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Excellence In Writing

by Andrew Pudewa

Diane Flynn Keith
Andrew Pudewa

Q: I have a 10-year-old son. He does not want to write at all. So far I have been pretty relaxed about it, but at what age should I force him to begin writing? What if he never wants to do it?

I think that children can (and probably should) start learning to write when they are able to read (somewhat independently), copy words (somewhat independently), and attempt to make sentences. This usually happens around the age of ten, but not always. Until then, be sure to encourage the child to dictate to you: letters, stories, poems, whatever they might want to say but don’t have the maturity to really write themselves. This is very important for nurturing the enjoyment and confidence that creative “writing” will engender later on. Be their secretary, and get excited about what they want to tell you.

One of the big problems, however, with young boys and writing is that their brains are so much faster than their hands. This is a good problem, of course, because we would not want our son to have a brain as slow as his hand, but it can create frustration when we feel like we really must get him to write more, and if we don’t start soon, there won’t be much time left before he’s all grown up, and it’s too late! Let me suggest two possible ideas, which are somewhat connected.

First, allow him to use some existing stories as a starting point. One of the common things we hear from reluctant writers is “I don’t know what to write!” This need not be, however, an impediment, because thinking of what to write is not a prerequisite to learning how to write. If a child feels like he has to “make up” a completely original story, he may be easily overwhelmed with the task of imagining a story, having to “tell it to himself,” hear what he’s saying in his mind, write down the words, and remember how to spell and make letters correctly. That much complexity can overwhelm anyone. What’s the solution? Borrow a story. Let him read an Aesop fable or other short, interesting myth or tale, and then retell that same story, either as a summary or as something he can play with. For example, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” could easily become “The Wolf who Cried Boy” or “The Soldier Who Cried Enemy.” This type of retelling will allow even the most reluctant of writers a chance to “use” an existing plot line to be successful, while allowing for originality and creativity.

A second idea to help motivate boys to write is to find things for him to write about that are intrinsically interesting to him; for a boy this would generally include anything dangerous, disgusting, humorous or violent. Start with the hagfish, which vomits slime to suffocate its enemies, or the female praying mantis, which will actually start to eat the head of her mate while they are mating! These things, while appalling to most mothers, are guaranteed to excite a boy.

In both these cases, a short “key word” outline will help greatly. When your son reads the fable or interesting article, help him take some notes by choosing two or three key words from each sentence—words that will help him remember the basic idea of the sentence. They can be numbered by sentence and separated with commas like this:

Hare & Tortoise
1. H. teasing, slow T.
2. T. annoyed, challenged, race
3. H. laughed, agreed
4. Owl, judge, “Go!”
5. H, ahead, relax, sleep
6. T. plodded, persistently, finished
7. H. awoke, ran, lost
8. Slow, steady, wins!

Now the boy can easily remember what he is thinking about, and can pay attention to the writing of it. Notice that this story could easily become a race between any two characters—a brother and a sister, or even a PC and a Mac!

Once you can show a boy how to separate the complexity of figuring out “what to write” and the writing of it, you will find that even the most reluctant and struggling of young writers can experience success—and that will facilitate a huge attitudinal shift.

Dear Andrew:
Q: My daughter comes up with these wild, wonderful stories. Her spelling is terrible, and her punctuation is terrible. Have I missed the boat? Is it too late?

What a wonderful problem to have, and yet frustrating at the same time. It is very important not to stifle the creativity and excitement of your young writer, while simultaneously strategizing ways to help her improve the mechanics of her writing.

First, let’s talk about spelling. Many times a child will, when writing stories, misspell words she probably knows, and so the challenge there is to encourage her to go back and find and fix them. The best way to do this is to make it a game. Count up the words that you think she could find and correct if she tried, and tell her how many there are. Then set up some kind of game, with M&Ms, or pennies, or whatever you like, and challenge her to find them all to win a certain prize. The more she finds, the bigger the win; the fewer, the smaller the prize. This is appropriate for a younger child, but sometimes even an older student will find the challenge of a game more appealing than the obligation to “proofread.”

For words that she would not know, those can get added to a weekly spelling list, which should be practiced verbally throughout the week, until mastered. When appropriate, add in some explanation of the spelling of the word, either because it follows a phonetic rule, is similar to another word, or has a Greek or Latin root. The errors in composition will become the most relevant of possible spelling words, since those are likely to be her “favorites” and she will be more motivated to practice spelling them correctly.
Now, what about punctuation? Well, two things need to be done. First, you want to establish the culture where she writes her story. Next you “edit” (not “correct”) it for her as a favor, and then she copies it over or types it out. This way, she will internalize the punctuation lesson by example rather than by lecture. The difference, by the way, between a “mom” and an “editor” is that an editor will hand back a “corrected” paper with all the improvements made, and no lecture attached. Secondly, you will, at some point, probably want to use some kind of editing practice book (Fix-It! from IEW, Editor-In-Chief from Critical Thinking Press, Great Adventures in Editing, or some similar set of punctuation and proofreading lessons. It’s a funny thing, but almost all children—and most adults as well—can find other people’s mistakes more easily than they can find their own!

With continued encouragement, consistent spelling practice, and an occasional grammar/editing text, even the most rapid writer and wildly creative speller can learn the skills she will need to do justice to those great, imaginative stories.

Dear Andrew:
Q: Is it possible to have a child who has no creative ability at all? Is creativity as important as structure? If my child is like that, what do I do?

Yes, I suppose it is possible for a child to have no creative ability at all, but highly unlikely. The way to get a totally uncreative child is to let him or her watch TV all day and play video games all night. Then he or she will have an empty mind and creativity will be virtually impossible. On the other hand, to give a child the best possible chance at developing creativity and imagination, kill your TV, throw out your video games, keep simple toys like Lego® bricks or wood blocks, and read to your child from excellent books for many hours a day.

Many people misunderstand creativity, thinking that it is the ability to be completely original, or to make something that no one has ever made before. This is a misnomer. Only God can produce something from nothing; the rest of us are pretty much stuck with what we’ve got. Thinking and creativity is, at its basic level, getting stuff out of your mind—and the good and bad news is that you can’t get something out of a mind that isn’t in there to begin with! In actuality, creativity is about the combination and permutation of previously existing concepts into new and often unique syntheses. Creativity does not always mean originality. Even Stephen King, one of the most unique of modern writers, explains in his autobiographical book On Writing that all his book ideas come from something he had seen, read about, or heard of at some time.
Natural and wild imagination is wonderful (and usually the result of being exposed to a huge amount of literature), but even those of us without a powerful imagination can still experience the thrill of creativity in retelling facts or stories we didn’t necessarily “make up,” but might be able to make small changes, give elaborations, utilize different language or sentence structure. Not all musicians will be able to improvise brilliantly or will they become composers, but all can experience creativity and joy as they interpret the music others have written. Writing can be the same, and so rather than worry about a lack of creative ability, try to nurture skills in composition which will ultimately serve them well in other areas of writing—reports, essays, analysis. The world needs all kinds of writers. ■