Tag Archives: formulaic writing

A Burr in Your Sock

Today was a prickly kind of day in the SDAWP SI.  There’s something about confronting formulaic writing that sticks in your socks like those little burrs you find on weeds that seem to plant themselves in the most unlikely places.


Over the weekend we read a collection of articles about formulaic writing, thinking about why this approach to writing instruction persists, and the implications for student writing.  Even teachers who are proponents of using a formulaic approach to teaching writing still complain about the deadening experience of reading the resulting student writing.  Who wants to read paper after paper of repetitive phrasing and uninspired thinking?

I contrast that with the playfulness of this week at the CLMOOC.  This week’s make is to hack your writing.  And already on day two interesting writing is filling my feeds.  I woke up this morning to a poem by Kevin “stolen” from yesterday’s blog post:

I live in contrasts
in the space between here
and there
I find the nook to hide in
and observe the world
through many lenses
I seek but never find
the whys of the world
so that every movement is
equally beautiful, equally interesting
and entirely different from each other
but only if we take the time to pause
and notice.

And this creation by Sherri:

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 8.41.27 PM

Both Kevin and Sherri played with language and writing, creating their own message and meaning from words I had written.  They wrote for fun, for their own purpose, and gifted their words to me on my blog.  I grant you that they are adults and they are not composing “academic” texts, but I know that the spirit of fun and play supports them as writers.

I worry about who in our schools gets the most formulaic writing.  Why are our English learners, our students of color, our students who live below the poverty line most likely to get writing instruction that is pre-chewed, scaffolded to the point that no thinking is required?  In the name of being helpful, we are robbing students of the opportunity to make sense of their thinking through writing.

And yet, letting go of the formulaic means inviting messiness, losing control, welcoming confusion in order to find clarity and coherence.  What replaces the formula?  That is a question that I am asked over and over again.  The answers aren’t easy, they aren’t neat, and they mean teaching writers rather than writing.

Sometimes that search for answers feels like a burr in your sock.  But if you look closely–maybe using your macro lens–you’ll see the details of the beautiful weed, a natural hacker, springing up where you least expect it.

Writing, Science, and Making

On my way to UCSD yesterday morning I listened to this story on our local public radio station about a zombie horror video game inspired by a nature documentary, with commentary from a local entomologist from the San Diego Natural History Museum, Michael Wall.  I’m not much of a video game player, but I love the idea that a nature documentary and the very real behavior of parasites inspired the story of this game.  I started to think about the ways that science and writing are natural partners and the roles that curiosity and creativity play in both.

And then I started to think about the ways that curiosity and creativity often get squished in schools in the name of supporting our learners.  We’ve been reading, writing, and debating formulaic writing in the SDAWP Invitational Summer Institute this week and asking ourselves what is gained and what is lost when writers, especially young writers, are encouraged or even forced to fit their thinking and ideas into five paragraphs (or three or…) predetermined and highly structured by a formula?

I’ve heard people say that “structures” (provided by formulaic writing) free young writers from the frustration of figuring out effective organization for their ideas and their writing.  But I’m guessing that neither the writer of the nature documentary nor the video game maker used a formula to craft the stories behind their movie and game.  I wonder if they even thought they were writing (as in school writing) as they crafted the narrative structures that hold their work…or were they simply making and/or playing as they explored the ideas in their heads?  I’m also wondering if they worked with collaborators–and how that shaped their stories and their productions.  (It sounds like both making and playing to me…and fun!)

My brain is already on fast forward to the new school year as I think about how my students might be inspired to write video games and documentaries and radio podcasts like the one above and who knows what else!  I know I won’t be providing any fill-in-the-blank formulas to structure their compositions.  Instead, I will help them locate mentor texts (texts in the broadest sense of the word) to play with, examine, and study to figure out how they will construct their own.  And I will create and compose along with them.

And for those of you who think your ideas are not clever or original or good enough, take a look at this video (thanks Kristina Campea for sharing on google+ at the #clmooc).

So what inspires your writing and creating?  What structures do you depend on to move from ideas to composition?