Each morning, my husband and I stumble bleary-eyed toward our espresso machine. His drink is a single shot, the shorter and blacker the better. My drink is an Americano, the taller and milkier the better. He claims his small shot is just the amount he needs to get him going and nothing more, while I prefer sipping on my hot beverage over an extended time frame. For coffee drinkers, just like for writers, volume matters.
Research, and perhaps more importantly, experiential evidence of countless writers and teachers, have shown again and again that there are direct correlations between the amount of writing that students do and the rate at which they get better at writing. As Stephen King reminds us in On Writing, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware off, no shortcut.” In A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop, Intermediate Grades, Lucy Calkins writes, “As my sons’ tennis teacher says, ‘Success in tennis has everything to do with the number of balls hit.’ Sucess in writing, like success in reading or tennis or swimming directly relates to the amount of time a person spends writing and rewriting. This means that day after day, children need to write. And it means that volume and stamina matter.”
Setting Expectations for Volume
At the start of a new writing unit, in addition to coming to consensus on the main skills they will highlight in the unit, it is important for teachers to come to consensus on expectations for volume. This is an important part of the conversation when planning any unit of study: How much can we expect kids to write?
Teachers must be clear on how much students will be expected to write, on average, during the unit, and those expectations should be shared (and perhaps even developed) with the students themselves. Teachers should also consider whether kids will be writing at home, and if so, there should be volume expectations for that. One note, of course, writers will not produce the same amount of writing every day. Daily volume goals should be thought of as averages across a unit. For example, on a day in which a student was trying out different thesis statements, his volume might be less than the daily average. But on a day he is writing angled micro-stories to support his essay, his volume might be much higher than average.
Conferring to Support Volume
As students are writing independently, in addition to supporting them with the skills addressed in a unit of study, it is important to keep an eye on their volume. With older writers, you might ask them to collect some volume data about themselves, as conferring into data is always a powerful thing. To the end, just as readers keep reading logs, writers can keep writing logs. Show your students how they can track how much they write each day, where they wrote, and other important data that you and they choose, such as whether the writing was easy or hard and any obstacles they faced while writing. Particularly important data to collect is how many minutes they wrote so that they can ascertain the approximate number of minutes it takes them to write a page.
A student could study this data and notice patterns that might be getting in the way of reaching even higher volume. For example, if a writer notices he takes about 20 minutes to write a page in school, but only 10 minutes to write a page at home, it would be really important for him to think a little bit about why this is happening. A quick analysis of the situation might reveal that the student has a very distracting table-mate. Switching spots and encouraging the writer to set a goal of 10 minutes per page at least at school could up his volume tremendously right away.
Writing Exercises to Improve Volume
A couple of years ago, I had the amazing good fortune to take a course on writing for children with the brilliant James Howe. We started most of our sessions with a short writing exercise designed to get us to write a lot in a short amount of time. We imagined the rooms in our childhood home and wrote moments that came to mind in each room. We wrote off of story prompts interjected at intervals by Professor Howe, such as, “It was a dark and stormy night…just then, there was a knock on the door…she turned to me with a look of shock and said…”
Warm-ups such as these, a multitude of which can be found with a quick Internet search are common in many adult writing classes. Even though typical writing workshops are not quite so scripted, these kinds of exercises done just before the workshop officially begins just might be what some writers need to tap into their writing flow.
Finally, volume matters for us adult writers as well. Join us on Tuesdays for the Slice of Life Story Challenge and exercise your writing muscles.
Here’s to more volume in 2014-2015!
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).