Graves on the Craft of Writing

The teaching of writing demands the control of two crafts, teaching and writing. They can neither be avoided, nor separated. The writer who knows the craft of writing can’t walk into a room and work with students unless there is some understanding of the craft of teaching. Neither can teachers who have not wrestled with writing, effectively teach the writer’s craft.

We don’t find many teachers of oil painting, piano, ceramics, or drama who are not practitioners in their fields. Their students see them in action in the studio. They can’t teach without showing what they mean. There is a process to follow. There is a process to learn. That’s the way it is with a craft, whether it be teaching or writing. There is a road, a journey to travel, and there is someone to travel with us, someone who has already made the trip.

More needs to be said about the crafts. Why are they crafts? How are writing and teaching defined as crafts?

A craft is a process of shaping material toward an end. There is a long, painstaking, patient process demanded to learn how to shape material to a level where it is satisfying to the person doing the crafting. Both craft processes, writing and teaching, demand constant revision, constant reseeing of what is being revealed by the information in hand; in one instance the subject of the writing, in another the person learning to write. The craftsperson is a master follower, observer, listener, waiting to catch the shape of the information.

The craftsperson looks for differences in the material, the surprise, the explosion that will set him aback. Surprises are friends, not enemies. Surprises mean changes, whole new arrangements, new ways to revise, refocus, reshape. But the craftsperson is not in a hurry. Surprises are enemies of time constraints. Surprises are enemies of control. For when information or children present them with a surprise, the surprise has force and energy. They want the child to control, take charge of information in his writing. Their craft is to help the child to maintain control for himself. That is the craft of teaching. They stand as far back as they can observing the child’s way of working, seeking the best way to help the child realize his intentions. …

The following [are] fundamentals … in the teaching of writing:

  1. Children need to choose most of their own topics. But we need to show them all the places writing comes from, that it is often triggered by simple everyday events.
  2. Children need regular response to their writing from both the teacher and other readers.
  3. Children need to write a minimum of three days out of five. Four or five days are ideal.
  4. Children need to publish, whether by sharing, collecting, or posting their work.
  5. Children need to hear their teacher talk through what she is doing as she writes on the overhead or the chalkboard. In this way the children witness their teacher’s thinking.
  6. Children need to maintain collections of their work to establish a writing history. Collections show that history when they are used as a medium for evaluation.

Writing as Craft

There is a process to nine-year-old Brian’s writing. It has all the elements of a craft. He gets ready, rehearses for his subject, “Gray Squirrels in New Hampshire,” by reading, talking with friends and the teacher, and taking notes. But he does not impose his decisions on the material too quickly. Rather, he goes through many drafts; in this instance eight, to find out the truth about gray squirrels in New Hampshire. Brian puts his particular stamp on the material when he revises, selects what he thinks is the most important information, writes in the first person to strengthen his voice, cuts and pastes material to get the right organization. Brian talks about his own composing of the squirrel piece:

At first I read through a whole chapter and I got a whole bunch of information in my head, and then I checked in a tiny encyclopedia and there was a little paragraph about squirrels and I found little bits of information like, they eat (reads more from notes). Then I make out topics on top of the pages. I kept on thinking, “Is there one more topic I should put?” and now I have five:

And I wonder if it is too many, but I have a lot of information so now I think it is OK. So I am going to at least look in two more books before I start my drafts because I need more information.


where they are found



what they do year ’round

Brian also shares how the information will be used from his own experience:

They live in trees and I once found a little hole with acorns when I was climbing a tree and me and my sister stuffed a lot of acorns in the hole so they’d have things to eat in the winter—I’ll write about that.

Later, when Brian is writing, he gives us a feel for his composing as he discusses his drafting:

I read over draft one, then I made the fourth draft into the first draft and the third draft into the fourth draft into the first draft. I just taped them all together. I took some things out, and put in two chapters—more than two—four.

1. I Meet the Squirrel
2. A Token of Appreciation
3. Squirrel in the Night
4. The Difference

Brian’s paper was a long patchwork of bits and pieces of drafts that had all been put together with scotch tape. Later, Brian speaks about an information change after he was bitten by a squirrel:

I had to change that part—I found out I had to get vaccine shots, not get the rabies out. I didn’t know that much about rabies so I looked them up—and I found out about how it used to be fatal until a man discovered . . .

Brian listens to his information, changes, cuts, pastes, reorganizes and shapes his material toward an end. He goes through a lengthy process of reading, taking notes, sorting, reseeing, rereading, crossing out information, reading for more information, repasting his orders, changing words. Brian grows in control of his craft over a five-week period of persistent, self-directed searching for the best way to write his selection about gray squirrels.

Graves, Donald H. 2003. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, pp. 5, xii, 6-8. || Amazon