Why I Love Collaborative Writing

Encouraging kids to enjoy writing can be tricky, but I’ve found that, sometimes, getting them writing together can help change their attitudes.

For the past nine years I have been running an international collaborative writing project, The Write Path*, which partners published children’s authors with young people all over the world. The Write Path runs over a week to two weeks. Authors contribute a story or poem starter, and each day six of these are added to the Write Path blog. The participating schools for that day work on continuing the six stories or poems. Schools have a maximum of an hour and a half to put continuations on to each of the stories. Completed stories are published in special books. To help students to prepare, there is a page on the website with suggested sites and apps for practice before the day – a dry run really helps to develop storytelling muscles and avoid the possibility of ‘writing yourself into a corner’.

It helps the students learn how to work with each other and respect one another’s ideas, and the timed element adds urgency to get their ideas down

I am online during the entire project for support and to help iron out any glitches that occur. Nothing is insurmountable: we even managed once when a school’s internet connection died. The teacher emailed the continuations to me from her mobile phone and then I added them for her!

If schools are working with younger groups they often work with a whole class of 30. I’m always blown away by the imaginative continuations the kids come up with. Even though our writers are all over the world, we often find that certain themes come up time after time - one year might be a zombie year or a vampire year. Sometimes we have giant jelly babies taking over, you just never know!

The benefits of collaborative writing

Collaborative writing can be a real boost to pupils’ self-esteem, which is why I typically recommend schools encourage shyer or struggling pupils to take part. Their contributions do not have to be very long; it's the experience of joining in that matters.

Writing collaboratively is challenging but very much enjoyed by the participants. It helps the students learn how to work with each other and respect one another’s ideas, and the timed element adds urgency to get their ideas down. Adapting to the different styles of other schools helps incredibly with pupils’ creative writing skills.

How it works: Wick High School

Ruan Peat, Network Librarian, High Life Highland, Wick High School has led groups of S1 pupils through the Write Path many times and has this to say about the project:

'I print out each story or poem and make sure they are complete so far, then I get the pupils into groups and read all the stories out and ask which group wants which story (or poem). With classes of nearly 30 we’ve often had 4 or even 5 per story, which hasn’t always been the best size of group to get done in a timely fashion. Time keeping is another challenge and I use my favourite item in the library, a very loud whistle, which helps to bring all back to focus!

My students find some aspects hard: following the previous groups is harder when the previous group is very good, and occasionally we get written into a corner or an end! But the idea of being part of an international writing pass the parcel is always the draw for them; adding some of their own ideas is so much fun.

I tend to type in all the entries and do a basic grammar and spelling check at that stage, otherwise it is untouched their own work which is one of the things they love when they look back. The finished book goes back to the class for a while first, and then is held in the library. The pupils who take part love looking back at their input!'

Pupil sitting at a computer, writing a collaborative story on Twitter
Using Twitter for collaborative writing

I started this project when I was a school librarian in an all-boys’ secondary school. Once I realised how much the boys enjoyed this collaborative way of writing, I applied the idea to other projects. On one World Book Day, I arranged with a group of overseas and UK colleagues to write a shared story via Twitter (you can see part of it here).

I opened a Twitter account and only allowed participants to follow it so it wouldn’t become too messy. First thing in the morning, I posted the first tweet, using the hashtag we had agreed. Throughout the day, different schools added their plot twists to the tale. We had taken the theme of a monster story, starting with a breathless chase, but this became rather surreal when our Croatian tweeters kept tweeting ‘and the birds they sang oh so sweetly’ - it was quite a challenge for the next tweeter to turn the story back in only 140 characters! I had thought to only open the story up to our S1 pupils, but when the older boys saw what was going on from the Twitter stream showing on the projector screen in the library, they were very keen to join in.

Older pupils: using collaborative writing to get to grips with Shakespeare

I’ve since used this with an older class that was studying As You Like It. I opened Twitter accounts for the main characters, then had students tweet the plots of key scenes. The English staff I worked with commented that this contributed to the highest ever marks in their end-of-term exams, and I believe they still use this idea to this day. When you finish your Twitter story you can group all of your tweets together using Storify to make the story more cohesive and easier to read.

Collaborative writing with younger pupils

I have often used a site called Storybird to allow younger children to work on story writing with a partner. The site is filled with beautiful artwork that you can choose from to prompt your imagination. Once you have decided which images to use you can create lovely picture books that you can either keep private or publish on the site for others to see. The idea is that children start to compose their story and then take turns with the writing by emailing the book link to each other. You can have completed books published for a small charge if you wish. Seeing their writing in a ‘proper’ book is very motivating for children and gives them a real pride in their work.

Collaborative writing can certainly help in school when trying to meet the Experiences and Outcomes given in the Curriculum for Excellence. For example, it helps pupils talk with others to share ideas and opinions, and helps them think carefully about selecting genre, form and style for a particular audience. To me, however, the biggest benefits of shared writing are the enjoyment it engenders and the eagerness that children show to put pen to paper (or mouse to screen!) in order to get their ideas down.

*The Write Path now has a new home at www.writepathint.com. Please do come and visit if you’re interested in hearing more or taking part in the project.

Check out our other creative writing blog posts for some more ideas or inspiration, or have a hunt through our creative writing resources! We've also just opened our national writing campaign, Nourish, which schools can take part in - find all the info here.

Bev Humphrey

Bev is a Literacy and Technology Consultant who also writes publications and web content for the School Library Association. Her latest publication is Amazing Apps for Primary Schools - check it out here.