“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Her story,” she clarified, “it sounds a whole lot like Divergent.”
I wasn’t surprised. The truth was, at least three of the writers I was working with at the time were composing stories that were heavily influenced by The Hunger Games. And the Harry Potter series. And Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, especially when we’re just beginning to learn or do something new.
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t worry so much about that. In my experience, this is how a lot of writers start,” I explained. “In fact, the first thing I ask kids to do once they’ve determined what their purposes might be is to go on a treasure hunt and dig up some examples of what they’d like to do.”
“You mean you have them read other people’s stuff before they write their own?” she asked.
“Yeah, I often do,” I said. “Particularly if they are struggling to start and often when they hit a patch of writer’s block once they’re drafting. Sometimes, I even suggest they try a write-like.”
“A write-like?” she laughed. “Do you mean you invite them to practice copyright infringement?”
“Not at all. What I mean is that I ask them to read a lot of the examples of the stuff they want to produce with a good amount of depth before they dive in and find themselves drowning.
They need to figure out what the genre is all about. If they plan to mash different genres or media together, looking at what others have done can provide them a muse or two. They need to see what is possible first. Then, if they are still lacking confidence, I ask them to pick the author whose voice or work they like the best, and I challenge them to copycat a bit.”
“But isn’t that wrong?” she asked.
“Not if they are honest about what they are doing, and not if they credit those who inspired them. Using mentor texts and models is not about copying another writer’s work. It’s about using it to inspire our own ideas, get a feel for what quality could look like, and craft our own plans. This is what many writers do. Much of what we do is a remix.
Interested in asking your students to try a write-like? Challenge them to find some solid examples of the sort of thing they hope to pursue as writers. Make sure that you do the same.
Model your writing process, including the ways in which you read like a writer. Show them how to study the following elements, and as they do so, encourage them to consider and share alternative approaches as well. Consider what you would add to this list of prompts. They will shift, depending on each writer’s purpose.
6 Prompts That Can Help Kids Write Like Their Favorite Authors
1. Consider the way writers hook readers into their texts: How do they grab their readers’ interest? How do they keep it?
2. Study how writers organize, develop, and share their ideas: What is the purpose of each piece? How does organization support purpose? What makes the writer’s ideas and the way they organize the text interesting and effective? How will they connect with their audience? What makes this effective?
3. Notice how writers help readers navigate their text: what are the different features of each text, and how do they assist readers in making meaning?
4. How do writers craft word choice, tinker with sentence structure, and use conventions for effect? How do these choices establish mood? How do they influence voice? How do they help readers see and hear and taste and smell and feel the setting, the events, the emotions or the experiences that are conveyed by the writer?
5. Study perspective and point of view: Who is speaking? Why? How would the piece be different if it was told from a different point of view?
6. Consider the use of image, sound, and varied forms of media: How does purpose influence the way the writer uses these forms? How are they connected? How do transitions between forms occur? What makes this effective?