become a writing mentor to your child, part 3: three points from a mentor

become a writing mentor to your child, part 3: three points from a mentor post image

Evidence of my own mentorship.

Enough about teaching and standards and intiatives! Feel free to go raise muck in the intriguing comments of that last post if you’re still riled up; otherwise let’s move on to the fun stuff: mentoring.

As much as I want to prance into the hows of mentoring, I think we need to explore the whys a bit more, just as we looked into the why nots of teaching in my last post. I have a mentor in mind to mentor us in the ways of mentoring, and his name is Verlyn Klinkenborg. He’s a writer. I gushed on about his book Several Short Sentences About Writing in this post from last October. If you have time, you might revisit that post. Klinkenborg has excellent notions about what a developing writer might need.

Since you may not lead the sort of life that allows you to lark about in longwinded posts, I’ll share three of Klinkenborg’s gems and comment on what they can show us about mentoring a writer.


“With luck you were read aloud to as a child.

So you know how sentences sound when read aloud

And how stories are shaped and a great deal about rhythm,

Almost as much as you did when you were ten years old.” –V. Klinkenborg

The point: Children who grow up in language-loving homes intuit a great deal about writing. We dug into this in my last post, but I’ll repeat myself to push the point: you cannot underestimate the power of this. If you have faith in–and pay attention to–how much your child acquires about writing in the course of daily life in your home, you might feel less pressed to want to teach so much. Why teach what they’re already picking up painlessly?

A writing mentor exposes a developing writer to the wonder of words.


“The premise of this book is that most of the received wisdom about how writing works is not only wrong but harmful. This is not an assumption. It’s a conclusion…

What I’ve learned about writing I’ve learned by trial and error, which is how most writers have learned. I had to overcome my academic training, which taught me to write in a way that was useless to me (and almost everyone else).” –V. Klinkenborg

The point: Giving your child bad writing instruction might more harmful than giving them no direct writing instruction. Particularly if they’re picking up all that good stuff mentioned in Point #1. And unless you are a writer yourself, or you received exemplary writing instruction in school, what you know about writing is likely to be based on unhelpful instruction. It may not be the ideal stuff to replicate for your child.

Need convincing? Pick up any good book on writing instruction for adults. Any one. It will almost invariably instruct you to forget what you learned about writing in school, and to swat your sophomore English teacher from your shoulder where she still sits in judgment. Or something eerily similar. It will tell you to simply read good writers and write. A lot.

Traditional writing instruction mucks up those wondrous intuitions we just talked about in Point #1.

Something else you can do, if you need more convincing: Take up writing yourself. I’ve written about this before. If you work at writing yourself, you will have a better understanding of what your child needs to become a writer. You’ll be less likely to pass along the detritus of your own education.

A writing mentor allows a developing writer’s intuitions to develop, and doesn’t wreck the works with too much instruction.


“Don’t give in to the memory of your school writing,

The claustrophobic feeling that there’s only one right

order of arguing, proving, demonstrating…” —-V. Klinkenborg

The point: There is no one right way to write. In fact, the opposite is true: any single piece of writing can be approached in infinite ways. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word requires dozens of decisions from a writer. Writing is a creative act, even if what you write isn’t what you might call creative writing. It’s a practice of of making decision after decision about words, about ideas; kids should learn to make these decisions from the start. Why impose structure when your child ought to search for the structures underlying her own thoughts? Why begin with formula when your child would be better off unearthing his original, non-formulaic ideas–the very ideas that will make his writing engaging?

A writing mentor helps a developing writer see that writing is made up of choices, and helps the writer learn to make those choices.

That’s a start. I encourage you to read more Klinkenborg, either at my original post or, better yet, from his book. Although (or perhaps because) he writes for adult writers, he may help you understand what sort of support your young writer needs.

Though you’ve probably had enough of my nattering on about writing, I hope you’ll consider visiting the beautiful blog of Renee Tougas, FIMBY. Renee interviewed me on writing this week, asking some fine questions, particularly on that thorny topic of preparing kids for college writing.

So, what are you thinking about this whole mentoring thing, friends? I’d love to know!

You can read all posts in this series here.

12 comments… add one
  • amy Mar 14, 2013 @ 12:07

    I write and create physical objects (artwork, etc) both, and after reading this I think it’s helpful for me to frame writing in the same way I approach creating some “thing”–it’s a problem to be solved, so there are many ways to do it. Everything I design, from a drawing to a sweater to a sewn whatever, could have many solutions, but I need to make decisions along the way. I do the same with writing–what to keep, what to leave out, what to save for later, how to organize, on and on and on. I don’t hold with teaching children to draw something all in the same way, with the same details included and others left out, so you’re left with a wall of drawings that look exactly the same. So…yes, why would I tell them a certain kind of writing is only produced using one format? My schooled child has been going through these forms of writing, and we talk at the dinner table about how that is school’s way of, for instance, formulating an argumentative essay, but there are numerous ways in which to do it. Like so much else presented in school, it’s a matter of “this is how school does it; this is how the rest of the world operates.”

    • patricia Mar 15, 2013 @ 9:39

      This is such a great analogy, Amy. Yes, creating writing should be no different than creating any other sort of art. Even if the writing isn’t *creative*, our approach to it should be open-ended and creative. It’s why I think we should learn what we can from artists (in this case, writers) rather than writing curriculum developers!

      Oh, my kids who have gone to high school could tell you what an earful they get from me about *real* writing and the stuff they’re expected to do in school! The good news is, they’ve always been readers, so they get it. They know what good writing is, and they can do it.

      “Like so much else presented in school, it’s a matter of ‘this is how school does it; this is how the rest of the world operates.'” That’s the saddest school irony of all.

  • Judi Pack Mar 14, 2013 @ 16:05

    I always loved reading Klinkenborg’s writings in the NY Times and his book about writing is a gem! Thanks for summarizing a few important points.

    • patricia Mar 15, 2013 @ 9:42

      Isn’t the book wonderful, Judi? Glad you already discovered it!

  • Kerry Mar 16, 2013 @ 18:58

    I’m loving this series. I think one of the hardest things for me to learn since we started homeschooling is how much more the kids get from my example than they do by my worrying and nudging. My kids write more when I write more. That’s a lot of pressure and a lot of work, but so rewarding.

    • patricia Mar 18, 2013 @ 10:14

      Interesting how that works, isn’t it Kerry? Glad you recognize it!

  • Cathy Mar 17, 2013 @ 17:55

    Just wanted to thank you for this series– it’s been absolutely wonderful. Our little guy is just 2. We read with him frequently, and I’m hopeful I’ll remember these ideas as he grows older and begins his own writings.

    As I read through this third point, I couldn’t help but think that writing also is about trust in ourselves. When we are thoughtful about our decisions, we need to trust that we, as writers (and people in general), will create stories that leave us fulfilled.

    • patricia Mar 18, 2013 @ 10:27

      Thanks for reading along, Cathy! Have you read my posts on taking dictation from kids? (There’s a link to them over in the sidebar.) Dictation can be a great thing to do with very young kids, at two or three. Just write down interesting things your son says, or let him tell you little stories and write those down. It can be so much easier to hook kids into the fun of having their words transcribed if you start when they’re little. They don’t tend to see it as “Mom making me do school-y things”, which they sometimes do if you introduce the idea when they’re older.

      And yes, about that third point: writing is all about learning to trust ourselves, and figuring out what we mean to say. How can we possibly learn to trust ourselves as writers if we constantly second-guess our work, trying to make it into what *others* expect?

      Your little guy is lucky to have a parent who recognizes this. 🙂

  • Robin Mar 29, 2013 @ 15:41

    Hi! I have been reading and re-reading for about two weeks now and am feeling so good about what we have been doing in our home. I have always known that writing should be the way you describe, but I could never put it into action. I guess I always felt the need for a curriculum to “teach” writing instead of letting it happen naturally. Well, that out-moded idea has been tossed into the garbage bin (along with some silly writing programs THAT NEVER WORK and never get completed. I can’t even begin to tell you how many different programs we have started…and stopped within two weeks…or less. What a waste of our family’s hard-earned money.

    Anyway, just wanted to let you know how inspired we are and how freeing not using a curriculum has been. My son (15) has been producing some really great writing because I have taken away all those “rules” that were tripping him up. You know…5 paragraphs, a certain number of sentences per paragraph, etc, etc…all those things in every. single. writing. program.

    I did buy your e-book, but that doesn’t count as a curriculum…right? Can’t wait to get started on it!

    • patricia Apr 2, 2013 @ 22:54

      Robin, I’m thrilled that you’ve made changes in your home! When you originally wrote, I thought that perhaps you were a newer homeschooler; I realized after reading your email that you’re quite experienced. Good for you for continually trying new things and growing as a family!

      How fantastic that your son’s new freedom is allowing him to write some fantastic stuff. I love to hear that. Hope you’ll come back and continue to let us know how it’s going.

      Nope, my book isn’t a curriculum. It’s a way of letting kids become the curriculum. At least that’s the intent. 🙂 (Thank you for buying it!)

  • Maureen Apr 23, 2013 @ 13:41

    OMGoodness!!! My husband was so disturbed by Beatrix Potter when we started reading her books to our first. You know, her “awful grammar.” “She starts sentences with ‘And.’ !!!” I’m loving your inspiring blog. My oldest is now 9 and has excellent vocabulary and grammar, though his spelling is still almost totally phonetic. He listens to lots of audiobooks and read-alouds, writes letters and short stories. And he has yet to receive any formal instruction in grammar or writing, save MadLibs!

    • patricia Apr 23, 2013 @ 22:53

      I have a bad habit of starting sentences with “and” too, so I guess Beatrix and I are kindred spirits. I think it’s a good thing to toy with cranky old rules, but I admit to over-toying with that particular one.

      It sounds like your son is doing lots of great literate things! Makes perfect sense that he has excellent vocabulary and grammar! Even if spelling is more of a challenge for him, I’ll bet he’ll get better at it over time. (I almost started that sentence with “and”, but I stopped myself. 😉 )

      I’m glad that the blog has been useful!

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