Best First Draft

When students move from their notebook to draft, I encourage them to write their best first draft. (Click here to see other posts I’ve written about best first drafts.) Something that I’m always curious about is the way conventions come into play during all parts of the writing process.

As I’ve been teaching kids to move through a collect-plan-draft cycle until they have several drafts in their folders and then select one for publication, I’ve been even more cognizant about when and how to teach conventions outside of the editing stage of the writing process. Conventions are important. Without them we will never gain respect as writers or professionals. Therefore, I’ve come to realize conventions are part of writing a best first draft.

When I take a draft to someone for feedback, I’ve reread it several times to make sure it is my best first draft. The words are working for meaning and clarity. I’ve crafted it for voice. And, I’ve made it as conventional as possible.

Today I had a conversation with a third grade boy who had just finished a draft of a fiction story. When I sat down beside him he had his notebook open to a blank page. He told me, “I just finished a draft and now I’m going to collect more ideas in my notebook.” (Kudos to him for using the lingo of writers.)

I smiled and asked to see his draft. “Sure,” he said, pulling it out of his folder and sliding it between us. His smile showed his pride.

As I read his draft, I noticed there was no ending punctuation on the first page. The second page had several exclamation points and the third and fourth pages continued the spotty trend of ending punctuation. We chatted about his story and the way he used action to make his story come alive for the reader. “This part, ‘Thup! Thup! Thup!’ really sticks in my mind,” I said, pointing to the words at the top of his second page.

“Yeah, I added those excited marks so it would sound really loud, like a dragon tail.”

“Exclamation points can do that kind of work,” I said, pointing at the end marks after thup. “In fact,” I continued, “ending punctuation is important to best first drafts. It helps the reader understand the story.”

He nodded. I continued. “Here you’ve used some ending punctuation.” I pointed out other exclamation marks and a few periods. “But look at your first page…” We shuffled the pages. “I noticed there’s no ending punctuation on this entire page.”

He looked and his eyes got wide. “You’re right. Maybe I should add it.”

“I think that’s a good idea since this is your best first draft.” He grabbed his pencil. “You know,” I said, sometimes when I make changes I use a different color than my original work because I like to see the changes I make.”

“Cool,” he said, digging through his pencil box and pulling out a red colored pencil.

“Hey! That’s a good idea to use red since you are finding the places where your sentences stop and red means stop.”

“Yep,” he said. (I smiled, because I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about a stop light. But he owned the color and shared with his table mates that you can use a red pencil to mark where sentences stop.)

We worked together through the first page. I modeled reading the draft aloud and listening for the end of sentences. He read aloud and I stopped him when I heard his voice stop at the end of a sentence. Then he read more. I slowed him down. He missed a few places where a period should have went. I didn’t tell him. Instead I encouraged him to reread and ask himself if the ending punctuation made sense. He changed it when he put it in the middle of a sentence. At the end of the page he added nine end marks. They weren’t all correct.

But his writing was more conventional than before.

I patted him on the shoulder and left him to work through the rest of his best first draft on his own. Inside, I began processing this new learning for myself. Conventions play a role in all parts of the writing process, not just editing. We have to look for opportunities to teach them at a natural place so young writers aren’t overwhelmed by the rules, but rather can learn to use conventions for the good of the writing.