NB – my latest thinking on Slow Writing can be found here.

Exam season is nearly upon us and English departments across the land will be gearing up to the Herculean labour of training students to churn out essays which, they hope, will earn them the much coveted A*-C grade in English Language.

The AQA paper gives candidates just a meagre hour to write a short descriptive, explanatory piece and then a longer piece which asks them to persuade and argue.

This isn’t much time and most students default position is to race into it, cram in as much verbiage as possible and then down tools to watch the clock tick away the purgatory of the exam hall. This is not a great strategy for producing great writing. So, we teach them to plan (of which there’s a fine example from Lisa Janes Ashes here) and to proofread in the hope that maybe, just maybe they’ll approach their writing more thoughtfully and produce something that won’t make the poor examiner groan in anguished suffering.

But is less perhaps more? Over the past few years I’ve been experimenting with what, for want of a better idea, I’m calling Slow Writing. The idea is to get students to slow the hell down and approach each word, sentence and paragraph with love and attention. Obviously they’ll write less but what they do write will be beautifully wrought and finely honed.

Here’s how it works.

Firstly, I tell students that we will be drafting rather than writing.  Then I tell them to double space their writing. They find this inordinately difficult so I’ve taken to providing them with double spaced paper to get them into the habit. I then give them a topic and ask them to complete a set of seemingly random exercises. For example:

1. Your first sentence must starting with a present participle (that’s a verb ending in ‘ing’)
2. Your second sentence must contain only three words.
3. Your third sentence must contain a semi-colon
6. Your fourth sentence must be a rhetorical question
5. Your fifth sentence will start with an adverb
6. Your sixth sentence will contain a simile

And so on.

The point of it is that they have to slow right down in order to think about their technique. Generally speaking, students find it straightforward to write what they want but it’s much harder for them to think about how they’re going to write it. This process forces them to concentrate on the how instead of the what.

Once they’ve finished they get to improve. This is where the double spacing comes into it’s own. I ask them to interrogate every single word and consider whether there might be a better word. They look at every sentence and ask, could it begin differently? Should it be longer or shorter? Are they absolutely sure it makes sense? We look at the paragraphs and think about how they link: do they flow logically? Does each paragraph pick up where the preceding one leaves off? Is there variety? (The examiner is particularly keen on one sentence paragraphs.)

Hopefully they will be busily scribbling all over their draft and putting the new ideas in the acres of space made available by double spacing their writing. A neat and tidy exam script is one which has not been perfected, is full of mistakes and will get a lower grade.

Other Slow Writing ideas include:

  • pop a load of different sentence instructions into a hat and give everyone a random selection
  • giving students lists of numbers and telling that the number of words in their sentences must conform to these numbers.
  • paired writing – get students to write alternate sentences and question each other about their choices
  • use a professionally written text on a different subject and get students to copy the structure and techniques
And the impact? Well, not only do students perform better in exams, they’re much more confident and experimental and the writing they produce is hugely improved.
As always, the proof of the writing is in the reading. Here’s an example of an opening paragraph of a film review of Twilight written by one of my Year 11s using Slow Writing:

Ah, Twilight. That time of day when the boundaries between night and day begin to blur. The moment when the sun begins to set and when all those things that go bump in the night stretch, yawn and start feeling that unbearable urge to pee. The very name is a clue to understanding what this film is all about: you see it’s not one thing or another. It’s not just happy daytime romance and it’s definitely not all night-time terror. Just like the name implies it’s somewhere in between. So, is this a strength or a weakness? You could take the view that it’s this quality that helps the film to appeal to as wide an audience as possible: you get the chic flick crowd as well as the Goths. Or, on the other hand, does it make the whole thing impossibly and disastrously diluted?

Pretty good, huh?

I’m sure none of this is particularly original but it’s certainly helped me to help my student see writing as something which can, and should be consciously crafted. If you do anything else which helps, I’d love to add it to my repetoire.


The heroically proportioned David Riley has already started work on an interactive version for his superb suite of teaching tools, Triptico. And it’s looking very nice!

Also, here’s a lovely post from Lindsay Mason on using board games to improve writing.

Related posts