An Educational Intervention Turning Young People into Published Authors in One Week
Writing a novel is hard for anyone, but for children or teenagers to work together to write, edit, and publish one in five days seems impossible. Yet one research team in the UK is allowing them to do just that through an innovative program called ‘White Water Writers.’ The program has been run with children, teenagers, and young adults in schools, universities, foster homes, and prison. Their voices and personal experiences are crafted into their stories and the novels are published and available for purchase online. The success of authorship provides young people with new skills, friendships, and motivation for future accomplishments.
We interviewed Dr Yvonne Skipper, a Lecturer in the School of Psychology at Keele University and have paraphrased her answers for the article below.
“To watch the pupils grow in confidence through this process has been a humbling and enlightening experience. As the week progressed there was a growing dynamic in the classroom that kept the pupils on task during the research and writing processes – a dynamic which became more and more self-directed and self-managed by the pupils.”
Carmel Martin, Head of English at Blackfriars School.
The story of the White Water Writers program began several years ago when computer scientist Dr Joe Reddington asked the question – can we write books the way that programmers write code?
Creating software typically involves the creation of millions of lines of code by 100s of developers, each contributing their own bit. For successful software, all of those little bits need to fit together. The process relies on a mix of leadership, planning, and systems which facilitate effective collaboration.
To enable similar processes for writing books Dr Reddington worked together with Dr Douglas Cowie – an author and an English lecturer, to design a process and a program to facilitate collaborative story-writing. When education researchers and psychologists Professor Patrick Leman and Dr Yvonne Skipper joined the group, the program’s potential for the empowerment of students through the success of authorship was unlocked; allowing groups of 8 – 10 students to work collaboratively to write a book in one week.
Since commencing the program they have helped more than 1000 young people become published authors, from children as young as 8 years of age to university students. This has included young people with special education needs and disabilities, children in foster care, siblings of children with life limiting conditions, and young offenders. The White Water Writer’s program has recently received funding from Higher Horizons to allow them to employ Richard Seymour to deliver the project with young people who live in areas of low educational aspiration
On the first day (Monday) the group of students is told that they will write a book in five days: often they don’t believe it. Some of them think that it is some sort of ‘trick’ and that they will be given an existing story to modify. But that is not the case. Participants are sometimes given a very rough concept, on half a page, with the genre, theme, or an idea. At other times they work up their ideas from scratch. Then they brainstorm ideas. Here some of the problems associated with teamwork become visible – sometimes certain plot lines are discounted in favour of others. While this is a group decision, it can be challenging for a writer when their idea is not chosen. The program leaders overcome this by ensuring that each writer has an area of responsibility such as a character whose fate they are responsible for.
Young writers tend to really enjoy the Monday, planning out all the exciting things which will happen in their story. On Tuesday they begin to write and they often feel a bit daunted. To overcome this, the program takes advantage of psychological research about learning and motivation. Each task is broken down into small sections and students are given several different activities to do. They are also motivated by the freedom to make all the decisions about plot and content within the framework provided by the program and are encouraged by how quickly their word counts move upwards. By Wednesday afternoon a full, but very rough draft of the book is complete.
Thursday is proofreading day and it is often the most challenging for the writers, who often have very little experience in doing this. However, on Friday when the book is nearly complete and has a title and cover the energy comes back up, and by 3:30 pm the book is complete. By the end of Friday evening, it is published and available for purchase online.
A key guiding principle is that no adult touches a key or offers ideas on the plot so the work really belongs to the writers themselves. The young writers are often really amazed at what they have achieved in a short space of time and make comments like, “I’m not taking a B in English anymore. I am practically JK Rowling!”
Several weeks later, they host a book signing, an event that allows students to celebrate their achievement and inspire them to think about their longer-term goals. The writers receive professionally printed copies of their novel which is when they really see that it is a ‘real book’. Their friends and family come to celebrate with them and local press is usually present doing interviews and taking pictures. Many of the writers and their families are amazed at how big the book is and how professional it appears. At a book signing at a special school, one of the parents commented that her son does not really enjoy school as he struggles with writing. However, every day of the White Water Writers Program he came home to tell her about the story and what he was writing, even though he generally did not discuss school work with her. She was so proud of how much he improved over the week and delighted to see how much he enjoyed the process.
When White Water Writers worked in a young offenders institute this typical positive experience of the book signing was even more important. Quite a few of the parents were crying and said that it was lovely to be called in to celebrate such an amazing achievement with their sons, rather than being called in for more negative reasons.
|Monday||• 8 – 10 children, teenagers, or young adults commence the program
• ½ page brief provided containing a very loose idea for the book.
• Brainstorm ideas for the novel
• Each writer takes charge of one character
|Tuesday||• Young writers collaboratively write their novel using proprietary software.
• They do not write a chapter each but move between chapters regularly to ensure the book has a consistent ‘voice.’
|Wednesday||• Continue collaborative writing.
• By day’s end produce a draft of their novel. Primary school students often produce drafts with 10,000 words, whilst drafts by secondary students are often twice as large.
|Thursday||• Students proof read their work.
• The young authors write their biographies.
|Friday||• Final check of book
• Design cover and write blurb
• 3:30pm – time up – book complete!
During the writing process some students appear to be unable to deal with success, for instance sometimes deleting large chunks of their work. When reflecting on this phenomenon Dr Skipper notes that whilst it generally does not occur very often, it appears to be more prevalent in disadvantaged young people. When asked why they did this, the children typically said that their work is, “not good enough”. Dr Skipper believes that this response is motivated by two main issues. The first is the fear of not being perfect. Students do not want to write something which is not ‘great’ the first time. They do not see that writing is a process and it improves over time. The program leaders always talk to the writers about this, explaining that the first thing is to get ideas onto the page. It is much easier to edit and improve things once they exist, so feeling free to write the first draft without worrying about grammar, punctuation, or use of ‘wow’ words, can be very liberating. Secondly, students are tested so often in school that they may see this as a test, which will be judged by people beyond school, as the book, will be available online. They therefore want to create the best book possible. Whilst this high aspiration is important, it can be taken too far when the fear of what people will say can stop them from writing or cause them to delete things which are ‘not good enough’. The program leaders get around this by asking students “How many people do you know who have written a real book? And how many have done it in a week?”
Reminding the students of the challenge they have been set and that by completing it they have achieved something amazing (even if there is a mistake or two) helps them to feel brave. Having had these discussions with program leaders, all students have remained in the program and have worked on the text when it was returned to them (as all text is saved automatically as it is being written). These students – and their parents – have been among the proudest at the book signing events.
The Impact of the Program
As researchers, the leaders of the White Water Writers Program have sought to understand the impact of their program, and they use questionnaires, interviews and the writing of every writer. Their analyses of the questionnaire data indicated that there are improvements in self-belief, feelings of being in control and enjoyment of writing. The interviews point to potential longer-term benefits, including improved ability and enjoyment of writing as well as their capacity to analyse text as well as enhanced self-confidence.
Additionally, the books themselves can be very informative about their writers. In the books, because they are given free rein, the writers explore things which are important to them. The books deal with important issues like bullying, falling out with family, friendship, racism, and death. However, as the young writers are exploring these issues through characters rather than themselves, they can explore them in depth and with honesty. For example, the program’s most recent book was written by siblings of children with life limiting conditions. This book is called “Where is She?” In it, two sisters are lost in the jungle, one is kidnapped by the evil people and the other twin rallies a group of people to save her. Eventually they manage to escape the jungle and go home to their mum where the family live happily together. This story – which was developed entirely by the writers – allowed them to talk about how it felt when the sister was ‘taken’ and how much they wanted her back. Dr Skipper thinks that it allowed them to write the positive ending they wished they could have in real life.
To the leaders of the White Water Writers Program, one of the most positive outcomes of the project is in writers’ self-belief. Writing and publishing a book is a tall order, doing it in a week is verging on impossible. Yet by working hard the students achieve this monumental goal. This leads them to think about all the other things they can achieve. As one of their writers said
“This week we wrote a novel. A 300-page novel. A 31,507 word novel. This is something I never would have imagined. Let me repeat that: we, ten 3rd year students, have written a novel. We have worked together to WRITE A NOVEL. I can’t stress how amazing this is! This has honestly been the best week ever in school. But seriously, I have enjoyed it so much. I feel so much closer to everyone I worked with, and I’m really, really looking forward to being able to hold a novel that I have written. It’s been absolutely AMAZING!!!! And I will never say “I can’t” again.”
“We are teenagers that have done this and there’s nothing stopping you doing the same, just follow your dreams and you may go far. So … tell people about the project because it may make a difference to other people’s lives.”
Zoe (Year 10)
Authors displaying the books they authored through the White Water Writers Program.
Photo provided by: Dr Yvonne Skipper