A Class of Raw Literature

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

March 14, 2017

Raw Literature by Norah Colvon @Norah Colvin @readilearnEssay by Norah Colvin, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.

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I was quite fascinated with Charli’s introduction to this conversation about raw literature  right here on her blog at Carrot Ranch Communications.  I was unfamiliar with the term but her explanation made it clear.

 “Raw literature is first-works. It’s the original material a writer produces in response to an idea, challenge or aspiration. It’s the novelist’s first draft; the poet’s scribbling of a sonnet; a screenwriter’s initial storyboard. It’s a memoirist’s recognition of a relevant story to share. It’s that ah-ha moment when the imagination outpaces the fingers across a keyboard or a tongue giving diction. It’s the writer’s eye on the blank page like a sculptor’s gaze through a block of marble.”

Her description makes these works feel authentic, real, and valuable in their own right, without a requirement to be measured against anything else. They are first works; not drafted, revised, and edited; not polished for publication; but works that deserve recognition for their contribution to the process that is writing.

As an early childhood educator, I was immediately excited about how the concept of “raw literature” might apply to the writings of children. Surely nothing can be more raw than those first steps into the world of writing; nothing more authentic, more real, or more valuable in their own right. Surely these first works need to encouraged, nurtured, and respected as are those of any writer.

Unfortunately, all too often, writing done in school is seen as an opportunity to bring out a red pen and have all its failings highlighted. If that were to happen to one of our first works immediately we downed our pen, or removed our fingers from the keyboard, how would we respond? Would it encourage us, or would we feel crushed, never to try again?

Too often school writing requires children to write a single draft, about a given topic, in a particular genre, in a set and limited amount of time, with little opportunity for planning or discussion, or for editing and revision.

Then they are assessed on it.

They are required to be pantsers whether they like it or not. Some do, relishing the challenge. These are often the children with advanced language and literacy skills; able to use book language, having an understanding of story and other literary structures, and an above average ability to use conventional spellings. A red mark on their work is rare. They are more likely to receive words of encouragement, if one could consider “Good work” to be encouragement.

Many more children dread the challenging experience, knowing that whatever they produce, their pages will soon be more red than black. As with much else at school, they accept their lack of choice and do what they can to meet task requirements.

Far better than this approach is that of “process” or “portfolio” writing. In some ways, it does for writing what DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) does for reading. It values writing, and the process of writing. Everyone, including the teacher, writes. Every. Day.

Children keep all their pieces of writing, their first works, their raw literature in a folder or portfolio. Teachers conference with them about their writing, and children choose the pieces to work on, the pieces to polish for publication.

In a conference, children talk about their writing; including their purpose for writing, what it is about, what they like about it, and where they think it needs improvement. The child might read it to the teacher, and the teacher responds as a listener, requesting more information if required for meaning, asking questions to prompt ideas for revision. A teacher’s pen never touches the paper, but children are taught and provided with guides which they use for editing their own work. Only when a piece is near ready for publication might a teacher, in the child’s presence and with the child’s permission, edit the work. For early childhood writers, perfection is never a requirement anyway. Their invented spellings and implied complications and solutions are always a treasure.

Conference responses are also modelled for, and taught to, the children to enable them to share with and respond to each other in ways that help progress their writing process. Responses from peers are always appreciated and valuable.

Children’s raw writing is just one facet of a classroom program identified by an immersion in literacy and literature. Without exposure to literature it is impossible for children’s writing to develop. Children must be read to daily from a wide range of rich literature. They must have many opportunities for independent reading, and be involved in group reading such as readers’ theatre.

When I first became involved with process writing in the 1980s, we called ourselves “A Class of Writers”. We wrote daily. In addition to their independent “process writing” time, children wrote a diary, which was really about communication between each child and me. They wrote to me first thing in the morning. I wrote back to each in the afternoon after school, and so it went, every day of the school year.

The children were always bubbling with ideas, begging for writing time. Ideas came from what we had read together, or they had read independently. Sometimes they wrote about real experiences, sometimes from their imagination.

Alongside all of this, there was instruction, guidance, encouragement, and support, often referred to as “scaffolding”.

We cannot simply give the children pencils and paper and expect them to write. We must model the skills for them, and make them privy to techniques that writers use, through an appreciation for, not an analysis of, literature.

We need to extend children’s repertoire by sometimes providing a stimulus, a suggestion, a structure; by modelling a genre; and writing collaboratively to teach particular aspects of the writing process.  And more than that. Every teacher must be a writer. I don’t mean a published writer; but every teacher needs to write, with and alongside their children. How else can they understand the process and what they are expecting of children?

If we view children’s writing as raw literature, giving it the same respect as we give our own, how differently may we view them as writers? How differently may they view themselves?

If you are interested in reading more of my thoughts about children’s writing, check out Writing to order – done in a flash! and Writing woes – Flash fiction on my NorahColvin blog, or my early childhood teaching resources for writing on readilearn.

Charli, thank you very much for this opportunity to share (some of) my thoughts about children’s raw literature.


readilearn @NorahColvin @readilearn

Norah Colvin is an educational writer, an educator, and a writer. She is passionate about education and driven to write in almost equal measure. She writes for the joy of combining both passions in one pleasure.  Responding to flash fiction prompts at the Carrot Ranch provides an opportunity to hone her fictional writing skills in a supportive community while sharing her thoughts about education and learning. Exposition and fiction: the twin joys of reading and writing.

Norah has contributed to numerous educational publications over the years. She currently shares teaching ideas and resources for early childhood educators on her website readilearn.


Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.


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  1. TanGental

    Interesting to wind it back to the start. In my time and date I said it yours it was all about process – spelling and grammar. The imagination the concept all that came second. And at 15 I was so put off I didn’t write for 35 years!! Ah if only your ideas where current then.

    • Charli Mills

      I agree, Geoff. I was fortunate to have a teacher who encouraged my writing to practice spelling words and storytelling. Not once did he red pen a story in two years. That gave my imagination freedom. Then high school…granted, I learned more about grammar but the focus on grammar shut down my creativity.

      • Norah

        I was one of those who loved writing at school, loved finding the twist in the topic, the way of looking at it that nobody else did. I wrote for the teacher at school, but I wrote for myself and my imagined audience at home. It is now a wonderfully affirming experience to connect with readers, especially appreciative readers like those here at the Carrot Ranch.

      • Charli Mills

        Something else Mr. Price did for me was to let me read my stories aloud to the class each week. That let me interact with my “audience” of classmates and I wrote to entertain them. Now I’m realizing what a gift that was because I learned there is an audience for stories. And I’m pleased we can comprise an audience to one another here.

    • Norah

      Lovely to have your confirmation of the process, Geoff. It’s also good to know that, even after 35 years out of writing, you’ve still got it. Your imagination takes us on amazing journeys in every story you share. I’m so pleased they found a way out.

      • TanGental

        Funny. And the death of my father was the key or that’s the way it seems

      • Norah

        I’m sure if there’s a connection there to be made, you know what it is.

  2. Charli Mills

    Thank you, Norah, for expressing your knowledge in such a way that validates the efforts of writers, as well as students. The point you make about students who can write well in school have certain skills. But without feedback, how does a student know what those skills actually are? Then, of course, the red pen feedback shuts down many budding writers before they ever have a chance to bloom. Your classroom model is one that would work well in writer’s critique groups, too. When I was an editor for a magazine, I “queried” writers for any necessary clarifications on submitted articles. The goal was to work together to bring clarity and correctness to each submission. It seems the approach you describe in the class focuses on similar goals of success.

    • Norah

      Thank you for providing the opportunity for me to share my views. I love the way your ideas spark others for me and the conversation and collective wisdom grows as we each contribute a little more to our understanding. The more we interrogate our process, the better we understand, and can therefore explain, it; and it becomes less of a mystery. I think this is particularly important for teachers and their children. The process may differ a little for each of us, but getting from words on a page to communication is what’s important.

      • Charli Mills

        We do grow in collective wisdom, getting the chance to participate and respond. I like the phrase “interrogate our process.”

  3. Annecdotist

    Great post, Norah. Your approach to developing children’s writing seems the ideal balance between the extremes of perfectionism and “anything goes”, and indeed a model that would work equally well for adult writing mentors. I also detect in this the origins of your lovely encouraging comments on writers’ blogs.
    I find it fascinating that although my early schooling was overly strict, we had a lot of freedom when it came to writing stories. However, the fact that I don’t remember much red penning could be that the skill was never taken seriously!

  4. Norah

    I like those words “ideal balance”! Thank you. I try, or tried. It’s interesting you see a relationship between my classroom approach and my comments on blogs. I guess it’s true, the whole world is my classroom! Trouble is, some students are still not listening. 🙂 I’m sure your work never suffered too much red penning at school. Thanks for your comment.

  5. julespaige

    Many moons ago when I taught…children too young to write – I remember always expressing something positive about their drawings. I would never guess at what they drew always asking them to tell me more. I might say I like that shade of yellow, and they would tell me it was the sun or a flower. Then I could expand my own encouragement to their creativity.

    I do that now with my grands. My Little Miss is in a full day pre-school now but she was over last week. Her birth name is slightly different than what her family calls her. Though at school they do use her birth name. Little Miss is about 3 1/2 but after drawing something at my home and attempting her name letters – I wrote her nick name…she knew a letter was missing – but not quite where it went. So I wrote both names out in print for her to see.

    I even wrote her family name which is ten letters long! And a mouthful to say. 🙂 I have always encouraged my grands to write or tell me stories about their drawings and create booklets for them. Son of Son has a few that I’ve gifted his parents. It is amazing where imagination can go when encouraged!

    Thank you for being an educator for both children and adults. 🙂

    • Norah

      Thank you for sharing your experiences with your grands. How wonderful it is for them to have your encouragement and support. What you say about responding to the children’s artwork is very important too. It is much better to have them tell us about their creations than try to ‘guess’, as our guesses sometimes appear judgmental and may be far from the artist’s intent.

  6. Sherri Matthews

    It’s so good to be back at the Ranch! How I’ve missed it! I’m so sorry I’ve come to the party late as usual Norah, but I am just so glad to be here at last reading your impassioned post about the meaning of true education. English was always my favourite subject in school, but I don’t remember anything like the discourse between teacher and student. Just those red pen notations with corrections written in the margin. Or, if not, just a ‘good work’ and that was it. I don’t remember feeling remotely inspired by any of my teachers. If only we could have had you as a teacher Norah, or your teacher Charli, who let you read your stories to the class, giving you such an indepth understanding of audience at a young age. How many children have given up (and Geoff, concurring with Norah, how wonderful that you are writing now…and look at you, wow!) without that encouragement in their raw literature. You make an excellent point that ‘every teacher must be a writer’. I had to think about that and yes, how many teachers actually do write? I am out of the loop with education in the UK today, since my children are not longer at school, so I wonder if the portfolio way of writing is used. I don’t know. I hope so though! How wonderful for children to view themselves as having the ability to produce something worthwhile and valuable with their first, raw efforts, something to work on as they feel encouraged and led, rather than slammed at the first hurdle, slashed into a crushing sense of failure with that red pen weapon. Thank goodness for educators like you Norah.

    • Norah

      Thank you for your lovely comment, Sherri. I think Charli would agree, it’s never too late to join the party, and the doors are always open for someone as lovely as you. Your final statement about being “slammed at the first hurdle, slashed into a crushing sense of failure with that red pen weapon” is an awesome piece of writing – so expressive. If it was written “off the cuff” so to speak, it is an awesome piece of raw literature. I’m not sure how better the annihilation of joy in writing could be expressed. Sometimes I think we need to make a collection of Quotes by Rough Writers. The wisdom shared belongs to many topics.

      • Sherri Matthews

        Ahh…I love being here and miss it very much when I’m not. Your posts always stir me up Norah, as you know! But thank you for your comment about my ‘raw lit’ reply…makes me think I was feeling emotional when I wrote that! You’re very kind but it’s your inspiration that’s behind it! I was looking forward to your raw lit post, and I was not disappointed, far from it! You inspire me greatly Norah, as you do many, because your passion for childhood education shines through everything you write and share, crossing over into many aspects of both the creative and the kinder life 🙂 <3

      • Norah

        Thank you, Sherri. I am very touched by the generosity of your comment.

  7. robbiesinspiration

    I would have loved to have had an opportunity like this to write at school. So interactive. My experience at school was very much the red pen approach.


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