How to show students your writing process in real time

This post explains some of the fears that come with modeling writing for students and describes a tool that lets you share your process, keystroke by keystroke.


Have you ever stood in front of a class of 25 teenagers with a pencil in your hand and constructed an argument in favor of raising the minimum wage?

Or have you sat at the computer with your screen projected for the class to see as you write the opening of a narrative about the time you disappointed a friend?

It’s not easy.

But after reading Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts a few years ago, I knew that writing in front of students would help to demystify the writing process and help them improve.

What Gallagher says about real-world writing

Simple solutions to complex problems are great. I find that Kelly Gallagher’s two suggestions for how to build real-world writers incredibly simple, though not easy. He says teachers should:

  • Give students the chance to write in “real-world discourses”
  • Give students lots of models of good writing–both from ourselves and others

Reflecting on his experience teaching writing, he shares this wisdom:

When my students see me wrestling with decisions as my writing unfolds, it gives them insight on how to compose their own pieces. I don’t tell them how to draft their papers; I show them how I draft my papers. I am the best writer in the room, and as such, I need to show them how I grapple with this mysterious thing we call writing. You are the best writer in your room; your students need to stand next to you and see how you struggle with the process as well.

As anyone whose ever tried to build a habit learns, knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it are different.

After what must be close to 100 times or more of composing in front of students, the fear has lessened, but there’s still always the risk of having a tough audience for that day.

Students have talked over me, put their heads down or looked quizzically at me while I model a writing task. Other students have made breakthroughs after watching me write in the genre that they are working.

Some get it, and it’s clear that it helps them. Some show a face that says, “Can you just let us get to work?”

Despite the challenges or fears that come with writing in front of students, I know that modeling the process and providing good feedback are the best ways to help student writers improve.

While writing in front of students is valuable in the right situation and for the appropriate time duration, sometimes students need to see a finished product and see how the writer got there.

This is where Draftback comes in.

Draftback is a Google Doc add-on that allows you to play back every keystroke that you’ve recorded in any of your Google Docs. Yes, I know, it’s kind of creepy that every key stroke you’ve made is saved by Google, but it’s also powerful.

James Somers, the programmer who created Draftback, has an appreciation for the writing process, which led him to build this useful tool. He talks about his fascination with his favorite writers, such as John McPhee and Ernest Hemingway, and he wonders about the “archaeology” of their writing. He writes:

But what if you could actually see these guys at work? Isn’t it a shame you can’t?

I worry that most people aren’t as good writers as they should be. One thing is that they just don’t write enough. Another is that they don’t realize it’s supposed to be hard; they think that good writers are talented, when the truth is that good writers get good the way good programmers get good, the way good anythings get good: by running into the spike. Maybe folks would understand that better if they had vivid evidence that a good writer actually spends most of his time fighting himself.

After trying the tool out, I notice that I spend most of my time fighting myself, too. Constant deletions, backtracks, re-wordings. Hardly the fast-flowing, free write that I imagine happening and encourage students to pursue.

So modeling writing in this way adds a new layer of depth, because it allows the writing teacher to gain insights into his or her own process through watching the playback of the writing, and then share these insights with the students as they watch the teacher’s or their own playbacks.

Using Draftback to show students my writing process has me thinking about the various ways that teachers model writing. I’ve tried:

  • Writing in front of students from scratch while thinking aloud about the process.
  • Planning out my writing in advance, then sort of pretending to write it from scratch.
  • Creating a finished product, sharing it with students, then re-writing part of it in front of the class while thinking aloud.
  • Presenting a finished product to students and discussing it as a class.

Each of these ideas scaffolds the writing process in a different way.  Of all the above options listed, none seem to work as well as using Draftback because it allows me to write a full piece, then go back and show students both the full piece and the process I used to create it.

In this case the students were working on “Going from prose to poetry.” This is a process I first learned of from Jim Mahoney, author of Power and Portfolios, my former professor and a mentor.

Here’s a link to the draft I typed in front of one class, then used Draftback to show to another class.

The students followed these steps:

  1. Find a photograph or painting related to their research topic.
  2. Spend five minutes free writing about the image from an established perspective (either as themselves or someone in the image)
  3. Re-read the writing, looking for distinct images.
  4. Transform the writing into poetry by breaking the lines where new images occur, deleting excess words and adding vivid description where possible.

Students may struggle with this task because it involves an especially challenging final step of visualizing how the writing might be transformed into a poem and where strategic edits and revisions can be made.

So, by demonstrating the process of removing entire lines, rewording a line to make it more precise, reordering the words in a sentence, and breaking the sentences up into lines and stanzas, students see the “moves” that a writer can make, and they may gain a better understanding of how to use these moves in their own work.

It doesn’t work magically, and I know that I was more excited about using this tool than the students were; however, I do think that students benefited from seeing the writing process for one writer demystified, from start to finish.

How have you shown students your creative process? Do you model the writing process in front of students from scratch? Reply in the comments.

4 thoughts on “How to show students your writing process in real time

  1. Awesome stuff Gerard!

    Creating a screencast using Draftback looks like it would be a great way to create blended lessons. I have lots of students who would benefit from watching my writing process. I also have some students who would rather dive in and learn from trial and error instead of watching me, and I think that’s okay too. I’ll try this out next year.

    I love this particular lesson. I did a lesson like this when I was in high school and it has stuck with me ever since (and it’s been nearly 20 years). I haven’t made time to do one like this with my own students, but I think I’ll plan out a poetry unit this summer where I can do this with my kids too.

    • gerard.dawson1@gmail.com

      Hey Zack,

      You make a point that I totally agree with–someone students will benefit and some prefer to learn through their own process, not the teacher’s.

      I’ve been experimenting with sharing videos/resources in a folder with students that they can access as needed, instead of doing specific lessons in class for everyone, or assigning specific videos to watch for homework.

      Glad to hear this brings back memories of your own high school days, and it’s also cool that the lesson stuck with you twenty years later. As I mentioned, check out Jim Mahoney’s Power and Portfolios for some more on the prose to poetry lesson.

      Thanks for reading, Zack.

  2. I have always struggled with writing in front of students, but as you’ve shared, it is so important for them to see this process of thinking, tweaking, changing, etc. I often give kids the go-ahead to start writing if they’d like, or look up to see what I’m doing.

    I really like this lesson plan! Thank you for sharing!

    • gerard.dawson1@gmail.com

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Anne.

      That point about giving students the option to begin writing if they’d like or look up to watch is a good one.

      I’ll be honest, as I hinted at in the post, sometimes I get offended when the students aren’t watching me write, then the realization hits: maybe the help isn’t needed today.

      Glad you found the post useful. Thanks again.

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