“When you’re young, so much of [writing] is trying to be other people. That’s what you do when you start off … and I think that’s perfectly natural and perfectly acceptable.” ~ David Sedaris
“Talent is the desire to practice.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell
When children exhibit talent for and interest in music, we know what to do. We pay for a music teacher and an instrument, perhaps enroll our child in band or orchestra, and encourage daily practice.
When they show artistic ability, we probably allow them free rein to draw or sculpt or paint, without feeling the need to critique every brush stroke or correct every error in perspective.
However, when a young child or teen is a talented writer, parents are often confused as to how best to encourage and support her. The temptation is to go to one of two extremes: treating the passion for writing as a kind of embarrassing hobby that the child will outgrow (after all, how likely is that they will make a living from it?), or over-critiquing and over-managing what began simply as an innate love of the written word.
The following “Do and Don’t” suggestions can help parents to encourage and support the writing talent of children and teens.
Don’t confuse handwriting with writing.
For some children, learning to write in cursive is the end of their love of writing. What was until that point a source of pleasure for its own sake—putting words on paper as a way to create and share stories and ideas—suddenly becomes a constant struggle. Students with small-motor difficulties, left-handedness, and other challenges can easily think that because their handwriting is “bad,” their writing must be, too.
I’m not saying that children shouldn’t learn to write in cursive, but I do know that in my college classroom, the vast majority of my students choose to print their work when they must write by hand. It’s just as fast for them and often easier to read for me.
Do provide a wide variety of writing tools and make them handy to use.
Some students who struggle with handwriting might be prolific writers on a laptop or netbook. Others might enjoy writing on legal pads with mechanical pencils, or index cards with fine-tipped markers, or sketchbooks with gel pens. Just as parents can fill their house with books to encourage a love of reading, they can make writing tools accessible in every room of the house.
Even more important, allow your children to see you write often and for many purposes. While modern technology is a boon for writers, it also hides much of the process of writing. Our children don’t see us write first drafts, cross out sentences, re-write them, then take a new sheet of paper and start over. They just see us click away on a keyboard. We even make grocery and to-do lists on electronic organizers and text ourselves notes rather than write them on a whiteboard on the fridge.
Challenge yourself to do more handwriting—lists, letters, journals—especially when your children are around. Let them see you write and, more to the point, re-write. Even better, ask them to proofread or give feedback on something you have written (and watch the pleasant surprise on their faces!).
Do ask your children what kind of feedback, if any, they want on their writing.
Not every piece of writing needs to be marked up or corrected.
The knee-jerk correction of grammar and spelling is one of the hardest habits for parents to break. However, for many children, especially bright, sensitive, perfectionistic learners, this kind of well-intentioned feedback from adults feels like a continual reminder that they have failed and can turn passionate writers into non-writers.
In this sense, writing is a very different subject from, say, math. If a student gets a math problem wrong, we can point out the error, she fixes it, and we say, “Now it’s correct. Well, done!”
When we point out writing mistakes, the student may fix them, but that doesn’t really mean that the piece is now “correct.” To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, writing is never really complete; rather, we abandon it at some point and move on.
When I led a mixed-age student writing group, I gave the students a checkbox list where they could let me know what level and kind of feedback they wanted for each piece they gave me. First, they could indicate if they wanted any feedback at all. Sometimes what they needed was for someone simply to know what they wrote and to acknowledge having read it. If they wanted feedback, they could request a discussion about content only, written feedback on style, help with proofreading, and so on.
Do remember that improvement can occur with positive feedback.
Let’s face it: It’s much faster and easier to circle sentence fragments than to give thoughtful feedback on the strongest parts of a story.
When you point out what you like about a story, you show a child what works. When you explain what makes a certain sentence “sing,” you are at the same time, but without having to point it out, indicating what kinds of sentences thud. If you want to suggest a revision, such as a stronger conclusion, it’s much better to do so in the form of a question—“What are some other ways you could end this?”—rather than with something like “The ending doesn’t work at all and needs to be changed.” The author of the book Toxic Feedback offers excellent advice for how to use positive feedback effectively.
Don’t worry if your children “copy” the style or themes, or even the plot ideas, from their favorite writers. In fact, encourage it!
Some parents worry that their children aren’t original enough, that they write stories that bear an uncomfortably strong resemblance to the plot of The Lord of the Rings, develop characters strikingly similar to Harry Potter, or sound too much like the style of Tamora Pierce or Suzanne Collins.
This is not a bad form of “copying.” Just as art students study and copy the masters, so, too, can young writers “apprentice” themselves to their favorite published authors. This can sometimes go on for years, and, all the while, the young writer is picking up skills and internalizing techniques.
A writing exercise I often give young people is to write a story or even just a paragraph in the style of their favorite author. The practice forces them to study the style of the writer, to see what makes it work, and, in the words of author Elizabeth Winthrop, it gives them new tools for their writing toolbox
Don’t force the issue of writing contests or publication, but do support them if your child takes the initiative.
Unlike being a mathematician or a musician, being a writer is a slow journey, in part because the life experience that transforms clever, smart writing into insightful, gifted prose cannot be rushed. Many of our best authors didn’t hit their stride until mid-life or later. The inevitable rejection that comes with being a paid writer is hard enough for adults to manage; for many children, it is something best left for later, when their skills are more finely honed and their confidence more firmly built. An author of several excellent books for young writers, Ralph Fletcher reminds students that they can always self-publish their writing for friends and family members.
However, some children—Christopher Paolini is a famous example—do publish to acclaim at a young age. If your child takes the initiative to enter contests or seek publication, and if his passion for writing can withstand rejection slips, then take a look at Publishing Opportunities for Young Writers, which offers an up-to-date list of opportunities.
Encouraging young writers is simple if we remember that to encourage means to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope–valuable toolbox tools for writers of all ages.
Lisa on Twitter: http://twitter.com/lisa_rivero