it was time for a one-on-one conference to find out why and to do what I could to take away the student’s fear of writing.
For this assignment, I often chose a whole-group show of hands to get a sense of which settings appealed to each class, and then students shared with a writing partner. The partner’s job was to ask questions so the writer could continue to think about how the setting could be developed. We spent about 10 minutes of partner time, so this lesson was not a whole class period.
Next, students go back to a mentor text to read like a writer with a purpose.