Tinkering with Text and Playing with Writing

tinkeringWhen I was in the classroom, I began each school year by conducting an interest inventory. I asked my students to tell me about their favorite books and television programs. I wanted to know what sports and instruments they played.

What were their favorite foods?

What type of music did they listen to?

Did they play video games?

Which ones?

How often?

I asked these questions to help them generate potential ideas, and I considered their interests as I was designing my plans and choosing mentor texts. I’ve always appreciated play as a catalyst for writing, but when I began paying closer attention at the WNY Young Writer’s Studio, I discovered something more: passionate writers often employ a playful process, and they are eager to invite company.

Building is one form of play, but there are many others. Luke’s LEGOs were his gateway into writing, but I’ve worked with other kids who lack interest for that kind of play. They don’t want to sit still. They want to run and climb and throw things and compete. Their favorite kind of writing happens on the field. They design games and sketch the rules out on a whiteboard as they go. They invite their peers to watch them as they play their games, in order to provide important feedback. Their audience recommends potential revisions as they watch them execute their games. Rules change. The procedure moves around a bit. Writers erase and scribble and play some more. They fix what fails, and when they’re done, they decide how to share their game with others who might enjoy it.

Evan Cornwell is a veteran fellow of the WNY Young Writer’s Studio. He spent most of last year sunk into a story that was set in the Underworld—a place where mysteries and chaos unfold. Early in his process, he used a long roll of paper and a pile of stickers to portray one of the battles that unfolded there.

“What are you making?” His friend Kyle inquired as he strolled past Evan on his way to grab a snack.

“This is my underworld,” he replied before launching into an animated description of the battle under construction. “It starts here,” he said, gesturing to the first tile of his story board, where specific images and stickers provided greater context.

“Can I help?” Kyle asked, and his eyes lit up with interest when Evan obliged him. The energy between them expanded as this brief collaborative writing exchange lifted Evan’s story right off of its planning page. The boys began performing the scene spontaneously, assuming the roles of the characters that Evan created, and using the ideas that emerged from their improvisation to enrich the original plan.

Play enabled Evan to live his story in ways that ensured its greater success on the page. Play enabled our field game designers to test and improve their plan as well. I know writers who use video games like The Sims and Minecraft for similarly powerful purposes. Play enriches our writing, and when we take it apart and use our hands to tinker with it, we learn more about how it works. This helps us improve.

When writers tinker, they engage in a purposeful sort of fiddling. Eager to improve dialogue, a writer might lift one small slice out of her draft and place it on a whiteboard or in her notebook. Then, she might revise that bit of dialogue in two or three or four or more different ways without committing to any of them. She might share her tinkering with others, request feedback, or compare her efforts to those of published writers that she admires.

In the end, writers may not use any of the work that emerged from their tinker time, and that’s okay. Perfecting the product isn’t the priority. Learning how to experiment with text is.

This post was one in a how-to series relevant to making writing.

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