plan · purpose · story mountain

Finding Purpose Before We Write: Making the Most of Planning & Rehearsal

“If you can imagine it, you can achieve it.”William Ward

My wife and I sat down, her right next to me. Spread before us on our second-hand kitchen table lay a freshly-unfolded map of the United States, compliments of the American Automobile Association (AAA).  As newlyweds, we had reached an important decision: We would move from our small town in Oregon across the country to the distant land of Connecticut so that my wife could attend art school.  Now the time had come to plan our trip.  And of course, we were on a budget.  With a highlighter in one hand and a calculator in the other, I leaned over the map, and we began to plot the rough draft of our journey.

Just like travelers, writers plan.  And also similar to travelers, writers consider purpose.  My wife and I had definitely considered our purpose; yes, we wanted to make it from point A (Oregon) to point B (Connecticut).  But we also wanted an adventure (even if we were on a budget). We wanted to see and experience some of this magnificent country.  That purpose, then, guided us as we planned our various stopping points, attractions, landmarks – even hotels! – between the west coast and east coast.  You might say, our purpose provided the foundation of our plan.

Writers need a purpose, too. A foundation.  Yet sometimes, as author and staff developer Emily Strang-Campbell pointed out a few weeks ago at the Teachers College Saturday Reunion in New York City, we rush kids through the planning and rehearsal phase of writing.  Much like the planning my wife I did before our cross-country journey, this important initial work is what helps give kids a foundation and/or vision for what they are writing towards.  This is something researcher and writer John Hattie says learners need to have in order to increase their chances for success. Therefore, spending a little more time with planning and rehearsal might be worth it, as we consider the value that a writer’s purpose provides for an upcoming writer’s journey.

Three Strategies

To support writers in making planning and rehearsal what Emily called more “personal and meaningful,” consider the following three strategies:

  • Use thought prompts to help establish purpose- To support writers in considering purpose, we can set them up to do some “writing to think.”  Many teachers use this approach to support students in growing thinking about their reading or perhaps in their content area.  The following prompts shared by Emily are designed to help grow some initial thinking that will inform how kids get started:

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In my experience, I’ve found that many middle school students struggle to skillfully or purposefully embed a theme, message, or lesson in their narrative stories.  This is true when writing informational or argumentative pieces, as well.  So by using writing to do some of this thinking (leaning on a few of the prompts above), a foundation is laid out ahead of time, thereby providing a purpose to wrap meaning around across the entire writing process.  What is the intended message?  Who ought to be the audience?  Consideration of these questions ahead of time has the potential to set writers on a path toward success.

  • Empower kids to choose his or her planning style or structure – As a young teacher, I can remember passing out graphic organizers for students to complete as “brainstorming sheets.”  “Before you write a rough draft, make sure you fill out your brainstorming sheet,” I would say. Later in my career, as a writing workshop teacher and coach, I began teaching writers strategies they could lean on to plan independently.  But now I’m realizing that not every writer works exactly in the same way.  In her Saturday workshop, Emily Strang-Campbell reminded us of this fact.  She showed us some wonderful planning strategies, such as this double timeline (below) depicting a plan for an external plot, as well as an internal emotional timeline:


As wonderful as this tool likely works for some writers to plan out a story with tension, emotion, and theme, we are wise to realize that not every kid may want to use the this tool.  Not every writer will want to use the same timeline, the same story mountain, the same story booklet, the same organizer etc.  Therefore, we want to empower students to select the best planning tool that works for each of them.  We can ask, “What do you see as the best way to lay out a plan for your writing?”  Cookie cutter approaches like the ones I used in my early days of teaching rarely work for all individual writers.  Empowering kids to choose their own planning style likely has a higher likelihood for real engagement and purposeful planning.

  • Allow kids to begin writing where mind movies are the richest- Along the same lines as empowering writers to make choices about planning tools, we can also teach kids that writers do not necessarily mentally “see” the scenes in a story plot with the same vividness or focus.  Sometimes certain scenes are easier to get down on paper because, for whatever reason, the mind movie of those scenes are extraordinarily rich, richer than perhaps other parts of the planned story or idea.  Providing flexibility and letting kids begin where their mind movies are the richest- even if it’s not the “first one in the story” –  can mean increased momentum and engagement when writers are getting started.

It is important that writers understand that our plans, of course, can change.  When traveling cross country, my wife and I certainly made some “unplanned” stops.  And writers will likely deviate some from their original plans, as well.  “As we draft,” Emily Strang-Campbell says, “It’s important to remember that writers shouldn’t feel ‘locked into’  plans (story mountains, story boards, etc.). Rather, these plans are the blueprint and the vision.  They act as a foundation; but also, let’s remember they are our foundations to change up if we need to.”  That said, beginning with some thinking about a purpose, as well as some flexibility on how planning will go, helps to ground the choices writers make.

* Thank you to my good friend and colleague Emily Strang-Campbell for the inspiration for this post.