Rules for Novice Writers

With only one exception, I’ve taught year 7 for every year in my career. This may not seem very remarkable in itself, but as a head of faculty, there is often pressure to teach only exam classes, or mostly KS4. But not for me. Every year I make sure, if possible, that I have some year 7. I think it’s important too. I want to see what the ‘new crop’ are capable of. I want to help to help make sure we’re setting the bar high enough from day one. I want to make sure it’s abundantly clear that year 7 is valued just as much as every other year.

After my new year 7s have settled in, I always try to get students to complete one, exceptional piece of creative writing as a ‘benchmark of brilliance’ – an idea stolen from Andy Tharby. And, whilst every year I am amazed at the staggering quality some of these young writers are capable of, there are always similar areas they need to work on. These areas help me construct my ‘rules’ for novice writers.

For some, ‘rules’ and ‘creativity’ may not seem natural bedfellows. My belief is that sensible constraints can actually help creativity flourish, as they force us to question our decisions in a more thoughtful, deliberate way. Not only this, but such constraints may help ease the burden on working memory when completing such a complex, difficult task as creative writing.

This year my year 7s were completing a writing task describing a single setting in two different seasons. After asking students what they valued when writing creatively, (always interesting when you have over 20 feeder schools!) I shared my advice based on my experience with year 7 writers.

  1. Try to write in the same tense consistently (normally past).
  2. Avoid the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘your’ when writing.
  3. Be very careful with similes. Avoid clichés.
  4. Vary your sentence openers, especially avoiding over use of ‘the’ and ‘as.’
  5. Avoid phrases like ‘all I could see/hear/smell.’
  6. Avoid simple ‘was’ statements. These tell the reader instead of showing them.

Of course, just sharing these principles with students won’t transform their writing. If only it were that simple. Instead, behind each principle is a series of thought processes and scaffolded activities to help my students’ writing. It’s during these activities that the rules start to take shape.

Let’s take principle (or rule) 6. I’ve written before about how students tend to rely too much on verbs like was, is, were, are, had and have in their creative writing. These verbs, all forms of ‘to be’, can be referred to as ‘copular’ verbs, or more simply verbs of being. They often apply simple adjectival qualities to nouns, and they crop up everywhere in novice writing:

  • The atmosphere in the stadium was amazing
  • The theme park was packed
  • The park was covered with snow
  • The children were all playing

I can see why these patterns occur so often. If your teacher is asking you to describe the theme park, or the atmosphere in a stadium, the sentences above seem like the obvious answers. But, they state things too simply and don’t help the reader picture what is actually being described. With the introduction of a simple rule, we can force students to think in more abstract and interesting ways:

Sentence:  The park  was peaceful

Rewrite this sentence. Show me the park was peaceful. The words ‘was’, ‘were’ and ‘peaceful’ are banned.

After much consternation, a few muted protests, and some direction towards different verbal choices, all of my students were able to create more interesting sentences. Here’s one example:

In the isolated park, huge trees welcomed me, while the sun created delicate shadows of fluttering birds.

After this example was shared, we unpicked the sentence exploring how this student was able to subtly create a feeling of peace through interesting vocabulary choices. As a class, we came to these conclusions:

  1. ‘Isolated’ could make the park seem sinister on its own, but it works alongside other words to create a different tone.
  2. The adjectives  ‘fluttering’ and ‘delicate’ help create a gentle, peaceful atmosphere.
  3. The verb ‘welcomed’ personifies the trees, adding to the peace.

This led to a further activity. Students were asked to write 1-2 words which would describe the mood they were hoping to create in each season, foregrounding the idea that we needed to create a specific tone in our writing. For instance:

Winter: unpredictable and unwelcoming.

Summer: friendly and bright.

After, students were asked to list three nouns or objects in their setting, alongside five verbs and five adjectives they could use to help create their chosen mood. Example:


sun, grass, a stream

vivid, bright, soft, rippling, welcoming

flow, glow, cascade, fluctuate, sway

Students then drafted a description of one of their seasons, with several rules in place, based on the principles I shared above.

These activities, I hope, helped enable students to see the wider purpose of what might initially seem like an arbitrary rule. The rule bans ‘was’ statements; the lesson is about how writers manipulate vocabulary and grammar together to create tone in subtle ways. The former forces students to consider the latter.

There was one student (there’s always one!) who asked about the deliberate use of ‘was’ for effect, or in conjunction with deliberate repetition. Clearly, they had a really astute point. Rules are important, and they can help students write very well indeed. My ultimate goal, however, is for my young writers to know the rules so well, that they can manipulate them for effect, choosing which rules to break and which to follow.

Thanks for reading.




3 thoughts on “Rules for Novice Writers

  1. Fabulous post. I wish my daughter had you as an English teacher, but I’m not sure I could manage commuting her from Bucks to Bristol (according to your ‘about me’ page) while working full-time AND writing! I’m talking about a child who’s challenging, not in a bad way, in a way that means she feels held back by the curriculum and restricted by having to tootle along with everybody else. Admittedly, she’s only just started her new school, so maybe she’ll be able to flourish among her new peers.

    I’ll certainly be sharing this post with her because you’re both singing from the same sheet—she regularly helps to edit my writing and goes on about connective this and conjunctive that, not forgetting the time she told me I had a connective verb in my embedded cause, or something like that. It completely blew my mind and I’m just starting my second Masters degree!

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