Monday, May 26, 2014


guest post by Kerri Majors

Pencil Tips welcomes Kerri Majors who will give us a bonus-style sneak peak at the kinds of lesson plans contained in the Teacher's Edition (TE) of  This Is Not a Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World (TINAWM). This lesson on empathy is not in the TE—it’s an extra one just for you.

It’s so important for writers to understand the inner lives of the people they are writing about. And beyond that, it’s essential for all young people (future writers, scientists, and politicians alike!) to be able to practice thinking against themselves, and even to try to think as other think. Trying to walk in another person’s shoes, and really empathize with them teaches us about diversity and compassion like nothing else.  This lesson helps students do just that.

Suggested reading from TINAWM: “Eavesdropping,” “Drafting,” “My First Big Mistake”

In this lesson, students will:
·       Practice empathetic thinking
·       Write in the voice of another person
·       Create an interesting character
·       Reflect on the power of empathy for writers, and others
·       Engage in active listening and productive critique

You Will Need:
·       TINAWM
·       The prompt, photocopied or emailed to students
·       Workshop Ground Rules (in the Teacher’s Edition)

To Prepare:
·       Give students the prompt and ask them to write the piece as homework.  You could also set aside the first 20 minutes of class for them to write a short dialogue, but that will truncate some of the discussion time. 
·       Assign students to read the “Workshop Ground Rules.”
·       You might ask your students to read the suggested chapters of TINAWM before this lesson.

The Prompt:
A writer must learn empathy—that ability to fully understand the emotional life of others. Yes, even those we find depressing, boring, or plain old annoying.  It’s that understanding of others that helps us shape compelling, three-dimensional characters.

Take a peek at the News Feed of someone* you once hid on Facebook, or unfollowed on Twitter, and select a particularly grating recent post (Maybe: “Off to Zimbabwe then Paris! Pictures to follow!  Send me a postcard from wherever you are!”), then write at least 500 words in the voice of that person about that post, in a way that helps you better understand him/her without anger, annoyance, or judgment. *NOTE: Please do not select anyone from this class!

In Class: (All times are approximate suggestions)

5 minutes:    Review the “Workshop Ground Rules” with your students, and ask if there are any questions about those.

15 minutes:  Ask for an intrepid volunteer to read his/her piece aloud to the class. 
·       Ask the other students to listen carefully and write down favorite words and phrases.
·       Per the Group Rules, lead with the positive.  After the piece has been read, ask students to talk about what it revealed about the person.  What kind of voice did the person have?  What personality traits were revealed?  Did the writer seem to be trying to really understand the character?  What other strengths did they hear?  Always ask student to be specific and mention lines and places in the text.
·       How could the piece have been improved?  Did the class hear any notes of dismissal, judgment, or willful mis-understanding?  How could those moments be transformed and made more empathetic?
·       You might want to discuss the difference between a “likable” character and an “interesting” or “understandable” character, since some of these pieces are likely to bring this difference to light.

20 – 35 minutes:    Repeat the above for as much time as you have (subsequent discussions will go faster than the first), or break the class into groups and let them discuss the pieces in threes or fours; when I do small-group workshops, I always rotate around the room to keep everyone on task and also answer questions. 
·       Save time at the end, or try to discuss throughout, what students learned from writing these pieces.  How do they think they can use this skill in other classes and situations?
·       Collect the writing so that you can deliver written comments, especially on the students whose writing might not have been discussed.

Ask students to write a brief reflection on what they learned through this writing (if you use journals in class, this is a great exercise for those).  In what other life situations might empathy be useful?

BIO: Kerri Majors is the founder and editor of YARN,the Young Adult Review Network (, a literary magazine of YA writing and winner of the National Book Foundation’s Innovations in Reading Prize. This Is Not a Writing Manual has received wide acclaim and was called a “must-read” by School Library Journal. Kerri has taught writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Columbia, where she also received her MFA in Fiction. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and daughter.

Please feel free to use this lesson in your classes, but if you photocopy any piece of it, I ask that in the interest of fair use, you add something like “This prompt is courtesy of Kerri Majors, author of This Is Not a Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World (”


  1. nice article :)
    So understandable and simply explains basics of writing.
    Thank you so much for these tips.
    You also can find here some more tips about writing book reviews and general writing tips