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Teacher to Teacher: Advice for Writers

By Lynne R. Dorfman

I think the best advice I can give you is to find and honor your process (which may be different from a writing partner or the peers in your class). I am good at thinking on my feet and getting my thoughts down in just the right way the first time. Several of my writing partners prefer time to think things through and let thoughts smolder awhile. (They often jot them down in their writer’s notebook before the fire goes out!) I often use my notebook as a prewrite: “Think before you write!”  My notebook is filled with lists, sketches, graphic organizers, explanations, and examples. Lots of pages have examples taken from a mentor text, an explanation from me as to why I think the author chose a particular craft move, and my examples of imitation – closely imitating in the first attempt, and then moving away from the lines I lifted from the book by making it my own in some small way.

When Rose Cappelli and I wrote the books about mentor texts for Stenhouse Publishers, we collaborated by sitting at the table in her sunroom. At first, we did some writing separately, but as time went on, we did more and more together. We just found that collaborating on ideas helped us better say what we thought teachers needed to hear. Rose and I seemed to fall into a comfortable rhythm, and I think actually created a new process for working together. However, there were still parts that we worked on separately. That’s where the notebook came in handy. We set aside some days we would write together and then before we left we decided on the part each would work on, whether it be writing, gathering books, collecting student samples, or even just thinking. We would write this all down in a sort of checklist so we knew what we needed to do. We always were jotting down thoughts and ideas. 

When I am composing, I do a lot of oral rehearsals, writing a narrative, poem, or speech in my head and even saying the words aloud before I even pick up my pen. And yes, I like to draft with a pen, preferably a pen with purple, green, or even pink ink before I go to the computer. The movement of my hand as I half-print/half-write the words seems to kick my brain in gear. It’s magic – once I am engaged and have written something on a page of my notebook, I am on my way to working hard until I finish my initial draft. Of course, if I need to establish a stronger foundation of background knowledge, I do tons of reading and research before I get started.

Of course, if you’re not making the time to write, no other advice can help you. Writers have to be preoccupied with time-management. Carve out a time for writing every day – even if it is only ten to fifteen minutes to begin with. You must make a commitment to writing – like it is your job – and try to stay true to your schedule just as you would do for feeding and walking the dog, exercising, arriving to work on time. No excuses!  Daily writing will help you maintain the flow – get into the writing zone where distractions are not noticed and time moves quickly.

Find the joy within your work, even if that means looking in the most unexpected places. Find the joy within your process and the joy of finishing a piece and finding the perfect audience to share it with. Find joy in elevating yourself to a conscious level of “I am a writer.”

Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project, a stop on June 15th at 5:00 p.m. Eastern in the Write Across America writing marathon offered by NWP. Use this link to register for this free writing experience and plan to participate whenever you are able:

Lynne loves to write poems, read mysteries, and garden. Right now, pink roses fill vases in her home, cut from a section of her garden. Lynne visits Longwood Gardens regularly to walk and take photos of the blooms and trees that make the grounds a magical place to visit. Often, Lynne takes her writer’s notebook along. The garden’s beauty inspires her to write.

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