Starting With What Matters Most · writing process · writing workshop

Cultivating Authentic Work Habits: Starting with What Matters Most in Writing Workshop

I always fancied myself a writer, even as a young child. I imagined myself sitting in my office with French doors, surrounded by bookshelves. I pictured myself clacking away on a typewriter and peering over the rim of my glasses (mind you, I don’t actually wear glasses). After months of toiling away behind my French doors, I would emerge triumphant with a finished manuscript. In the acknowledgments, I would thank my mentors for supporting me and my family for all the sacrifices they made while I wrote. Ah, yes, the writer’s life.

Lego Table
My current “office”

Well, if you are a writer you know this is not how the whole writing business works. Right now, actually, I am sitting at my kitchen table in front of a pile of Legos. My husband is trimming an evergreen bush directly outside the kitchen window, and the hum of the trimmer is not quite loud enough to cover my daughters’ calls of “MOM!” from the backyard. I have not yet finished a manuscript, but I have received two lovely rejection letters from two different publishing companies. Ah, yes, the writer’s life.


Living the life of a writer is not what I had imagined.  Yet as I prepare for the upcoming school year, this is the life I want students to experience – the real life of a writer.

When I think about what matters most in writing workshop, I think about the way I work as a writer. I envision myself sitting here at my messy kitchen table, typing and deleting and typing again. I know that when I get stuck – and I will get stuck – I will likely take a break and nibble on a cookie. I may even shut my laptop and come back later. I know I don’t have to finish this draft today, and I know some writing days are better than others. I contrast this vision with the way some students are asked to work during writer’s workshop, and I worry. If we are to develop students who believe they are writers, what matters most is cultivating authentic work habits.

As you plan for your writing workshop this year, think about the ways you work best as a writer. Talk to other writers about their work habits as well. With every assignment or task you offer your students, ask yourself, “Is this something a writer would actually do?”

Here are three ways I believe we can cultivate more authentic work habits in writing workshop:

1. Instead of offering all students a prewriting organizer, chart, or diagram…try letting some students jump right in.

I often see teachers give every student a prewriting organizer. Everyone fills out the Venn diagram or everyone lists three bullet points for their paragraph. Of course, some students will need a scaffold to help them organize their thoughts, but not everyone will need one. Forcing every student to fill out some contrived organizer does nothing to teach them about writing process. There will be some students who are ready to jump in and start writing. Let them.

2. Instead of playing soft music and asking students to write silently…try letting them talk a bit as they write.

I recently attended a writing retreat with eight other writers. We worked in the common area of a beautiful Bed & Breakfast for two days, mostly in silence, but sometimes we talked. We read a sentence aloud for a reaction or asked a grammar question. We made small talk to break the writing stretches into manageable bits. Writing doesn’t always have to be silent.

Of course, some students may prefer silence. I have seen teachers set designated areas of their classroom as “silent zones.” For example, the group of desks in the corner or the spot in front of the classroom door might become talk-free zones.

3. Instead of using end-of-workshop share time to share a piece of student writing… try sharing writing process.

During the writing retreat another writer told me she was working on four pieces of writing simultaneously. Four pieces! She would work on one piece until she felt stuck and then hop to another. I was so intrigued since I was working on only one piece from start to finish. I couldn’t even think about my next topic until I was done with the first. It is only through talking to other writers about how they write that we can begin to envision a different process for ourselves. There is no one way to write, and students can learn a lot from sharing their writing process with one another.

My hope is that the students in our writing workshops can feel what it means to be a writer in a very real way. I hope students will be able to make decisions about their process and come to know themselves as writers. And I believe it all begins with authentic work habits. To me, that is what matters most.


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Starting with What Matters Most in Writing Workshop

18 thoughts on “Cultivating Authentic Work Habits: Starting with What Matters Most in Writing Workshop

  1. Loved this series! You are all such inspirations. I am constantly working to improve and build upon my Writer’s Workshop. I can’t wait to dive into a new school year in a few weeks with even more ideas to help my writers grow and flourish.


  2. Thank you very much! There’s a lot of ways in the writing workshop; i agree with you… I loved this series!!! De belles réflexions pour enrichir l’atelier d’écriture jusqu’au Québec!


  3. I wish you would come to our school and give a presentation starting with this quote, “Forcing every student to fill out some contrived organizer does nothing to teach them about writing process.” I have tried but my advice falls on deaf ears. What is it about graphic organizers, one size fits all, that is so appealing. In my experience, it has never led to good writing. It’s just created more paper. My students understand that there are tools that can help them organize their writing, but the process is theirs. Thanks for reinforcing my long held belief.


  4. I like to hear let students jump into the writing process without having to prewrite! So many students want to skip it! While I am setting up my classroom an area for quiet writing sounds terrific! All three ideas are wonderful. Sharing the writing process will encourage collaboration as well.


  5. I especially love the idea of a silent zone. I struggle with that, as I prefer quiet, but I know many other writers can handle and even need a little talk. I very much want my students to have authentic writing experiences, and I want to honor their different styles. And, thanks for sharing a picture and your description of your “office.” I LOVE the husband noise. I GET the husband noise:-)


  6. Thank you for the three ways to make writing workshop more authentic. I especially appreciate the first—some writers are ready to just jump right in.


  7. Deep sigh of relief. Not everyone can turn writing on and off like a faucet, including our students. And those graphic organizers…. Do real writers fill out a graphic organizer every time they write a piece? NOT!!! Lots of plain, good common sense here.


  8. Your three suggestions are game-changers, Dana! So many kids will benefit if teachers give all three a try. (BTW: I’m putting this one “Forcing every student to fill out some contrived organizer does nothing to teach them about writing process. There will be some students who are ready to jump in and start writing. Let them.” into InstaQuote for tonight’s chat because it REALLY resonated with me.)


  9. We have rather similar fantasy lives. I moved to 6th grade last year and struggled with the “talk a bit” proposition. They wanted to “talk a lot” I’m better prepared for this for next year, but haven’t quite figured out how I;m going to corral that horse.


  10. Dana, I love everything about this post. I’ve long thought of and admired you as a writer, and because you are one, you make important and true points about authentic work.


  11. I’m so glad to see you bring up the authentic writing process with our students. I just read where Malcolm Gladwell sits in a cafe to write. He loves the hubbub around him and it keeps him focused Everyone has their process and it doesn’t always match the environment of a classroom. Thank you!


  12. Thank you for these ideas. Last year I was blessed to have a published author as a classroom parent. She came in to talk with my 5 th grade students about her process as a writer. A take away we all had was that she choose her own beta-readers as she worked. A change I made immediately was to stop assigning reading partners–because those partnerships rarely accomplished the good peer reviews I wanted–and allowed students to share their work through Google Docs with anyone they chose within the school system (our district has them limited to only corresponding within the district anyway). I could see all of the communication on their Docs, so I could monitor what was said and redirect as needed. I think it was a much better system than before and much more authentic to what a real writer does.


  13. More excellent advice on how to approach writer’s workshop with kids – key words being “authentic,” “messy,” and “zone” – all of which must be embraced by teachers if we are to create the conditions for good writing to occur (along with “immersed,” the idea behind previous posts). Thank you for this insightful, practical, uplifting series!


  14. All too often I believe that educators hinder student creativity. I just attended a workshop where a participant asked, “What do I do with a student who just sits and stares at his paper the entire writing workshop time?” The response she received was to let him sit there. This happens to all writers at one time or another. As you stated sometimes it is just not a good day to write. We also discussed letting students find what works for them instead of giving them a template to follow, which may or may not work for them. As educators, we need to let students decide what works for them and allow them to grow as writers.


  15. Dana,
    I so love that there’s no one “right way” for writing workshop. It’s really about choices – talk/silent, prewrite/plan or not . . . That’s the way to build authentic work habits!



  16. I love the idea of having our writers share more about their process/practices! It’s so empowering to know that there’s not just one “right” way to be a writer. I had the chance to hear many authors share their writing processes during ILA16 and have looked forward to sharing those with my students. I’m not sure I would have taken that next (now obvious–duh!) step of having them share their own processes if I hadn’t read this post. I know that doing so will enrich our writing community. Thanks!


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