The rules we established and stuck to for our no-pressure group:
1. The girls could bring anything they wanted: a story, a novel in progress, an essay written for a school assignment, a book review...anything. It could be a first draft or something they'd polished.
2. After each reading, the first reaction from listeners must be positive and encouraging: what they liked about the piece, a description, an intriguing character or plot development they admired. Then we could move on to other constructive criticism, ask questions, or share ideas.
3. When we finished the discussion, the girls headed off for lunch while I re-read the papers and offered ideas via my trusty red pen.
4. The last rule: Don't Be Afraid of the Red Pen. I assured the girls the red pen was their friend.
The most important thing for young writers to understand is that rough drafts are called rough for a reason. I don't want my suggestions and corrections to discourage them, so I stressed that edits don't mean, "Wow, you're a bad writer! Look at all the marks I had to make!" I wanted them to understand that the better the writing, the more they would see my red pen (because as their writing improved they were giving me more to work with.) If I taught them only one thing about writing, I wanted it to be that the real work of writing is in the revision. I told them I became a real writer the day I realized a great editor was my friend and biggest asset.
Our writing group became the highlight of our week. The girls shared silly stories, serious stuff, novels (completed and abandoned), essays, history reports, and stories composed entirely of inside jokes. Some weeks we dug around for a writing prompt and the girls all wrote stories for the following week based on that prompt. Sometimes we went out for hot chocolate, because all writers need to hit the coffee house now and then.
These days, our little writing group is made up of Ramona, another 14 year old, and a twelve year old. The basic rules are the same, and hopefully the kindliness of the red pen is still understood. We've also added a couple of things to our weekly itinerary.
After the girls share the stories they've brought, we do a freewrite. I usually use Julie Bogart's prompts from her Friday Freewrite.
When I first introduced freewriting to Ramona's group, they wrote for only two minutes. Completely unintimidating, and they were excited to do it. I told them that the only rule about what they wrote was that they had to keep writing until the timer went off. (Julie thoroughly explains the process of a freewrite here.) Kids love having permission to write stuff like, "I can't think of anything to write...I am blank...Ramona is laughing while she's writing...I am hungry." After a few freewrites, we extended the time to 6-10 minutes, depending on the prompt.
Last week, I pulled a random prompt from a different site instead of using one of Julie's. The prompt was, "The happiest moment of my life." I always do the freewrite along with the girls, and when we finished, I told them, "I don't know about you, but this was the most boring freewrite I've ever done. The last thing I wrote before the timer went off was, 'This is so stupid.'" The girls thought that was hilarious and it prompted good discussion about writing in general, zeroing in on concrete details, and trying to write about broad, bland topics.
The girls' favorite freewrite from last semester was this one from Brave Writer:
I slowly opened my eyes. Moonlight streaked across my blanket. I turned over and hoped to drift back to sleep. But…what was that sound? Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. Was it coming from under my bed?! I…We came up with such fun stories. Mine was about finding a trap door under the bed, and descending the stairs to ... I don't know where yet, but now I want to write that story.
The other new thing we added this year was at the girls' suggestion. One of Ramona's friends suggested the girls write and bring a haiku every week. I thought rather than having one more thing to bring to the group, it might be fun to write the haiku while we were together. So now we each write a haiku that pulls together details from each of the stories the girls brought that week.
~~~~~Final writing group note:
Last week, one of the girls brought a story about zebras. Then we all wondered what a herd of zebras is called, so, we looked it up.
A dazzle of zebras.
Made my day.
But then, writing group always makes my day.