Do you set creative writing tasks but find your students churn out the same formulaic sentences? Or worse still, do they struggle to write anything at all? Slow Writing might be the solution.
First conceived by David Didau, it means setting a rule for every sentence your students write. This forces them to focus on the “how” of writing rather than the “what.”
By setting very rigid rules, students slow down (hence the name) and focus on the quality of each individual word. Instead of pages of drivel, they write six or eight sentences of honed, crafted prose. The result is writing you’ll all feel pleased with.
We often use Slow Writing for creative writing, but there’s no reason you couldn’t adapt it across the curriculum.
Here’s how to start using it in your classroom.
How Slow Writing Works
There’s not a correct way to do Slow Writing, but there are general suggestions to use. Experiment with your class to find the approach that works for them.
Break the writing task down into individual sentences. Give a restriction or rule to every sentence.
Here are some examples:
- Word limits: Make this sentence exactly 13 words
- Vocabulary choice: Include an effective adjective
- Sentence structure: Start with an adverb
- Grammatical features: Include a modal verb
- Figurative language: Use a simile
I display one rule at a time to avoid cognitive overload. After talking through what the rule means, I use a timer to give them two or three minutes to create their sentence.
Remember, the emphasis is on quality, not speed. Slowing everyone down to write together works best. Confident students might draft many versions of their sentence in the time limit and choose the best one to use.
A Typical Slow Writing Lesson
Start by explaining what Slow Writing means. Discuss what you will create and share any stimulus, like an image, object, or text extract.
Display the rule for the first sentence. Spend a few minutes checking that your students understand what it means. Collect ideas and useful words they might use.
Give them two or three minutes to draft their sentence. I write at the same time up on the board. It’s good for students to see that teachers can make mistakes, edit, and re-write work too.
Now ask a few students to share their sentence. Often, I find them clamouring to be picked as they can’t believe how good their writing sounds! Write these sentences up on the board.
Share the rule for the next sentence and repeat the process of discussing, writing, and sharing. Continue until every sentence is finished. Pick students to read out their entire piece and celebrate their success.
Slow Writing Example
For this working example, I’ve selected an image from Unsplash. You can find plenty of royalty-free images online, or check out Pobble365 for a great daily picture prompt.
Start by talking about what they think the picture is showing. Encourage them to use their senses and collect useful vocabulary. Keep the pace up at this point. You’ll want the majority of the lesson spent creating the sentences.
Now it’s time to get writing. Here’s an example of the rules I might use and the sentences I'd draft.
Prompt 1: Start your sentence with a present participle
Frantically, he paddled towards the riverbank.
Prompt 2: Use personification
The river, reluctant to let him go, hungrily pulled him back into its arms.
Prompt 3: Use only three words
One last try.
Prompt 4: Use onomatopoeia (a sound effect word)
The boat suddenly smashed into a hidden branch, turned, and careened back towards the rapids.
Prompt 5: Use a modal verb
He knew he must get away, but the oar he’d held tightly for so long was wrenched out of his hands, disappearing into the dark water.
Prompt 6: Use a rhetorical question
Would he ever make it back home?
Before Slow Writing, if I gave my students this picture, they might create something like this:
The man was in a kayak. He wanted to go home. It was hard work paddling. He got caught in a rapid and wanted to give up.
Now, we’ve created something far more exciting:
Frantically, he paddled towards the riverbank. The river, reluctant to let him go, hungrily pulled him back into its arms.
One last try.
The boat suddenly smashed into a hidden branch, turned, and careened back towards the rapids. He knew he must get away, but the oar he’d held tightly for so long was wrenched out of his hands, disappearing into the dark water. Would he ever make it back home?
There are lots of Slow Writing prompt ideas online, or you can create your own to tackle a particular area of grammar, sentence structure, or vocabulary.
Supporting Struggling Students
Reluctant writers generally find Slow Writing far more enjoyable than longer creative tasks. If a student has real problems, you could give them a word prompt. But in my experience, this hasn’t been necessary in a mainstream classroom, even with learners who struggle with writing.
Explain grammatical terms to make them clear. For example, if your rule is to start a sentence with a present participle, you’re likely to be met with a sea of blank faces. Remind your students that this means a verb ending in “-ing.”
Capture ideas from class discussions and display them for any student to use. You’ll spot some learners using these for inspiration or to improve their work. Providing inspiring examples lets them see what is possible.
Benefits of Slow Writing
David Didau commented that his jaded senior students were shocked by the quality of what they’d created. They wanted to take it home to show their parents. I found the same with my class – they were amazed by themselves! It’s wonderful to see their confidence improve.
By writing at the same time as the class, you can verbalise thinking. For example, you might say, “I chose the verb ‘ran’ but it didn’t show how frightened he was. I changed it to ‘scuttled’ to show he’s trying to escape quietly.” Your students will examine word choices and sentence structure in a way they’ve probably not done before.
Slow Writing is a great leveller. The emphasis shifts to the quality of sentences, rather than the amount students can write in a time limit. Everyone ends up with the same amount of work.
My classes often request Slow Writing challenges. I’ve used it to target areas of weakness, introduce grammatical terms, and improve sentence structure. It’s always a hit.
If you’ve not tried Slow Writing before, you’re in for a treat. See how it improves writing outcomes in your class.