Writing with Youngsters

imageThere are few things in life more fulfilling than a nice hot cup of coffee.

One of the things which comes close, for me at least, is helping children to find joy in the art of writing.

When I was a kid, I used to write all the time, lying awake at night with a flashlight, scribbling words into one of several notebooks. I remember sitting around with friends, way back when I was around 10 or 11 years old; we would just sit and write together, the mutual writing providing support, encouragement and a bit of competitiveness in a way that helped us all to write just a little bit more – and just a little bit better – than we might have written alone. I believe that while we certainly didn’t consciously know it at the time, we were helping each other to be comfortable writing – almost as if we were giving each other permission to be creative for some amount of time when we might otherwise be expected to be getting muddy or sweaty or smelly wilding through the streets in the mid-summer heat.  Now, as an adult, I still like writing around other people who are writing, as if the ambiance of creativity around me is infecting me, or boosting my own creativity like aromatherapy might boost my mood. (Of course, since I usually do this writing in a coffee shop, perhaps the aromatherapy of the freshly brewed liquid gold is playing a role as well).

Lately, I’ve been enjoying working with children on a lot of things. Whether it’s coaching little league baseball or working with the marching band or encouraging children to write or do math, I’ve found it refreshing to be sharing my knowledge and experiences with them.  Especially with writing.

When I was a senior in high school, my English class was part of a program where we went to an elementary school in the district and worked with the third graders to write stories.  We were tasked with encouraging the children to develop and tell their stories confidently as well as with helping them to work together. It was one of my favorite experiences in high school, especially when we got to hear the children read the stories we helped them write. I don’t know if that program still occurs today, but I’d love to see school districts encouraging this type of interaction between the older kids and the younger kids, as it can be a learning experience for both groups. I know I learned a lot.  Some things I learned at 17 years old which I still carry with me today.

When working with youngsters:

  • Patience is critical. Kids get distracted. They go of on tangents.  When telling a story they will ramble on and on about one bit of detail but will gloss over other, more important, bits.  This is all part of the process and when you’re working with children to encourage them to write, you need to be patient and let them do their thing.
  • Remember that no idea is a bad idea. We adults with our well-developed inner editors tend to dismiss ideas outright all the time.  But we shouldn’t.  And we should encourage kids to investigate ideas before dismissing them as “stupid”.  If the kid you are writing with says “That’s stupid”, suggest something that is actually even “stupider”, such as:  “Pink, fluffy butterflies dancing the Macarena while drinking decaf coffee and eating moldy cheese – all to save the world.”  I mean how “stupid” is that?  Pink, fluffy butterflies would clearly never drink decaf.
  • Let them add the fun, explody bits.  When my son first started writing, all he wanted to tell was the action scenes.  “He punched the bad guy. The bad guy exploded. The end.”  While we, as experienced writers, know that you need other things between the action sequences, it is these parts that are the fun parts to write.  Why are there so many action movies? Why does every episode of Scooby Doo have a chase sequence in the middle?  It’s because these are the fun parts!  If we bog a young writer down with focusing on the other parts, or worse, tell them that these action parts are not important, we run the risk of them being bored before they even get started.
  • Understand that they are not yet as old and bitter as I am we are.  Many (most?) kids want the stories they read to have a happy ending. As such, they will want to write stories that have happy endings.  So let them – encourage them to—explore ways in which a happily ever after is possible, even from the worst of plot situations.  They have the rest of their lives to learn to be pessimistic or realistic in their writing and storytelling.
  • Ask questions. Lots of questions. When the kid starts to struggle, or the story gets bogged down, ask questions. Kids often relate to things they can touch or taste or feel better than things they can only see.  Ask them “What’s that smell like?” or “What do the oozing warts feel like?” or “Does that strange alien vegetable taste like chicken?”  By encouraging the kids to explore their senses when describing their characters or settings, you will be helping them to build a richer story.
  • Remember—it is their story, not yours.  It is hard to do this, but sometimes, when you are losing patience with the kid’s rambling or lack of important details, it feels like we should “help them” by giving them words and phrases or changing the way a character talks within the story to something more like what we would write.  As much as we might be tempted to do this, we need to keep our distance and stick to encouraging and advice rather than more direct methods of assistance.  We can always write our own version of the story if we really want to do so.

Looking at this list, pretty much all of it can translate to working with adult writers, too.  But we adults tend to be less willing to take advice from others, unfortunately, and so the most important item in this list for adults is probably the last – it’s not your story, so just offer suggestions and edits and feedback.

A couple years ago, my son was struggling with his writing projects at school. Largely, this was due to him being bored and rushing through it, but no matter what his teacher told him, he wouldn’t take the time to flesh out the stories or essays.  When he brought home a ‘D’ on a project, I knew I had to step in.  That’s when the story, Mercury Marshmallow Men came to be. We sat on the couch together and developed the story from the title of an email I had just received. We certainly spent a lot of time asking “What’s that smell like?” And while the story may be nothing all that important in the big scheme of things, it helped my son to see how to flesh out the details of a story and it helped him become a better writer – he got nearly all ‘A’ marks in writing this year and his teacher remarked about how detailed he would get (sometimes too detailed!) in his storytelling.

Have you spent time working with young writers? What tips have you found important to helping them find the joy of storytelling?

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5 thoughts on “Writing with Youngsters

  1. Well done, Rob. You hit all my high points for kids and writing.

    • I wish I could find the time and energy to start a writing group at the library or something, where we could practice/implement the things in this list. Maybe someday, when I’m not coaching baseball year-round.

  2. What a gift you are to children, Rob. You’ve taken a craft you love and given it to children. I think your points apply to how to encourage all inexperienced writers, no matter their age. They also point out how difficult it is to write a really good, complete story.

    • Yeah, I think they do apply to all ages to one degree or another. I also would add that especially the last point is one which shows how difficult it is to critique/edit/beta read for a friend or family member. So hard to keep the comments to just edits/suggestions without any added emotion or anything. But it is very valuable if you can do it.

  3. Great post Rob. I agree with all your points, and as a dad to two young daughters (8 and 6) I will try to adhere to these during the next 15 years or so. My experience to date highlights to me that this might not be always be easy, especially the first and last points.

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