Teacher Consultant

Pen Campbell

St. Joseph High School
St. Joseph, Michigan

Third Coast Writing Project


  1. Start small: This is not about the length of the script, but about the size of the project in the classroom as a whole. If teachers and students are new to the process, it's a good idea to minimize, rather than maximize as much as possible. Perhaps start with one-minute Public Service Announcements rather than five-minute mini-documentaries or individual personal narratives. Perhaps team students to work in twos or threes, creating a ready-made response group that's really invested in the writing of the script, as well as a ready-made team for problem-solving throughout the process. More support and response can be given if fewer stories are in the works at one time.
  2. Get it on the first take: This doesn't mean the first draft of the script is the final draft or that the first timeline of images, sound, and voiceover the author puts together is the final one.

    This is another note about audience. Watching a digital story is not like reading on the page, where the reader is constantly monitoring understanding and can go back and read over a passage if the meaning is cloudy. The audience has to get it on the first take, or it's not effective.

    So language has to be clear, precise, concise, and audience appropriate. Of course, advocating simpler language for a digital story script doesn't mean the language shouldn't be rich, specific, and figurative; but the script does need to be tight.

    Sentence structure may be simpler, but variety is still important. When read aloud, a monotonous primer style of subject/verb, subject/verb, subject/verb is even more noticeable and distracting than on the page. Usually, the more effectively conversational the voiceover is, the more the audience is drawn in, and the clearer the message comes across.
  3. Need to know: purpose and audience: The phrase "need to know" can be a handy mantra to keep in mind throughout the process of writing the script. There isn't any room for flab, so questions of what the audience needs to know and how and when they get that information become particularly important. And the choices are many and layered: information is passed through spoken voiceover, text on the screen, an evocative image, an effective transition – even a meaningful visual or sound effect. All of these, singly or in combination, can be used to make meaning. Knowing the audience is vital in realizing which choices will evoke which reactions, so writing the digital story script becomes an instructive opportunity for emphasizing yet again the role of purpose and audience in crafting an effective piece of writing.
  4. Citing the sites: Even in personal narrative digital stories, elements will be used that need to be cited, whether it's the music or that one perfect image found on the Internet. And when the genre turns to nonfiction – expository or persuasive – again information, ideas, images, and music need to be cited. What makes this more of an opportunity, and less of a chore, is the range of possibilities for how to get that citation information – just like any other information – across to the audience. Do they need the source of the info up front to help make a PSA's message more credible, or is it enough to include it in credits at the end of the digital story? And again, here is another place where students' familiarity with movies and TV feeds their ease in understanding how this medium works. All the movies they've ever seen have credits. They're familiar with the idea of a crawl across the bottom of the screen giving one message while the screen gives another. Now they can give thought to their own audience and purpose and decide what will work best for their message.
  5. Examples: see 'em, be 'em: Just as in approaching any new writing task, using mentor texts helps enormously. Reading as a writer feeds writers, and watching movie clips, commercials, PSAs, and clips from various TV genres with that same metacognitive eye helps us discover and refine our process in writing and shaping digital stories.

    And just as the most effective writing teachers are so often writers themselves – whether published or unpublished – getting a digital story or two of your own under your belt will really help before diving in with your students.

    On the other hand, I don't think that means we have to wait until we know all the answers there are to know before we take the plunge. In a way, I think that's one of the most exciting things about this very exciting medium – the range of possibilities. It's like unexplored territory in a way, waiting to be defined by our students – and by us – through the very act of creation. We all know how the five-paragraph essay works, how the compare/contrast essay works. If we let them, digital stories can teach us things about writing and about making meaning as we create them.