Zero to 60: Volume in Writing

From zero to sixty in just under a minute?  Sure, its no record if you’re a race car driver.  But for words on a page, 60 wpm ain’t too shabby.

With a focus on workshop as our instructional model this year, a trend is emerging.  With the  structures of Daily Five lifted out of the reading workshop, students are left with little to do during reading but read.   With flash drafts and regular re-visioning as a mainstay in the writing workshop, students are left with little else to do during writing but write.

Which invites the question:  How much is enough?  We can turn to Allington and many others to be certain that the more we read, the better readers we become.  And we can imagine the same is true about writing.  But how do we know?

How do we make volume visible?   

I first considered volume critically when Pathways to the Common Core (2012) advocated–as do the Teachers College Units of Study–for sixth-graders to compose between 1-1/2 and 2 pages in a single sitting.

I dug a little deeper to find that what was expected in Standards for Writing was this amount of work, yes, but in keyboard proficiency so as to measure the speed with which students could transfer a handwritten draft to the screen.

That was the end of my journey in considering volume in writing at the time, knowing that keyboarding–and with it  memories of my junior-high typing class–is so very different than writing.  

Writing, with thought, vision, re-thought, re-vision, is often the enemy of word count.  To say I was cautious in carrying this information forward was an understatement.  I did not do not want fluency with the written word to be confused for true composition the way fluency for the read word has been confused for true comprehension. 

Then this summer, I began to work toward completion of a few writing pieces of my own.  My days alternated between writing and avoiding writing, some days getting words on the page to make space for more ideas in my mind and some days getting more ideas in my mind, which would lead to more words on the page.  The days I felt most writer-like were the ones where the words covered page upon page upon page.  Yes, many–Stephen King, Anne Lamott and many more included–will insist that the amount of time your butt is in a chair is positively correlated to productive writing.

I began to keep track of my word counts and fell in love with watching other writers do the same.  Writers like Linda Sue Park tweet out their successful sprints and their radical revisions.

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I watch as word counts climb and fall, some days showing in the black, others in the red.

At some point, it is essential that words hit the page regardless of their order, their origin, their craft or their creativity.  The words must hit the page, and often they come in sprints.  Lucy Calkins calls it “flash drafting,” writing long and strong.  Anne Lamott calls it–among other things–the “down draft” before you work to “fix it up,” a “child’s draft.”

And so we return to our question:  How much is enough?  In one sitting?  How much?  Is it acceptable to ask sixth graders to write more than the half page they are currently producing in a single sitting?

This is exactly the question that came up in our PLC a few weeks ago.  After a few days of flash drafting, the most any student had written was around 140 words in a half-hour.  Is that enough?  Well, let’s see.  That equates to about five words per minute, a word on the page every 12 seconds.  Is that enough?  We’re asking for more, but most aren’t even to a half-page yet, so when they write a half-page, we’re happy.  But should we be?

How much would we write if we were set to flash a down draft?  Before I knew it, my teammate set the timer and we were, all three of us, writing a child’s draft of a personal narrative.  Even disoriented by the fact that I was the last one to start writing, I was still able to compose 60 words in under a minute.  As a team, our totals ranged between that and 35 words.

And here we were, all three of us, satisfied with a mere fraction.  No, it is not enough.  And now it is clear why.

If students are to get better at writing, one of our obstacles is that students simply aren’t writing enough.  We talked about ways to pump up the volume, using quickwrites to help students develop habits of mind for gaining and maintaining momentum in their writing.  Sure, they–like us–might not be able to keep this pace up for a half-hour, but what could we expect if students were taught how to get going and keep going in their writing on days when flash drafting was the expectation (and make no mistake, I am the first to say that this is not an everyday event, though I do wonder where I’d be in my own writing life if I gave myself over to this kind of sprinting daily, the way they invite me to do on Facebook in the Colorado Writers Group).

The goal is now set at 600 words in a half-hour; an average of 20 words per minute and equating to about 1-1/2 pages of writing in a single sitting.

Is that realistic?  Well, having sat here for nearly forty minutes, I have added 705  words to the draft of this blog which I started last night in a brief sprint before bed, penning only 193 words to the screen before turning in for the night.  I know that I will need to trim it down, will need to go back to my vision and re-vision a few key pieces, but it is possible.  Why? Because I made it so.  I did not get up to go to the bathroom, enjoy a second brownie or even get a drink–though now that I think about it, I am parched and needing–no, not until I get to the end.  I will sit here and write until I have said what needs to be said, until the download of ideas is complete.  And I can tell we’re getting close.

Volume.  At times, thoughtful volume.  Looking back at that last paragraph, sometimes haphazard volume.  Volume for the sake of learning what Jeff Anderson describes as motion.  For learning what Ralph Fletcher has been telling us for years:

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Ultimately, and essentially, writers must write.

Today was a day for that.  Not everyday, but today.  Flash drafted, albeit rough.  Down drafted, albeit rotten. Nonetheless. I want this for our young writers, for them to know the key to writing better is often found with our butts in the chair.

Now we have a working definition of volume.  We know how much is enough.  We know because we tried it.  As teachers.  As writers. We know.


Read the next blog to hear how our fifth grade team took this conversation one step further.

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