My 8th graders are just starting to embark upon their high school application journey. In terms of writing, this means short answer application questions and longer essays in admissions tests.
You know the kind. The kind that lure students into giving vague, voiceless answers to questions like, “What inspires you about school?” and “Give three adjectives that describe you” and “If you could invite three people, living or dead, to dinner, who would it be and what would you discuss?”
We’ve done some work together to help them craft interesting answers that show their personality. We have learned strategies to help them quickly develop a response to questions for which they truly have no genuine answer. I’m not worried about their content.
I’m worried about their style.
You see, in addition to showing their sparkling wit, I hope that their application writing will also show off their writing skills — something that will certainly make them stand out in a sea of applications.
I could say, “Hey kids, use what you’ve learned about good writing,” but we all know that won’t work. We need to nudge students to make commitments by making it tangible + personal.
Creating Personal Writing Style Decks
I wanted to get my students’ hands working in a way that wasn’t computer-based. But you may only see your students virtually right now, and index cards and binder rings might now be an option. You could replicate this activity on a slide deck or a Jamboard, too!
- Discuss the concept of a writer’s signature style.
Many famous writers have a style so distinctive that they could be easily identified in a lineup. Hemingway’s short staccato. Dickinson’s dashes. You might discuss the signature moves of the writers your students have studied this year + show a few examples. This article shares some examples, too.
Share that as writers mature in their craft, they use some moves consistently, and those moves come to define their style. Even as student writers, elements of a distinctive style might begin to emerge by choosing writing moves that fit well and practicing those over and over again.
2. Ask students to reflect on the writing moves they have learned so far.
As I’ve shared, I keep a running list of writing moves we have learned. (Mine is long at this point because I have taught these students for two years.) But you could create a less formal version to share with students for the purposes of this activity.
While you could do this any time, the end of the quarter or semester is an ideal time for students to look back at what they have learned and make some commitments for moving forward.
Our goal in this activity is for students to narrow that big list of skills into a smaller list they can own and commit to using again and again. To help students do this, ask them to reflect on these questions (in their brains, aloud with a buddy, in their notebooks):
- Which moves do I think are pretty universal — I could use them in many different genres of writing and they would be helpful to me?
- Which moves are my favorites? Which ones are fun for me or make my writing feel extra special?
- Which moves do I think I have mastered? Which can I use confidently in a variety of different writing situations?
- Which moves feel like me or sound like the real me when I write?
Once students have reflected, they should be able to choose a handful of moves. (I’m asking my students to commit to 5-8 from our big list.) You’ll want to remind them to choose a variety of moves, too — not just five introduction strategies, or five punctuation tricks.
3. Write one writing move in large, dark letters on the front of each index card.
4. Divide the back of the card in half. On the top, write EITHER an example OR tips for using this move. On the bottom, write “This move will help me __________________________.”
We want students to be able to flip through these cards + look at their moves quickly. On the top, I ask students to copy the example from the writing moves glossary. However, in some cases the example is very lengthy — like an entire paragraph. So, in these situations, I ask students to briefly jot down what they will need to do to use this move. (You can see this in the example above.)
On the bottom of the card, I’m nudging students to concisely articulate what this move does for them as a writer. This will provide a quick reminder as they are flipping through their deck about the power of each move.
5. Connect the cards together with a binder ring.
This has the distinctive feeling of studying, doesn’t it? Learning vocabulary in your high school French class? And I kind of like that, actually.
One of my constant frustrations as an English teacher is that it’s often easier for kids to dismiss the hard work we do because it isn’t the same kind of work as cramming for a history test or preparing for a math quiz.
And while I don’t want to impose the stress of those kinds of academic tasks on writing, I do want students to have that feeling of, “I am preparing to do something. I am working hard. This is serious stuff.”
I encourage students to keep their writing style deck with them all the time — in other classes where they need to write, in their backpack, in their car, and yes, as they prepare to take that big admissions test. We put them on the ring to indicate this is really special. It’s not just another page in our notebook, handout in our binder, or Google Doc. This is something to keep safe and, most importantly, to use.
Extending the Personal Writing Style Deck Work
The more students use these, the more they will internalize the moves, and the more useful the tool itself will become. Here are some ways you might continue + extend the work:
- Add moves as you learn new writing moves throughout the year – Pause periodically to reflect on the new writing skills your class has learned. Ask students to choose one or two to add to their personal writing style deck.
- Add + edit from year to year — Personal writing style decks could also travel with students from year to year if you have a cohesive, committed English department! However, we don’t want these to become 100 writing moves long — then they would be unusable. So, if student DO add to these consistently, take time to edit them occasionally. Have students reflect on moves they don’t actually use consistently, moves they don’t find particularly helpful in the end, or moves they are just tired of. Take those out to make room for new moves.
- Direct students to use these as they write — It’s silly, but I often make tools that I forget to remind students to use. As students are drafting future pieces, remind them to take out their personal writing style decks and use them!
- Take style cross-curricular — My students do a lot of writing in all of their classes, even math. Share this tool with your colleagues and ask them to likewise encourage students to use them when writing a lab report, a history essay, or a math reflection. Every writing move might not apply every time, but it will be powerful for students to hear from their other teachers that these moves matter + are welcome!
- Make a personal writing style deck for the authors you study — What defines the style of the writers your class reads this year? Or a favorite young adult writer? Apply this concept in literature study as well by creating style decks for the authors you study. Students might even try these moves themselves!
Could this concept help your students take what they have learned from mentor texts and apply it independently? How might you adapt this for your students? Leave us a comment below!