Voice First: An Argument for Rethinking Priorities for Novice Writers

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My Co-Departmental English 11 class is currently undertaking the same Narrative Journalism writing assignment I wrote about a couple of entries back.  They tackle almost all of the same writing assignments as the traditional English 11 classes but can’t move at the same rapid pace.  Most of them read below a middle school level and about half of them would struggle to produce a paragraph of writing on their own without both scaffolding and at least some one-on-one support.  

It’s my favorite class when it comes to writing.

Of course, in order to take joy from the struggles that come with this sort of territory, you have to be prepared to let some things go.  

But as I discovered on this most recent endeavor into a new genre, it’s also important to remember that just because they haven’t mastered mechanical elements of writing, there’s no reason to expect that they lack mastery of the creative elements of it Continue reading


Blending Genres with Narrative Journalism

Years ago, my PLC adopted the “I-Search” paper as a piece of informative writing that now feels like a relic from another age.  It was a sort of “meta-writing” wherein the students undertook a research project and then wrote a paper not about the research topic, but about the experience as a writing process.

It was a failure, but at least it had noble intentions:  To get students to think about their writing process and roles as authors.  

For us, the failure was a blessing in disguise.  Once it was clear that the assignment was something of a dumpster fire, we were forced to revisit our entire unit.  And from the ashes of the I-Search emerged our favorite writing piece of the year:  The Narrative Journalism Experience.  

What’s Narrative Journalism?

Many people know the genre as “Longform Journalism”–indeed, your best resource for mentor texts would be the outstandingly curated site www.Longform.org, which compiles the best in the genre and even sorts it by subject matter.  Students are more drawn into the genre when I can point them to entire collections of mentor texts thematically sorted around topics like “Imposters” or “Sad Retired Athletes” (the collections get VERY specific!).


image via http://www.longform.org

While styles vary, the core of this type of writing is the conveyance of non-fictional information through a narrative structure–often, the narrative is about the journalist’s experience in investigating the story.  In fact, that’s the narrative perspective the students end up adopting when we turn them into amateur journalists later in the unit.  More on that below… Continue reading

Mapping: Analyzing a Weird Text

I decided to end my school year with a gamble. I was going to hit students with a contemporary text that, get this, required no reading at all. I wanted to give students something that was unlike anything they had ever studied in school. Something weird, sporadic, complex, and sometimes grotesque.

I have been a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey

Night Vale

Image via welcometonightvale.com

Cranor, about the fictional desert town of Night Vale, since its inception in 2012. My students call it NPR with pterodactyls. Among the many oddities listeners encounter in the twenty-five minute episodes are five-headed dragons, invisible clock towers, angels that change light bulbs, and secret police helicopters that only sometimes steal your children. These details keep listeners engaged and wondering what outlandish details they will hear next.

We listened to two episodes per day, answered plot-based guided-listening questions, ended each day with analytical discussions about connections between our world and the world of Night Vale, and even did some truly odd creative writing (each episode includes a four-minute song that serves as a great natural timer for writing prompts). Students were laughing, writing, and learning. But I couldn’t help but to ask, “So what? What is the greater goal behind all of this?”

Continue reading

A Mentor Text Goldmine for Movie Buffs and Writing Workshoppers Alike!

It seemed too good to be true when I first happened upon it: a database with hundreds of free Hollywood movie scripts, ready to download and dig in to for writing studies!

I had landed upon The Internet Movie Script Database (not to be confused with the International Movie Database)  — an amazing resource for writing workshop. I have used its contents to teach the obvious genre (screenwriting) — but I have also used the scripts in memoir and fiction writing studies to teach about dialogue, creating character, writing concisely, show-don’t-tell and so on.

Do yourself a favor and head on over to the IMSDb before reading on. You’ll notice that you can search the database by title or genre. You can also browse the newest titles on the homepage, under Newest Releases.

Two Scripts & Some Ideas

It’s easy to get lost in a script; it does take some time to plod through hundreds of pages in search of excerpts to use with students. I often just pull the first few pages of a script to share — or if I’ve seen the movie and can identify a scene I want to look at, I’ll search within the script for phrases I remember from the movie. To get you going in your study, below are two scripts you might consider exploring with your writers and ways to use them.


Photo by Jim Bridges Roadside Attractions Publicity via tpr.org


Summary: Two young boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the vigilantes that are on his trail and to reunite him with his true love. (International Movie Database)

Click here for the full script.

Click here for the excerpt I used.

How I used it:

I used this excerpt from Mud to demonstrate one way to create character: through setting. Nancie Atwell encourages her writers to “create [their] character’s bedroom and fill it with the stuff of his or her life that reveals parts of the present or past.” In this excerpt, director Jeff Nichols demonstrates this technique using narrative description to show the abandoned boat that Mud has turned into a temporary home. The students will enjoy discussing what the contents of his boat-treehouse reveal about Mud.


Photo by Global Panorama via Flickr

A Fault in Our Stars

Summary: Two teens, both who have different cancer conditions, fall in love after meeting at a cancer support group. (The International Movie Database)

Click here for the full script.

Click here for the excerpt I used.

How I used it:

I used this short excerpt to teach students about lean writing. David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, advises screenwriters to keep description “on the lean side, providing only what is absolutely necessary to progress the story.”

While this advice applies more to screenwriting than it does fiction, this lesson helps students become more intentional and “choosy” with the details they include in their writing. Beginner writers usually run into one of the following problems at some point: they don’t write enough description, or they get carried away with their description. Studying this excerpt may help students think about the types of details they can include or aid them in eliminating details that don’t move their story along. With this particular excerpt, we talk about why the screenwriter may have chosen to include the title of the book Hazel is reading. We also discuss the importance of the “squeal of delight.”

Another Goldmine

Current, engaging mentor texts that reach every writer in the room are like gold, so finding multiple drafts of a current, engaging mentor text is equivalent to striking it rich. This is what happened to me when the IMSDb lead me to other screenplay resources, like Drew’s Script-O-Rama, a recent favorite of mine.

In addition to offering hundreds of scripts, it also offers (for some movies) multiple versions of the same script. For example, here is the first draft of Batman, the revised first draft, and the fifth draft. Not only is it cool to study how scripts change over time, but these drafts can be bundled together to create a cluster for a revision study.

Drew’s Script-O-Rama offers fewer classic scripts than the IMSDb but tends to have a better selection of contemporary films.  Here is a list of just a few Oscar-nominated and winning films this website offers:



Gone Girl

How to Train Your Dragon 2



These mentor texts databases, coupled with our Mentor Text Dropbox that you have continued to help us build, offer so many possibilities for genre and technique studies next year. If you haven’t already, go ahead and add “explore the dropbox” to your summer to-do list. We can’t promise you won’t get lost inside, but with a glass of iced tea, and some extra time on your hands, it’s an adventure worth taking.

In your initial browsing of the IMDB, what scripts offered themselves up as mentor texts? In what ways do you envision using The IMDB or Drew’s Script-o-Rama in your workshop? Feel free to leave a comment below, or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.