What Children Can Teach Us About Writing

5 Things Children Teach Us About Writing

A quick note: the winners of the Yoda hat drawing are Holly Heisey, Nancy Campbell Allen, and Bailey Hammond. Thanks to our fabulous guest Rochelle Melander, another giveaway starts today. If you’d like a chance to win a signed paperback of her book Write-A-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (and Live to Tell About It), leave a comment. Winners will be announced next Friday, March 15.

This post is by Rochelle Melander.

The writing life offers plenty of solitude. I love that on most days getting dressed for work means slipping on pajama pants and a sweatshirt. But sometimes I long for the company of other people. I want to put on real clothes and leave the house and talk about books and hear what other writers are thinking about. Oddly, I found my writing community when I started
a writing group for young people in my city. The lessons they’ve taught me about writing and life fuel my work every day. Here’s just some of what I’ve learned from teaching and paying attention to young people:

1. Dedicate Space and Time to Writing.

In some ways, teaching writing to children is built on a single foundation: opening up time and space to write. For most of the young people I work with, their time is held captive by external stimulation: televisions, computers, cellphones, MP3 players, and more. If they don’t have these devices at home, they can easily find them at the library (where I teach).

But when I show up to teach writing, suddenly both the time and space is opened up to doing something creative. We write. The students take their words and make art using markers, colored pencils, collage material, and glue. As one student said, “This is like school, only better.”

My life changed for the better this year when once again I dedicated my morning time to writing. No more early morning Facebook sessions. No more talking with clients or checking
email until noon. Instead, I write. I read. I research. I do what the children have taught me to do: open up space for writing.

2. Accept What Shows Up.

When I started Dream Keepers, my writing program for at-risk children in the city, I envisioned working with girls. And for the first two years I did. But then the program transitioned to the library—and boys started showing up, asking to write. (At first I thought it was the treats we served—and it may have been—but even now when we don’t have goodies, the boys keep coming.)

At one after-school library program, when it was raining so hard I thought no one would show up, nine boys bounced into the room, dripping wet and eager to write. At another event, a boy whom the teacher described as a slower learner, wrote an amazing poem with juicy words.

As a writer, it’s been the wildest ideas and assignments that have led to the most interesting projects. In 2004, I was asked to write a book with a friend in two weeks. We finished the project in nine days. A year later, that experience became the seed for my book on writing marathons, Write-A-Thon.

3. Honor Your Passion.

When I teach young people, I usually have a plan for our time together. Most of the time, the students are willing to go along with me and try writing disgusting love poems or winter haiku. Sometimes, they resist. In one of my winter haiku sessions, a 14-year-old boy responded to the idea of writing haiku with the enthusiasm of a kid sitting down to a bowl of Brussels sprouts. When I suggested he write about something he loved that happened in winter, his eyes lit up and he said, “Basketball!” Here’s what he wrote:

Orange ball bounces
take over the hoop
swoosh and score!
JayQuan

Like all writers, I will take on projects just for the paycheck. If the project does not connect in some way to my passion, I can struggle to get it done. Over the years, I’ve learned to be more selective about what I take on and found ways to better the projects that do not excite me. So writers: find a way to honor your passion in your writing. (Even if that means listening to music you love while you’re writing an article about the intricacies of tax policy.)

4. Prewriting.

At the beginning of every writing group meeting, before the students write poems or paragraphs, I invite them to make lists or mind maps. They jot down everything they know about the topic along with their ideas and memories. When I attended the Milwaukee Writing Project’s Summer Institute, several lessons focused on how prewriting can help students write with less fear. The students relax when they don’t have to worry about getting the right words in the right order. I do, too. Now, I start every one of my own morning writing sessions with mind mapping or some other prewriting tool.

5. The Golden Sentence.

When a group of us teachers work with students at the Milwaukee Art Museum, we end every session by having students choose and present their “Golden Sentence.” The Golden Sentence is a tool from Jim Vopat’s book, Micro Lessons in Writing. A Golden Sentence is the most powerful sentence a student can find in his writing. On days when the students really struggle to come up with a product they like, the golden sentence reminds them they have the power to produce beautiful sentences.

There are days when I wonder why I am still doing this writing thing. Sometimes finding a golden sentence amidst the dregs helps me to move forward—or at least write again tomorrow.

About the Author: Rochelle Melander is an author, speaker, and certified professional coach. She is the author of ten books, including the National Novel Writing
Month guide—Write-A-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (and Live to Tell About It). She teaches professionals how to write good books fast, use writing to transform their lives, navigate the publishing world, and get published. For more tips and a complementary download of the first two chapters of Write-A-Thon,
visit her online.

Tell me your opinion: What lessons have you gleaned from teaching writing or working with a writing group?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Love your posts, so helpful, and a happy International Women’s Day, K.M.

  2. Dang, I thought I’d be the first one to comment! 😉 Ah, well.

    That book looks awesome! 😀 I literally have eighteen books (all on writing) stacked up next to me as I type this. Yes, I counted. That book would be a wonderful addition to my collection!

    This post made me feel good. I’m only 12, but I’ve gotten a head start on my writing by just finishing a query letter and writing for The Write Practice.

    Thanks for the great post! 😀

  3. Carole, Glad you love the post! Thank you. Magic Violinist–glad to hear you are 12 and writing. I admire you! -Rochelle

  4. This is very encouraging. I’ve been trying to set aside time specifically for writing and inevitably something wants to steal that time. It’s usually a good reason too, like helping my sister with an essay or paying bills. This just encourages me to keep my writing time sacred. Thanks.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Rochelle!

  6. Great tips! Enter me please!

  7. I love this, in these days where there is so much to distract you, so much pressure to do everything but write, I love the idea of discipline – giving yourself time and freedom to write. We are all children inside.

  8. Hi Rochelle, great post! I have looked for Golden Sentences in my writing to stave off discouragement before, but I never had a name for them until now. Thanks for the tips!

  9. Thanks for a great post! Writing is a very solitary undertaking, but I find I am inspired and encouraged when I help others with their writing, a pay it forward kind of thing. Helping children write must be a very rewarding job, I know I would have loved to had someone like you when I was young to help and encourge with my writing.

  10. Thank you, Rochelle! 😀 I started writing stories at the age of six.

  11. Love the title of the book and the ideas. I have not done much of my own writing these days except with my students in class and enjoy getting them to write. Thanks for sharing the tips and resources.

  12. I took private writing lessons last summer, and having one on one learning time where the teacher could really focus on my needs was a great opportunity. We also formed a friendship, and have continued our writing journey together. One of the best decisions I have made!

  13. such a beautiful article, i wish you, and your students, all the very best 😉

    and, keep in mind that golden sentence, priceless 😉

  14. I just moved my writing desk into my bedroom so I can shut the door on all the distractions. Setting aside time is so important. The biggest challenge is getting my family to respect the closed door as a signal that I am in writer mode.

  15. Katie, thanks for having me on the blog today! Everyone who commented: thank you for your kind words and support. So good to hear from you! Jennifer, it’s tough when we are having to choose between two GOOD things (like writing and the bills). I like the idea of treating writing as sacred. Dee, I think that without writing, the rest does not make sense…but it is so hard, isn’t it? Andrew, good to hear you use golden sentences! Fun! Lisa–I agree. Part of the reason I teach is to help with the loneliness. (And the students are lovely.) Leigh, thank you. Sometimes I do my best writing along with the students. Karoline, what a cool idea–a writing teacher. Adan, thank you! K.J., I love it! Privacy! Happy writing, all!

  16. Some of those tips sound like things I ought to know, but struggle with putting into practice. Thanks for the great reminders!

  17. This is awesome! Thanks!

    Also, teaching writing to teenagers is such a cool thing. I’m a teen writer myself, and I know the people who have invested in me as I’m learning have left me with so many invaluable helps.

  18. Number one is probably the hardest for me, but I’m working on it 🙂 As a college undergrad planning to double-major, while working for one of the college papers, I have pretty much no time for other pursuits. But that’s what vacations are for!

  19. It’s so inspiring to stop by and see so many young people writing. Yeah! And I think that taking time to write takes time and work! It’s hard to put it first. But keep at it. 🙂

  20. We are all struggling to get time to write, we just need some discipline, right?

    Thanks for the great post!

    M.