“Beautiful messiness”

An extract from a case study by Jenny Phillips, trainee teacher in English at Greensward Academy:

Professor Debra Myhill, Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, writes in her April 2018 Teachers as Writers blog:

“[The] process of moving from ideas in the head, to words on a page, through to a finished piece is a messy process, or a recursive process, as the cognitive psychologists would term it…       Young writers in school need rich opportunities to experiment, be messy, and to play around with words and ideas in a classroom context which fosters reflection on what has been written, and models possibilities for revising texts.”

Inspired by what Debra calls this “beautiful messiness” my case study describes the journey in creative writing made by my year 8 pupils.

Andy Tharby, in his excellent book ‘Making every English Lesson Count’ also tries to unpick the tricky process of teaching and assessing writing. The key message I took from his chapter on teaching writing, was the importance of providing students with the input first – in terms of inspiration and information – before expecting any sort of quality output in terms of creative writing. With this in mind, I planned a series of creative writing lessons which would first bombard the students with an audio-visual plethora of information about barn owls: documentaries about barn owls (we loved the language in Rob Macfarlane’s BBC documentary on Essex wildlife); close-up photographs of barn owls; rich vocabulary lists for every aspect of the barn own; and poetry about (guess what) barn owls (courtesy of R.S. Thomas).

barn owl

By the time we came to writing our descriptive piece, the students were primed with information and vocabulary ready for them to use and adapt. They had had chance to listen to, to speak, to adapt, to process and to enjoy the language. Words and phrases floated like dust in the air of the classroom – written on the board, noted in their books, ringing in their ears – all they had to do was reach out and choose one to make their own.

Half way through the first lesson, we were ready to write. Firstly, we talked through a checklist for descriptive writing, and I modelled the thought process for planning a piece of descriptive writing. Then, rather than setting them off immediately with their writing, I explained that we were going to slow things down and take it step by step.

Marshall and Wiliam (2006) emphasise the importance of providing feedback to students at the point of writing, when there is still some possibility of making changes. They argue that the process of peer review and evaluation of a variety of writing, is vital to help pupils build their own critical judgements about writing.

With this in mind, I gave the students a really boring, uninspired sentence or two about the owl (The owl was flying. It was putting its wings out very wide) and asked them to copy it down, and then improve it. Then we paused, to reflect on the word choices made, the intended effect, and the measure of success achieved.

Two more ‘sick’ sentences (Its face was round and white. Its eyes were black.) but this time, a chance to share their work, and add their partner’s feedback to their own.

Finally, as though released from a trap, they sprung forward to begin their descriptions, taking their initial ideas and improving them further, crafting them into a vivid and imaginative opening paragraph. Holding them back, made them more eager and they worked hard until the shrill bell broke the spell.

The following lesson, we began by reading aloud some of our writing to the class, and offering verbal feedback – both praise and constructive feedback – before completing the descriptions. The final stage was for students to look back at the checklist for descriptive writing, and decide which of the criteria they had achieved. They also highlighted what they felt to be their most successful sentence.

After a two week interval, the students wrote a second piece of descriptive writing. This time they did it cold, in assessment conditions, with just a picture of a kestrel for inspiration. Nearly all of the class remembered to make a plan for each paragraph before writing, and it was clear to see that they were striving to remember and include some of the more ambitious sentence forms and vocabulary choices.

It has been interesting to compare the progress each of them has made with their creative writing, as a result of this intensive input and slow, thoughtful, beautifully messy process of editing and reflecting. This episode is, of course, only one tiny step along the path to becoming confident and competent creative writers, but the work produced does indicate that the students made some progress in this area.


Marshall, B. and Wiliam, D. (2006) English inside the black box: assessment for learning in the English classroom. London: GL Assessment.

Myhill, D. (2018) Teachers as Writers Blog http://www.teachersaswriters.org/general/writing-and-rewriting/ Accessed April 2018

Tharby, A. (2017) Making Every English Lesson Count: Six principles to support great reading and writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s