Writerly Play Kit FOR EDUCATORS

Skill Development Through Side-Coaching

Writerly Play for Educators


Side-Coach Your Writers Toward Powerful Skills

As the side-coach for an improv game, a facilitator uses questions to coach actors through a series of decisions. In effect, we’re hosting a thinking experience. In writing classrooms, this tool is powerfully simple. Within the context of playing a game, writers are guided through the step-by-step thinking involved in creating and developing a protagonist, an antagonist, the world of a story, or a plot.

Cognitive overload is one of the most frequent reasons for writers’ block. Questions layer on top of questions, and the writer thinks, “I’m stuck. I don’t know where to start. I have no ideas.” Side-coached games can generally bypass these challenges because they focus writers on one question at a time. In addition, the questions themselves are powerful. Rather than having to explain motivation or internal logic, side-coaches can ask questions to lead writers toward building authentic character motivation or story worlds that have internal logic. Over time, writers gain the awareness and skills to ask these questions themselves.

In this Writerly Play Kit, we will explore side-coaching best practices, providing a big-picture view as well as practical tips to make the most of this powerful teaching strategy.


Inklings BOok CONTEST


Our 2019 Inklings Book Contest is open for submissions! The contest is for young writers in grades 3-9 who are ready to be treated like a pro and increase their writing skills. Winners receive a two-session editorial mentorship with a professional mentor/writer, throughout which they will revise and polish their poem or story. The revised stories and poems are then published in the Inklings Book, which is distributed through various retail channels. Winners also receive their own copy of the Inklings Book as well as one for their school. Finalists and Society of Young Inklings members receive a personalized editorial letter with feedback and encouragement about their story or poem.

If you’d like to turn this into a class project, we’d love to help! Class sets can be submitted and since you are a Society of Young Inklings member, each of your students will receive a personalized editorial letter!

Featured GAMEs


Slideshow uses a series of side-coaching questions to guide writers through a sequence. Writers spread out around the room and strike frozen poses. One way to conceptualize the game is to imagine you’re flipping through a slideshow of a story’s highlights. For narratives, try beginning, middle, and end, or beginning, the moment the problem shows up, three complications, and then the resolution.

For essay or persuasive writing, writers might create poses for the main idea or argument, the supporting info or evidence, and the conclusion. Using slideshow for nonfiction genres can be more abstract, but the game is still an offers a helpful way for writers to organize their thinking. One excellent tool, when playing slideshow, is to “rewind” back to the beginning and try another pass at the story. Writers might choose different moments to highlight, or alter their chosen moments to more fully achieve the goal of their piece.


Walk As If uses a series of side-coaching questions while writers move around the classroom. Start by asking the writers to begin moving, practicing focus and body control. Once they’re ready, begin to use questions to focus their thinking on character, setting, or situation.

Use a series of questions that starts simply and adds depth. For instance you might use, “How might your character’s feet hit the ground,” to begin, and a few questions later ask, “How might your character feel on an ordinary day, and how might they show that emotion with their bodies?”

Walk As If is an excellent opportunity to explore a few options before settling in on one idea. If you’re exploring possible topics for an essay or persuasive piece, you might consider asking writers to try out three ideas before choosing the one they want to write.

“Ask the right questions and the answers will always reveal themselves.”
Oprah Winfrey



How Might You…

Side-coaching can also be used in one-on-one conferring conversations. After playing a game, writers will usually have at least one spark of insight. To start a block-busting conversation, ask a few questions about a writer’s current ideas to help them identify what they know so far. For instance, “Was one of the emotions we explored in our Walk As If game more intriguing to you than the others?” If the writer shrugs, you might continue, “Let’s see, we talked about excitement and fear. Of those two, which might you like writing about better?” You can continue to sort and rank pairs of options. Often, the simple momentum of answering a few questions will kick-start the writer.

If they continue to struggle, or seem shaky with their ideas, help them settle on a workable (if not perfect) choice, and then ask, “How might you …” and clearly define the objective. For example, “How might you show this character’s strength and weakness in one scene? Where might they be?” You can continue to brainstorm with them, but often this is a perfect moment to give them some thinking time. I will often let writers know I’ll return in a few minutes to see how they’re doing, so they have room to think, but also know I’m there to support them.

What’s Up At SYI this Month?



Step 1: Find a partner, and spend five minutes brainstorming a story idea together.

Things to discuss:

  • Genre: Do you want to write fantasy? Science fiction? Realistic fiction? Or a combination, like western horror?
  • Main character: who is he or she? A chef? A student? A long lost prince or princess? What does he or she want? To rescue someone? To achieve fame and glory?
  • Villain or obstacle: Who or what is stopping your main character?
  • Setting: Where will this story take place? A castle? A deserted island? The basement of the local middle school?

This is just the initial “story spark,” so it’s fine if you and your partner don’t have all the answers yet. The most important thing is to figure out how you can work together and compromise in order to write a story that you will both enjoy.

Step 2: Set a timer.

Partner one spends 5 minutes writing (set a timer). When the timer goes off, that person has 20 seconds left to finish whatever sentence they are on and then passes the story to partner two. Then, partner two reads the section and gets 5 minutes to continue the story, until the timer goes off. Then they pass it back to partner one to read. Repeat as desired. The only rule is each person has to work with the story their partner has written — no changing the other person’s section.

Step 3: Compare your stories.

Once you have finished your story (or used up the amount of time given for this exercise) spend a few minutes comparing what you have written to what you had brainstormed beforehand. Did you stay within that original plan? Or maybe your story veered way off track? In that case, where did you move away, and do you like this new direction better?

Who knows, maybe you’ll discover your next great story idea and will want to continue this collaboration after this exercise is complete. Or maybe you’ll realize this story isn’t working, and will put it away in favor of something else. The most important thing is to just enjoy the process of collaborating with a partner and creating something different from what you would have created on your own.

Grab a partner and see what you can come up with! Submit your response by emailing submit@younginklings.org. You might be published on our website!


Heidi lang and kati bartkowski

This month, we talk to authors Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski. They talked to us about collaborative writing, combining interesting elements into one story, and the struggles of writing a trilogy.

The good thing about writing with your sister, though, at least in our case, is that we can be completely honest with each other and not worry that it will ruin our relationship. So if Heidi is going off on one of her spontaneous tangents, I can tell her when I think it’s not a good idea, and she doesn’t take it personally.


Everyone has a story to tell...

Our goal is to raise $40,000 to fully cover our annual Inklings Book Contest so that more youth writers can unleash their voices into the world. This year-end giving season, will you donate today and help us celebrate the next generation of writers in 2023?