Monday, September 25, 2017

This is Just a Test -- Collaborative Writing

Guest Post by Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang

When we worked on our new middle-grade novel, This Is Just A Test, the two of us (Wendy Wan-Long Shang and Madelyn Rosenberg) collaborated, sending our manuscript back and forth, back and forth, until it was complete. In school, kids collaborate all of the time, on science labs, social studies projects, sports teams, and of course, on writing assignments. Most of the teachers we’ve talked to say that the main way their students collaborate on writing is through peer editing. We thought we’d offer a few ways to have them collaborate on the writing itself.

Our character, David Da-Wei Horowitz, is Jewish (like Madelyn) and Chinese-American (like Wendy). Little pieces of our own experiences and culture went into forming that character, along with plenty of things that are just David’s alone.

Have your students work in pairs to build a character. Think of it like the Build-a-Bear workshop: You’ll be discussing what the character looks like on the outside, but to create a true character, you can’t forget the stuffing – the things that go inside.

Have your students go back and forth, adding one trait at a time until they decide the character is complete.
What does the character like?
What is the character afraid of?
What does she want?
What does he like to eat?
How does she get along with her mother?

This Is Just A Test is set in the 1980s so it counts (much as we hate to admit it) as historical fiction. This assignment can work well as an introduction to historical fiction. Are your students studying World War II or Ancient Civilizations? Have them create a character from the time period they’re studying. How would that character’s fears and foods and fun be different from today?

Now that your students have a character, have them collaborate on a setting. They can brainstorm and draw. Complete sentences aren’t necessary, just words, phrases and ideas. The focus can be close (the character’s bedroom) or from farther away (the city or woods).

Try brainstorming again, with plot, before having your students sit down to create their story. Make sure they negotiate: Would our character do this? Would our character say this? And make sure they read for voice. Assignments like this help them learn to pay attention to each other’s writing styles so they can make them similar – so that the text and dialogue sound like they’re coming from the same narrator and the same characters.
Is the character serious or sarcastic?
Does she use certain phrases?
If there is interior monologue, how does the character talk to himself?
When our agents said they couldn’t tell which one of us had written what in our book, that was when we knew we had a true collaboration.

Feel free to throw out a few touchstone words to help students find inspiration (yellow, hard drive, cantaloupe) a sentence they have to use (“Oh, it’s on.”) or even a situation (“It was not the sound they expected to come out of a space ship.”) If you’ve chosen to go with historical fiction, provide some old newspapers and photos.

Another type of collaborative story is where authors take on different characters with different perspectives instead of joining forces for one. Given our current political climate, the idea of exploring situations from different perspectives is especially appealing. Our story would have been completely different if it had been told from the point of view of Scott or Hector instead of David.

Shout Mouse Press explored different perspectives on a large scale, when they had students work together to create The Day Tajon Got Shot. Author Jen Malone and six co-authors approached the night of a dance from different perspectives in Best. Night. Ever.

Consider a prompt where each student takes on the perspective of a different character. You can divide into larger groups for this one. Students must agree on plot and setting, but they have more independence in creating their characters. They’ll have to consider, though, how the actions of one character influence another.

For more on Madelyn Rosenberg, visit
For more on Wendy Shang, visit
For more writing prompts by Madelyn and Wendy on collaboration, 

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