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Independent Writing: Back-Up Work

Recently, some teachers in our district discovered ‘secret notebooks.’  Students had notebooks hidden in their desks and backpacks.  These notebooks were brought from home and would mysteriously appear whenever kids felt they had a little down time:  after completing a quiz, while waiting for attendance to be taken, after completing the assigned writer’s notebook entry for the day.  In these notebooks, kids were writing Minecraft comics, drawing new superhero characters, or writing chapter after chapter of a Hunger Games-like novel.  These secret notebooks contained unbelievably creative writing, but they were obviously not for the teachers’ eyes.  What was going on?

After reading Katie Wood Ray’s book, Study Driven, we found an answer to our mystery.  These kids were working on back-up work.  In her book, Katie writes that back-up work is “kid-sponsored, often recklessly wonderful writing work that may not be very good but is something students have chosen to work on because the idea of writing it gives them energy” (Study Driven, p. 154.)  Given free-choice, not limited to a genre or a craft move, this was how these students were choosing to spend their writing energy.  How could we harness this energy during independent writing time?

All writers have back-up work, or work that may never see the light of day.  Back-up work is the work that we put on the back burner when we have other deadlines and due dates to meet.  For me, I have an idea for a professional book that I like to play around with on paper, I have a letter to my daughters that I’ve only just begun, I have an essay about my mom.  The idea of this stuff gives me lots of energy, but I don’t always have time for these projects.

The wonderful thing about back-up work is that we, as teachers, don’t have to put our hands on it.  Back-up work is not for us to confer about or edit or improve.  Back-up work doesn’t even have to be any good, really.  As Katie Wood Ray points out, writers are often quoted as saying that you have to do a lot of bad writing before you can do any good writing.  Sometimes the back-up work is bad writing.  That’s okay.  It’s the energy that matters.

So, how does this translate to the classroom?  Teachers encourage students to think of ideas for back-up work.  Some teachers keep a chart of their ideas to share and inspire.  Students know that if they ever have down time, they are free to write independently on any of these projects.  During a genre study, students are free to work on their back-up work after they’ve completed any required writing.  For example, say the 6th graders are in a unit on historical fiction, and the minilesson that day was on character development.  The teacher might encourage students to use their writer’s notebook to sketch out a character or write some dialogue from that character’s point of view.  After the work for that day is complete, some students might choose to continue working on their historical fiction draft.  However, others might turn to their back-up work.  You’ll see Lisa writing a comic about the zombie apocalypse, Junior writing a script for a Minecraft video tutorial, and Thomas drawing a map for Chapter 7 of his dystopian novel.

Back-up work encourages students to have multiple writing projects going at one time, to be able to write about what matters most to them, and to write creatively.  It honors who they are as independent writers.  

We’d love to hear more of your thoughts on independent writing in a Two Writing Teachers community virtual get-together. Please join us on Monday, May 12th at 8:30 p.m. EDT for a Twitter Chat on independent writing. Please use the hashtag #TWTBlog. (Click here for more information.)   We hope to see you there!
We’d love to hear more of your thoughts on independent writing in a Two Writing Teachers community virtual get-together. Please join us on Monday, May 12th at 8:30 p.m. EDT for a Twitter Chat on independent writing. Please use the hashtag #TWTBlog. (Click here for more information.)
We hope to see you there!

Dana Murphy View All

Literacy Coach, Reader, Writer

12 thoughts on “Independent Writing: Back-Up Work Leave a comment

  1. Dana, Thanks for recognizing, naming and sharing this important “Backup Work!” How important for the students themselves to recognize that writing is personal and is not always something to do “only at school!” Wonderful thinking!


  2. Thanks Stacy for sharing this idea. So much better than worksheets and other busy work. I can think of at least three or four notebooks in my bag and/or on my shelf of different ideas I have jotted down. This is what writers do! Well said.


  3. This is great! Now I know what to call it. Several of my boys are working together to write a Doctor Who encyclopedia (in English AND Arabic), and some others are writing a non-fiction book about planet Earth. I love the ideas about how to encourage other students from coming up with their own topics.


  4. I have back up work too. It’s the stuff I wish I had more time to write, but don’t. It’s the stuff I want to tinker with and return to again and again and again.

    LOVE the secret notebooks. Hope they keep getting filled (and appearing).


  5. I just loved the beginning of this post..”secret notebooks”. I want one myself. What a compliment to their teachers that they have ignited and fanned the flame of passion for writing. How exciting!! I suppose all those Minecraft drawings and cartoons which lurk in diaries and scrap paper in my class now have a new name….back up writing!


  6. I love this! I remember going to school with people who always had a book in their hands and read during every spare minute. I know as a teacher that these are the students who will be life long readers/ writers, and that their skills will improve in a way that will far surpass their peers who never have these back-up projects going. How do we get the kids who are always the last to finish assignments, tests, quizzes, getting dressed, etc. to get that little bit of extra practice so they can catch up? They might be doing it a bit at home, but chances are….


    • I had those kids who read every spare minute! When those kids saw the importance writing had in our classroom, they often began to work in their writer’s notebooks when they had some downtime. What a delight that was to see, Lisa!


  7. What I especially love about this is the way that “school” writing and personal writing come together in a way that is respectful of students’ space but also underscores that the writing we do at school is for life. Also, I’m inspired to return to my own back-up work!


  8. Love this. I think it is important to value and respect their “off time” work, that’s what we call it. But this gives them even more value. I will certainly use some of these suggestions. Thanks.


  9. Sometimes naming something gives it honor and ownership. I’ve had students do this but never had a way to talk about it. Thanks for the term “back up work” and for celebrating it as an authentic way writers work.


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