After You

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Update to this article 1/10/13: We’ve received a ton of emails and messages asking about swapwriting as a service, and we’re very excited to announce that we’re going to start offering remote swapwriting sessions through Google Docs. Click here for more information.

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I’m sometimes asked if there are any genuinely different teaching methods that we use in our homeschooling setting. The broad answer is that, since I’m often teaching individually, I can essentially tailor the day’s work specifically to the child involved. E prefers to be a genuine co-investigator, so I’m fairly free to tackle subjects well above my own head with her; there’s no shame in admitting that I don’t know a great deal about, say, mesopelagic feeding  dynamics when I’m fairly sure E already knows that I don’t. H, on the other hand, likes the feel as if there’s a safety bar firmly clicked into place on the ride we’re on, so I usually plan out our work a bit more beforehand, and I try to make sure she always feels like we’re on a safe journey.

Regardless, once we get down to work, a lot of what we do looks a great deal like the work in any school setting: there are keyboards clacking away, printers whirring into action, questions being asked and answered (sometimes) or collaboratively tackled (more often). Most of what we do wouldn’t be out of place in any traditional school classroom. There is one thing we do very differently, though. It works remarkably well, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it at some point in our blog work. That one thing is swap-writing.

Swap-writing, at its most basic, works like this: I start a document in Google Docs, and share it with whomever I’m swap-writing with; sometimes H, sometimes E, sometimes both. We decide on a rough genre – we might choose to write fantasy, for instance, or horror, or modern midweight school-age fiction. One of us gets things rolling, and then it’s a collaborative effort, each of us taking turns writing some amount between a sentence (the minimum) and a short paragraph (the maximum). Rules are fairly minimal. We’re obligated to support each other; other writers’ ideas are valid unless there’s a better idea offered; and we take tone from each other. In other words, there’s no fighting to make a tragedy a comedy, or vice versa, and we work with what we’re given by our co-writer. If E places us in Transylvania, that’s where we’ll be (for a while, anyway); if H wants to write in first person, that’s the style we’re writing in.

Swap-writing, I’ve found, has at least four advantages over the write-a-page-and-turn-it-in model.

  • First, feedback occurs in real-time, during the act of writing itself. I’m a big believer that improvement in anything happens through direct, real-time interaction. We become used to that as adults; we don’t submit videos of our flyfishing casts for later review, or phone-camera snapshots of our golf swings. The ubiquitous paint-with-a-glass-of-wine event venues that have sprung up in the past few years count on the concept of real-time interaction as their modus operandi, and so do poetry slams and open-mic nights and any number of other artistic and athletic endeavors. We want to be told, right now, what it is that we’re doing right and wrong. How, then, did writing become this evaluated-at-a-distance concept? Simple. It’s far easier for a teacher with a classroom of 28 kids to solicit work and grade it later. It’s a reality of the system we’ve built – but that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to teach writing. Every kid I’ve worked with in our family in a swap-write setting has almost immediately shown me some areas of their work that need help – and it’s far easier to stop in midsentence and correct something, as we’re writing together, than to try and instill good writing habits in someone who’s already finished the work. Grading your cake poorly, in other words, doesn’t help you become a better ingredient measurer and mixer. That happens while the cake’s being made.
  • Second, it’s easy to focus effort on areas of writing that need work. H and E have usually had very different writing challenges at any given point in their development as writers. They’re both fantastic writers, but where H will sometimes rush to get to the next plot point – “and then they arrived at the mountain” – E will occasionally get bogged down in the detail. Working individually with each of them lets me target those habits and work them extensively – and it gets even better when the three of us write together, because I can act as a fulcrum between their two respective writing paces. (They also start regulating each other, which is a marvelous thing to watch.) But if I see one of them rushing the pacing, or dawdling the story, or flinging out too many plot hooks, I can focus in on that area through my own participation in the swap write, insisting on detail, curtailing blind plot avenues, and asking them to police their own writing through what I write, too.
  • Third, it pulls everyone’s work up to a common level. Having assigned a few dozen writing prompts in the early months of our homeschooling/unschooling work, intermixed with swap-writes, I noticed something interesting. Both H and E’s writing in writing prompts was – initially – nowhere near the quality of their writing in a swap-writing environment. Writing-prompt quality went up steadily the more we swap-wrote together, and continuing to use writing prompts provided me a reasonable measure of their ‘blank sheet of paper’ abilities. But the improvement came through swap-writing, and after a while, I realized why: they were trying to uphold the quality standard being set. E was trying to ‘write up’ to where I was, and H was trying to ‘write up’ to us both. Adding something to an existing work at a particular quality level, in other words, was pulling them up to that level, sinceno one wanted to let down the overall writing quality of the piece.
  • Finally, it’s creative and fun. The swap-writing environment is pure improvisational jazz – it encourages on-the-spot creativity, rapid reaction to the work of others, and a collaborative mindset in which everyone gets a chance to ‘solo’ and everyone spends time in the rhythm section. They also know that the fundamental rule is that we can go wherever they’d like to go, as long as they write creatively, correctly, and supportively. We’ve had a swap-writing session that began in a pizza parlor and swiftly evolved into zombie-comedy; H and E kept pulling the topic in that direction, and so long as their writing quality remained high, I was more than willing to go with them. Some swap-writes have been one-shot exercises, little forty-minute vignettes that came to a natural end; others have evolved into full-on novellas that have now been running for months. Both are fine by me.

What’s really interesting for the girls is that there are many examples of professional swap-writing out in the literary world proper. Several of my favorite authors, including Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear, are effectively swap-writing the Mongoliad series, and for a time the work was being released a chapter at a time, serial-fashion. That’s an inspiration for both H and E, and I can also point them back toward several top-notch swap-written novels of the past – most notable Pratchett and Gaiman’s excellent Good Omens, and Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye. These books make for great critical-reading sessions, too. We’ll read some precursor works by each author, and then discuss how each one influenced the final, created whole, and where each authors’ stylistic ‘fingerprints’ are most evident.

Swap-writing isn’t for everyone as a homeschooling instructional technique. It’s time-intensive, and intellectually demanding, and it will most certainly push your own writing abilities as it pushes your kids’. But the rewards, in terms of writing improvement for children, are immense and long-lasting. The major strides I’ve seen in both H and E’s writing this year have come from swap-writing, coupled with independent work (traditional writing prompts). Not sure if it’s for you? Give it a try. There’s no cost to set up a Google Docs account, and no problem if you’re swap-writing on a single computer, either; everyone can just take turns at the keyboard.  If nothing else, I guarantee you’ll have some fun with your kids, and you might just find it to be a creative and enjoyable hobby for your entire family.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Love this. It reminds a me a little bit of that surrealist game, where each person writes a line of text in a story but can only see the line directly above their writing space.

    Reply

  2. […] and then re-write them by hand if they make mistakes, while we’re working a three-writer swapwrite on Google Docs. Or when the kids head off to Young Ameritowne and practice depositing their […]

    Reply

  3. We do something similar in our house, but we call it Story Tennis. My husband used to play with our adult daughter when she first moved away from home. Now my boys ‘play’ with friends via email.

    Reply

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