Eight Cards, Ten Minutes: A Writing Exercise

Today, I gave a workshop on using creative nonfiction in first-year composition. The exercise I came up with seems to work. Try it in your own classroom, or use it to generate your own writing.

What follows was originally meant for the beginning writer who has trouble organizing ideas, getting started, finding something interesting to write about–all the usual freshman comp puzzles. Students love it when you “break it down” for them. I’m assuming the usual personal narrative first essay. If you want to talk about what constitutes creative nonfiction, you can do that as an introduction and give them a few excerpts from good writers.

For the pedagogically-minded, this approach turns intimidating little index cards into manipulables. However, you can use it with advanced students and for your own writing.

Everyone who attended this workshop is a fairly advanced creative writer. They ran with the exercise, generated some great new work, and we all brainstormed ways to apply this technique to creative writing (for example, substituting various literary devices or craft points for the 5W+H on the small cards). Later, I explained the process to a doctoral student who’s having trouble with her dissertation. She was excited based on the description alone and said she would try it, too.

You’ll need a timer or a watch/clock that counts seconds. Each writer will need eight cards: six 3×5, one 4×6, and one 5×8. The number of cards is not set in stone; you can adapt it to your needs. I say six small cards because I ask beginning writers to consider the reporter’s 5W+H (who, what, when, where, why, how) as part of this exercise. However, I make them save the “Why” card for last.

Ask students not to talk during the exercise and not to race ahead to the next card. Explain they will have one minute to write on each card. Then, ask them to think of a place, a time, a sensation that they enjoyed. Ask them to go back in their minds to that time and place and observe it. Give them a minute or so to think.

Next, have them fill out the WHO card–who’s there? Anyone else? After one minute, have them turn that card face down. Repeat this process for the WHAT, WHEN, and WHERE cards.

Then, have them set aside the WHY card. Do the HOW card first. Then do the WHY card. They may seem puzzled. That’s OK. Beginning writers are hair-trigger ready to tell you why this or that happened before examining the people and situations involved. They won’t realize it, but they’ve already begun their research by analyzing the basic elements of their story. How something happens often leads to larger synthesis of why it happened. By doing the WHY card last, students have to weigh the scene relatively objectively before passing judgment on its players.

Now, you can play with these cards–mix them all up, rearrange the order, perhaps even swap cards with other students if you’re using this in a creative writing workshop. Ask the writers to look at their cards and pick a favorite. That’s going to be the hook for their essay. Based on that card, have them write one and only one sentence on the big card.

Because beginning writers often need to exorcise cliché and vague language, have them use the medium-sized card to collect concrete, descriptive words that might work on the small cards. (The advanced writers were drooling to write their paragraphs by this point, so we skipped that step. Your mileage may vary.)

Then, give the students five minutes to write a paragraph on the big card. When time’s up, ask for volunteers to read what they’ve written if they feel comfortable doing so.

Handout excerpt:

“…in less than ten minutes, you’ve generated new writing; you’ve brainstormed; you’ve outlined; you’ve created a system of organization; you’ve quite possibly developed a thesis statement; you’ve opened the door for further inquiry through research and observation; and you’ve developed a focus for a piece of writing you actually want to do.

“This is good for an in-class writing exercise. It’s also good for students who have trouble with sequencing ideas or writer’s block.

“Also, by putting your ideas on cards, you’ve created tangible objects that you can move around, tape to the wall, tack on your forehead, whatever works for you.”

I got the idea for this approach thinking about how I’ve used Post-Its as a low-tech, tangible, portable editing tool. I’ve used digital cluster diagramming software, but sometimes I just want a little less techno-mediation between my brain and my writing process. I’ve shown students how to use Post-Its in this way; they always find it helpful and I’ve seen them take enormous leaps shortly thereafter.

I also had to study on the run because I worked full-time during most of my undergraduate career. I always had flashcards or a folded-up photocopy of the assigned reading in my back pocket. Every time I went for coffee, had to walk to another part of the building, rode the train, or went to the bathroom, I had those cards handy. (I like to joke that I earned my B.A. in the ladies’ room at CNN.) As card-carrying students, your writers will gain valuable time management and study skills.

You can also do things like have students post the day’s cards on a course management site for your records, for a grade, for safekeeping. You can offer a private area for some cards of their choosing and a public area for others. Let them keep their cards. That’s their writing, not yours. Don’t pick up the cards to check; definitely don’t edit the cards; and don’t grade the cards as anything but participation. Respect the cards!

The premise here is that writers write because it makes them happy on some level (see T.R. Johnson‘s ideas about writing as pleasure). Happy writers get started writing by doing several tasks in a certain order. First, we collect bits of string or a few quick sketches. Then, we browse our treasures until we pick up one to play with. Next, we write down that idea before it floats away. Next, we shape the idea quickly–weave in more bits of string, shade in small details. We are surprised and delighted when we realize we’ve created something.

Kenneth Achity in The Writer’s Time has a lot to say about the “Managing Editor,” and anyone who teaches college composition is familiar with Mina Shaughnessy’s landmark Errors and Expectations. Freshman composition is enormously stressful for both student and instructor. This exercise separates the editing process from the proofreading process, and both from the act of creation.

You can tell beginning writers to revise; you can show them how; you will get identical printouts (as opposed to revisions); you will grade the same paper twice without the students having bothered to read your comments or make any corrections.

Or, you can give them a stack of index cards and make every class meeting a productive writing session. You can move around the room and help the stragglers, You can watch your students take responsibility for their own writing. You can, indeed, have fun.

Once you show your students how to write on their own, they’ll be able to generate decent first drafts. By the end of their first week in class, they should have a decent first draft, one in which they are invested, one that they might want to edit and proofread, one that makes both them and you happy writers. I’m interested in anything that helps students revise. Eight Cards in Ten Minutes gets them started.

If you try it, please let me know how you adapted it and how it went. You can leave a comment here and I’ll repost it. (I moderate the blog to keep out spam, so please excuse any minor delay between submission and reposting.) I’m collecting feedback for a book on this process and will acknowledge all contributors.

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