I give my kids lots of writing advice.
Like this: * To get started on something new, sit down and write without stopping for ten minutes, and see what comes to you. Re-read what you’ve written and underline anything promising. Then freewrite on that. * Write your beginnings and endings last, because they’re the hardest parts to write–and they’re also the most important. * If you’re really stuck, get up and move. Take a shower, walk around the block. Or talk about what you’re trying to write, to another person, or even aloud to yourself. * Don’t even think about spelling, punctuation, grammar, or what someone else will think on a first draft; just get something down. You’re making your clay. You can’t shape what you’ve written if you don’t have anything to shape.
Yep, I give my kids lots of writing advice. And get this: they seem to appreciate the tips. At least they listen to them, in a way that they don’t listen to my tips on how to keep a neat bedroom.
They listen, I’m sure, because they know that I write too. I’m not passing off advice as a teacher; I’m sharing what works for me as a fellow writer.
If you want to help your kids with writing, you need to write yourself.
I don’t mean that you need to be a professional writer. I don’t mean you need to spend a lot of time writing. But you need to write regularly, in some format. You need to know what it is to wrestle with words and push them around and replace them until they fall into an order that communicates what you mean to say. Until they become something pleasing to you. That’s what writers do, and that’s what kids who write well do. And you can’t help your kids do it if you don’t do it yourself.
If you don’t write yourself, you will still find yourself giving writing advice to your kids, and this is where the trouble comes in. If you don’t write yourself, your advice is likely to be based on what you learned about writing in school. You only have to read some of the comments on the last post to understand that most of us did not receive very good writing instruction in school. Sure, some may have been lucky enough to have a good writing teacher along the way, but for most of us, school writing was all about following rules and formulas–and advice based on rules and formulas is not likely to be very helpful.
If you write yourself, your advice will be based on your own real-life struggles and successes. Your advice will be good and practical and useful.
Which is why I think you should make a little space in your life for writing. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and it shouldn’t be a chore. It can, in fact, be a very satisfying joy.
A few ideas, for parents who want to write more:
Craft your Facebook updates and Twitter tweets. I hear your protests–but that’s not real writing! Sure it is! It’s words on a screen, and that’s writing. By crafting your updates and tweets I mean selecting each word with care, and trying to add some style and personality to your lines. Are you funny in person? Are you introspective and reflective? Cheeky and direct? Dreamy and poetic? Smart and cynical? See if you can get more of your personality across with the words you choose, and the length and rhythm of your lines. Jeff Goins wrote a fun post on finding your online writing voice. Pay attention to friends on Facebook and tweeters on Twitter who have a style that you admire. How do they do it? Consider “favoriting” their posts, or keeping a compilation of them so you can study them. When writing your own updates and tweets, try pulling out a thesaurus so you can hunt for just the right word as you write, and expand your vocabulary. I know, I know, the idea of using a thesaurus for social networking may sound a bit ridiculous, but if Facebook or Twitter are your preferred forums for writing, you may as well work on your craft there–and a thesaurus can be a writer’s best friend. (Don’t use it to find orotund and rococo words like orotund and rococo, though, when pretentious or flamboyant are available and, well, less pretentious. Rather, use the thesaurus to find that word that’s on the tip of your tongue, or one that adds a little rhythm and musicality to your line.)
Explore the world of blogging. Blogging can be such a fantastic way to develop your voice as a writer. It automatically gives you a forum for your words and, with luck and time, an audience that responds to your writing! If the thought of starting a blog sounds overwhelming, begin by searching for inspiring blogs to simply read. Google up a topic that interests you–homeschooling, beekeeping, photography, even something somewhat obscure, like kombucha-brewing–and then look at the search possibilities in the left column of the Google results page and click on “blogs.” Viola! A bunch of blogs on your topic of interest. Click around and find some you like. You can subscribe to them via an RSS feed reader like Google Reader or Live Bookmarks on Firefox. As you read those blogs and their comments, you’ll find a web of other blogs that you also might enjoy. Leaving comments (well-crafted!) on blogs you admire is a great way to get started in the world of blog-writing.
Look for blogs that have not only content that you enjoy, but also excellent writing. One of my favorites has always been Orangette. Sure, I’m a foodie, and I appreciate what Molly writes about cooking and eating, but I especially enjoy her writing: her funny voice, her chatty, intimate style (“Actually, I should warn you: it may seem as though you have too much chopped pistachio to cram onto the top of the cake, but you must persevere”, her way with (linkable!) metaphor (“I am going to spare you, however, a post on what I’ve been eating at my desk lately, because my lunches are about as riveting as C-SPAN.”) Sometimes I even copy one of Molly’s posts into a Word document and highlight the lines I admire, studying what she’s doing. Dissecting the work of writers you admire is one of the best ways to learn the craft of writing, and no formaldehyde is involved.
If you decide to start blogging yourself, you can dip your toes in slowly. You can keep your posts private at first, and limit your audience. Or you can just dive into the deep end, publish them publicly and see what happens. There are free blogging platforms at WordPress.com (my fave) and Blogger. If you have any inklings in this direction, do it! Read this recent comment from Wonderfarm reader Rachel: “My high school was a small private college prep school and we did a lot of writing. You know what I learned? That I hated writing. Or so I thought. Then, several years ago, I started blogging…what I found while blogging is that I LOVED writing.” I hear this again and again from fellow bloggers. The takeaway: Blogging Makes Writers. It can also help you discover what matters to you. I had no idea that I’d find a calling in helping parents with their kids’ writing until I wrote a few blog posts about it, and people responded, and asked for more.
Write poetry. Some of us feel particularly drawn to poetry–or songwriting. Poetry is a unique writing format: it’s concise, powerful, lyrical, emotional, condensed, rhythmic, allegorical. If poetry intrigues you, one of my favorite inspirational resources is poemcrazy by Susan G. Wooldridge. It’s beautifully written and fun to read. It’s also full of simple, playful poetry ideas to try out yourself. (Many of which your kids may enjoy too, as Wooldridge has a long history as a poet in the schools.) The word ticket activity shared throughout the book is one of my all-time favorite writing exercises.
Read writing instruction manuals for inspiration. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is always at the top of my–and practically everybody’s–list. Her chapter “Shitty First Drafts” is probably the best writing encouragement you will ever receive. Plus, along with her pep talks, you’ll get to enjoy some of the most hilarious and bittersweet writing around. I wrote more about her like-no-other style here. Read her book and then take her advice and write about school lunches. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find in your paragraphs.
Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Fire Within by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett is great if you’re a woman, and you’re well, busy. It shows you how you can work at your writing, even if you only have fifteen minutes a day. (Barbara’s podcast Writers on Writing is another favorite resource. Hundreds of fantastic interviews with writers on the art and business of writing.)
Also, if you’re a mother, my current favorite recommendation is a fairly new book called Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, by Kate Hopper. I love this one because it combines writing encouragement with excerpts from the work of some fantastic mother-writers. The excerpts are all on the topic of parenthood, and they’re wonderful. The book has you studying these master writers to learn about craft, and then it offers writing prompts based on your reading. That right there is the formula for becoming a better writer: study the masters and write yourself. Highly recommended.
Keep a journal, or a writers’ notebook. If you haven’t kept a journal since you were fifteen, maybe it’s time to try again. A journal can be anything you want it to be. You can write recollections of your day. You can ramble on about piddly thoughts that you’d never want to admit to anyone. You can keep lists, you can experiment with style, you can play with writing prompts, described below.
You can keep a parent’s journal, in which you record the memorable things your kids say and do—because no matter how memorable they are, if you don’t write them down, they’re bound to be forgotten. You can record your kids’ interests and wacky accomplishments, and your insights about it all. I’ve kept a few since my oldest was born. I don’t write in mine very often anymore, but even once every few months captures a nice snapshot in time. You may plan, as I do, to share yours with your kids one day.
You can also try keeping a writer’s notebook, full of ideas to use in other writing. You might collect conversations you overhear, or scenes you happen upon. You could gather quotes from other writers, or seeds for a new story or poem. I like using sticky page tabs to section off my notebook. Ralph Fletcher has a neat little paperback written for older kids called A Writer’s Notebook, which has good ideas for organizing such a notebook, whether or not you’re a kid. Or you could simply collect the same wonderful bits on index cards, as Anne Lamott writes about in Bird by Bird. Lamott likes index cards because they fit in her pocket, and don’t make her “look bulky”. She writes, “So whenever I am leaving the house without my purse…I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it.”
Respond to writing prompts. A prompt is simply a suggestion aimed at generating juicy writing. It might be: Write a letter to yourself at sixteen or If you could place yourself in any film, which would you choose, and why? Even as a kid, I disliked required prompts in school, but prompts as possibilities are different. Browse a few, and choose one that tickles you. Prompts can help you expand your repertoire, and explore ideas you might never happen upon on your own.
All of the books mentioned above have prompts. This tumblr site by Luke Neff–who seems like a pretty wonderful writing teacher–has hundreds of thought-provoking ones. Many are aimed at students, but there are plenty to inspire an adult. Online parenting magazine Literary Mama posts prompts based on its contents several times a month on its blog. Rip the Page by Karen Benke is a book of fun writing prompts for kids—which you might enjoy as well. You could even try out some of them alongside your kids.
Read and study the art of writing. If you’re an avid reader, you might enjoy studying the craft in what you’re reading. Studying the masters is an essential part of becoming a writer. Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose shows you how to slow down with close reading to examine how master writers do what they do. It’s a fascinating book. Along similar lines is The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer, which is a guide to reading classic literature. While I prefer the content of Reading Like a Writer, The Well-Educated Mind offers specific instructions for making a written record of your book study, which might make it worth consulting if that appeals to you. (And you know what I’m going to tell you: written reflection is good writing practice!) The ideas there could certainly be applied to other books, beyond the classics.
Okay folks, let’s keep the fun going. Leave a comment–it’s writing practice!
I’ll even provide prompts to get you going: What type of writing do you do? What might you like to try? Which books and resources have inspired you? Have your adult writing experiences been different from your school writing experiences? What sort of writing advice do you give your kids? Is it based on your school experiences, or your personal experience as a writing adult? Anything else in this post get you thinking?