Having Something to Write, Part 2: A Vision

Flooding students with ideas is not enough to empower them to write. In fact, having many ideas without any direction can be just as overwhelming as having no ideas at all. This is why the second part of students having something to write is to help them find vision for their work. If they can visualize a final product that excites them, then they are ready to write.

The Tool: A Pacing Guide

If a writer’s notebook develops students’ sprint-writing skills for the first draft, then the pacing guide prepares them to run the marathon of the first draft all the way to the end. This is the metaphor I use with students. Before a marathon, long-distance runners train using both long and short runs. Sprints build strength, and longer runs build endurance. Marathon runners need both to power through 26.2 miles.

Any kind of running is not just a physical activity; it’s a mental activity as well. Before running a race, runners discuss the race with coaches or teammates. They visualize the path. They develop a race strategy to sustain them through the different phases of the run. In writing, the equivalent is the pacing guide.

Running the Race

Before writing a full draft, we start with talk. Students pitch their ideas with each other using a one-sentence pitch format: “I will be (purpose) on (topic) by focusing on (message).” For example, “I will be reflecting on Buffy the Vampire Slayer by focusing on how the movie impacted me as a nine year-old kid.”

Group members then respond with questions. What will they want to know about the focus? Students record the questions they are asked. This process has a two-fold purpose. It allows the writer to hear how interested their group is to read the finished piece, and it gives the writer ideas for what to include (and what to leave out).

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This particular essay is five paragraphs, but not every pacing guide I model has five parts.

Afterwards, students create their pacing guides. Students draw portrait-oriented rectangles representing the page requirement of the assignment in their notebooks. I show students what a possible pace might look like for the genre in which they are writing, then I divide the mini-pages in my notebook into sections. I think aloud what each section is going to discuss and how they will build on each other, then label each section to remind me of my plan. Yes, this is basically a pictographic outline, but it has some added benefits. First, when students begin typing, they can tell visually if any section is over- or under-developed. It also reinforces a lesson in rhythm–when and why do writers (and runners) pick up the pace? When do they slow down? Furthermore, it makes conferring easy and meaningful (see below).

When It Works

If it’s working, here’s what you’ll see on the pacing guide:

  • Students will list actual topics, not Point #1, Point #2, etc.
  • They’ll also place their points in a logical order developmentally (more on this below).

Each day afterwards that students draft, you should see students typing with their pacing guides out and hitting their word count goals

When It Doesn’t

If students aren’t getting specific on the guide, it’s useless. Model crafting a pitch sentence,  asking questions about a writing pitch, and how to use those questions to uncover an idea’s necessary development.

To check logical order, see if students can add appropriate transition signal words between sections. If they can’t (guess what?), you gotta model it!

During drafting time, confer:

  • If they’re stuck, review the section of the pacing guide that they’re currently writing. Show your interest. Give them the reader questions they need to dive into that part of the writing. It provides a tangible, achievable focus for the day’s drafting.
  • If the section is too short, discuss how to develop the writing.
  • If the section is too long, discuss how to delete anything that doesn’t reinforce the main idea.

As a writer, how do you get “ready” to write?

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