“I’m getting a little bit concerned about my daughter,” a mother I know recently confided. “She spends hours in her room working on a novel that she’s convinced she will publish one day.” I looked at her for a moment, waiting for her to realize what she just said. Then, we both erupted into a fit of laughter, agreeing that there were worse things for a teenager to spend hours doing. Then, she shared her real concern. “I’m afraid that when she shares this with other people, they are going to realize that she basically lifted the plot line.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Her story,” she clarified, “it sounds a whole lot like Twilight.”
I wasn’t surprised. The truth was, at least three of the writers I was working with at the time were composing stories that were heavily influenced by Twilight. And the Harry Potter series. And Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, especially when we’re just beginning to learn or do something new.
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t worry so much about that. In my experience, this is how a lot of writers start,” I explained. “In fact, the first thing I ask kids to do once they’ve determined what their purposes might be is to go on a treasure hunt and dig up some examples of what they’d like to do.”
“You mean you have them read other people’s stuff before they write their own?” she asked.
“Yeah, I often do,” I said. “Particularly if they are struggling to start and often when they hit a patch of writer’s block once they’re drafting. Sometimes, I even suggest they try a write-like.”
“A write-like?” she laughed. “Do you mean you invite them to practice copyright infringement?”
“Not at all. What I mean is that I ask them to read a lot of the examples of the stuff they want to produce with a good amount of depth before they dive in and find themselves drowning. They need to figure out what the genre is all about, and if they plan to mash different genres or media together, looking at what others have done can provide them a muse or two. They need to see what is possible first. Then, if they are still lacking confidence, I have them pick the writer whose voice or work they like the best, and I have them try to copy-cat them a bit.”
“But isn’t that wrong?” she asked.
“Not if they are honest about what they are doing, and not if they credit those who inspired them. Using mentor texts and models is not about copying another writer’s work. It’s about using it to inspire our own ideas, get a feel for what quality could look like, and craft our own plans. This is what many writers do. Much of what we do is a remix.
I’m remembering when Sam and his brother Matt and their friend, Vincent decided that they wanted to create and publish a field game at Studio. Their first step involved brainstorming an objective for the game and getting out onto the field to test their instructions as they played the game. This part of the process unfolded easily for them, but their energy waned a bit when it came time to create a written playbook of instructions. Exploring models helped them persevere through this tough spot.
First, the boys gathered the playbooks and instruction manuals for their favorite games. I brought in some of my own as well. Then, they began defining how they compared and what distinguished them as unique, page by page. Finally, they used their discoveries to create their own graphic organizer for the playbook they would design. Exploring the work of the great game designers who came before them helped them understand what quality could look like, what the essential components of their playbook might need to be, and where they could take greater license with their own ideas.
“We HAVE to make sure we tell people what the objective of the game is,” Vincent explained.
“Yeah,” Sam agreed. “But I want our playbook to be more interesting than the ones Mrs. Stockman showed us. Can we make people use funny words when they play our game? Can we include a dictionary of them or something?”
“I want our playbook to look like a lightning bolt!” Matt said. “Can we make it fold that way?”
“Uh, I think so,” Vincent said, examining their draft. “But the front HAS to include the name of the game, the age of the players, and something that will make people want to play it. Otherwise, they’ll be confused.”
“It has to be colorful too!” Sam suggested. And they were off.
Interested in trying a write-like? Find some solid examples of texts that align to your writing interests and the forms you hope to pursue as a writer. Ask the writers you serve to do the same. Model the ways in which you read like a writer as you explore multiple examples of the same form. Show them how to study the following elements, and as they do so, encourage them to consider and share alternative approaches as well. Consider what you would add to this list of prompts as well. They will shift, depending on each writer’s purpose.
- The way writers hook readers into their texts: how do they grab their readers’ interest? How do they keep it?
- The way writers organize, develop, and share their ideas: what is the purpose of each piece? How does organization support purpose? What makes the writer’s ideas and the way they organize the text interesting and effective? How will they connect with their audience? What makes this effective?
- The way writers help readers navigate their text: what are the different features of each text, and how do they assist readers in making meaning?
- The way writers craft word choice, sentence structure, and conventions: how do these choices establish mood? How do they influence voice? How do they help readers see and hear and taste and smell and feel the setting, the events, the emotions or the experiences that are conveyed by the writer?
- Perspective and point of view: who is speaking? Why? How would the piece be different if it was told from a different point of view?
- The use of image, sound, and varied forms of media: how does purpose influence the way the writer uses these forms? How are they connected? How do transitions between forms occur? What makes this effective?