Archive for the ‘Writing about Writing’ Category

Sometimes the writing doesn’t have to be brave

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

home work routineImage by woodleywonderworks

Sometimes the writing will dribble off the page and puddle around your feet. Spare t’s and floating dots over i’s, unimaginative terms like “good” and “fun,” lack luster sentences of uncertain viewpoint…this is the stuff of regular writing, as much as any brave revelation of a person’s interior or a keenly carefully observed guava—poked, prodded, and tasted.

The days of writing accumulate, just like the days of potty training or balancing on a bike or eating salad.

They aren’t glamorous, and often the contents, particularly of freewrites, feel a bit frightening. I confess: I panic a little each time it’s my turn to read and comment on a freewrite. There’s that moment where the words clack into each other and the sound is unclear—the heart and meaning undifferentiated, and the terms out of tune. I worry that this will be the One Time when I won’t have the right feedback that moves the piece forward or that will support the child’s risky (albeit, bland) self-expression.

To calm myself, I remember that my job isn’t to fix, prop up, or find what isn’t there. My job is to read.

And so I begin.

I read the writing. I notice that it fills the page (or doesn’t). I notice that there are words, lined up—as many as there are. I read them and let myself hear them and feel them. If the words are “unremarkable,” sometimes I ignore the meaning and listen to the sounds—as though hearing English as a foreign language.

I let the writing speak; I do not judge it.

This is the first step in being a brave reader. It is an easy thing to read a piece of writing that pops off the page and entices you forward into its tributaries of well-chosen language and clever ideas. It’s another to accept what is offered and to know that it doesn’t have to shine or sing or stand out above other efforts.

Thank the writer. Be earnest, rather than disappointed (it’s easier to not be disappointed if you go into the reading looking for what to affirm and choosing to find something—one thing!). You can always affirm effort, complete sentences, handwriting, a well-placed piece of punctuation or capitalization, congruence between subject and verb (why not notice that and say “Well done” rather than only noticing when it’s “off”?), and the single best word in the piece. Maybe that word is “I”—how the writer (your child) showed you his or her viewpoint and you appreciate it.

Not all freewriting will delight you or speak to you immediately. Sometimes you must be patient—just like when you go to game after game after game of soccer and your daughter runs along the inside of the sidelines as though she is playing, but really she’s just avoiding the ball. You still cheer, you still hope she’ll bump into it and make contact and be a participant. She still gets the orange slices and juice pack. She sweats and runs and cares.

Then there’s that one day when she least expected it—the ball is right there, right next to her foot and she sees the open net—and out of nowhere, she boots that ball into the goal—no one is more shocked than she is and you cheer even louder!

You loved her no less before, and not more now—you just feel that affection a bit more deeply in that moment. You know she’s a soccer player in a new way.

That’s how it works with writing, too. You can coach, you can share strategies to help ease the challenge. But sometimes it takes a lot of running up and down the sidelines, cowering a bit, avoiding the ball, but hanging around the game anyway, before your child scores.

That’s how it’s supposed to be. Keep finding reasons to cheer. That’s what brave readers do.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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Just how foreign is writing?

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

WBWW 118- Image by Lisa

A debate exists about writing: is it related to speech? If so, how much? If not, why not?

One camp says that learning to write is akin to learning to speak a foreign language. Writing is as foreign to native speakers of any language as Amharic is to you or me (unless you are Ethiopian!). That’s why children struggle to become fluent writers, so the thinking goes. Children are naturally wired for speech and are frustrated trying to translate those words into language suitable for writing (the style of it, the vocabulary of it, the spelling of it, the punctuating of it, the organization of it, the handwriting or typing of it). Even my guru, Peter Elbow, says that some people feel as if they are translating speech into something else when they write. Have you ever experienced the “Hmmm, how shall I say this?” thought as you sit down to actually write the thought you are having?

That’s what this camp is getting at. There’s a weird translation process between speech and writing. Because so many of us have experienced that moment, there’s a sense in which it must be true: writing must be so different from speech, we are prone to writer’s block as a result.

There is a bit of truth in this perspective. The brain is not wired for writing, like it is for speech. Writing is a learned activity. Speech, however, is hardwired into all human beings.

The other camp sees writing as related to speech. Dr. Peter Elbow, again, recently published an entire book, Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing(affiliate link), that attempts to make this case to a resistant academy. Writing is the extension of speech, he argues. If we can understand speech first, and then see how it informs and creates writing, we will wave a wand of release over thousands of frozen would-be writers. The mechanics are only one aspect of writing—writing actually sits inside each of us as native speakers already.

What is fascinating is that in the world of homeschooling programs, both views rely on copywork, dictation, and two varieties of narration (oral and written) to help students gain fluency in “writing.” But their starting points of view are polar opposites.

What I’ve noticed in my work with thousands of families is that children are more inclined to put in the effort of learning the skills associated with writing when they can see that it relates to a skill they have already mastered: the English language.

When we talk about putting their thoughts into written words, we are asking them to identify thoughts! In Brave Writer, I suggest you “catch your child in the act of thinking.” Help your child discover that he or she is having thoughts worthy of record: write them down when they least expect it, when you hear those thoughts tumbling out of their mouths!

Every single day your children are not only thinking thoughts, but using those thoughts to generate oral language. That language can easily become written language when they have a transcriptionist (you!).

Once the connection is made (“what’s inside my head and comes out of my mouth can also be what shows up on paper and is read to others”), teaching the mechanics of writing becomes much more interesting to children. They get it—writing is about their mind lives and they love sharing those thoughts with others.

Are there style differences between writing and speaking? Of course! Are there pesky rules of grammar and syntax that prefer one over the other (sometimes we allow in speech what we prefer not to use in writing)? Naturally.

But if we start by seeing writing as foreign (as a foreign language), if we begin from a mental space that says that writing is “hard work” and that the “discipline” of writing requires rote work with someone else’s words first, if we suggest that what is inside your child is not yet suited to the page until some kind of mastery is achieved in handwriting or spelling, we literally alienate the fluent native speaker from writing—from believing in his or her writing voice before it has uttered a written peep!

That alienation, time and again, manifests as writer’s block or not caring. The spark of individuality that is your child is lost in all this “hard work of precision and accuracy.” Accuracy matters, but it is not more important than originality of thought. Accuracy can be added; originality can be lost.

What studies are showing to be true is that children are far more likely to take writing risks when they believe that their content is valuable, and when they trust their thought lives to be adequate to self-expression. They are more likely to work on their mechanics if they experience the mechanics as supporting their original thoughts, rather than having to show perfect mechanics before they are permitted to have original thoughts.

If we value our children’s thought lives, help them to express themselves in Big Juicy Conversations, if we transcribe some of their ideas and read them back later to our children, if we ask for expansion of thoughts and show curiosity, if we model language choices that are more likely to be associated with written language models, our children will, absolutely, discover writing in much the same way they found speech!

They will risk, test, try, show off, back away, make huge silly errors, make huge leaps of logic, express vocabulary beyond their years, will imitate and create, startle and master, and sometimes mess with you and act like they don’t have a thing to say. But they will grow! This is what growth looks like.

The approach we use in Brave Writer does not see writing as a foreign or antagonistic process that requires painful hard work. Rather, we see writing as the opportunity to take speech further—to enhance, expand, and nourish speech (oral language, inner thought), and then to preserve and share it with interested audiences.

Kids respond well to this vision of writing. They love to read, to be read to, to talk and converse. Writing, particularly in today’s dialogical world of the Internet, is another conversational tool. We can learn how to wield writing for a variety of audiences, but why not start with the one closest to home? Why not let them write for themselves? Then for you, and then for their friends, and finally for “academic purposes.” This is the progression that works.

I hope you feel reassured. You are not teaching Hindi to your kids, with a whole new language structure and vocabulary. Writing in one’s native tongue is built from the English already spoken and understood. Writing is simply gaining mechanical skills to transcribe one’s own fluent thoughts, and learning how to develop these thoughts into the flow of written language.

Brave Writer has created oodles of tools and tactics to help kids “get it.” We’ve got more in the pipeline.

You can help your kids learn to write well. Start from the idea that your children are writers already, learning mechanical skills, in search of a supportive editor/reader: you.

You can do it!

And so can they!

Cross-posted on facebook.

Image by Brave Writer mom, Lisa (cc)

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Does “Open and Go” work for writing?

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

The “resort on a beach” of all curricula is the “Open and Go” variety. You receive the UPS box in the mail, crack the spine of the new workbook or text, and immediately know what to do, right now, with your kids, without any preparation, reading of instructions, or adoption of a particular philosophy.

This magical product teaches the tough subject you have avoided without taxing you, plus your kids like it! What a bargain!

So do these products work for writing? More specifically, does Brave Writer have a product like this? Please, Mother may I?

Writing is unlike content-oriented subject matter. You aren’t exposing your children to a list of facts or details and asking them to memorize or consume them. Writing isn’t a set of formulae that needs to be introduced and practiced. Writing isn’t the coordination of handwriting, punctuation, spelling and grammar that can be learned, at times, in workbook formats. Writing is more than any of these, even if at times it embodies all of them.

Writing—original writing—is created from thoughts. Thoughts are personal to the writer. Thoughts come first. Everything else is window-dressing.

Just as speech required a context for risk and communication with an active partner, so, too, writing requires a witness and compassionate reader. Writing thrives when it becomes a dialog between the author and his or her audience—particularly the audience of an invested parent.

Scripting that dialog is not possible. A set of workbook pages doesn’t get at the mind life of the child. Writing forms don’t instruct a child in the process of self-inquiry (which is the genesis of all good writing). Handing a child a set of instructions to be read alone, and lines on the page to fill in, doesn’t help a child imagine herself as a writer. Rather the child is being taught that writing is external to self, done for that page, according to someone else’s ideas of what should go there.

Literally—open and go workbook writing programs ask children to think of writing as a task done according to someone else’s prescription of what goes “over there” away from self. Children are taught to think that the thoughts for writing exist inside someone else’s vision, and their job is to hunt them down (pluck them from the thin air) and hope they’ve collected enough of them in one place to get a “good grade.”

This is not writing. This is puzzle solving—holding the directions in the mind, while wrestling language into the imagined form the assignment creator may have intended.

Yet this “assignment writing in a workbook” is the holy grail of writing instruction! Can’t parents hand a book to their children and ask them to follow the clear instructions? Won’t writing grow with practice? What about all those writing assignments in high school and college? Kids don’t get to pick their topics or formats then, do they? Why not practice now?

Parents, typically, don’t have good memories of writing instruction from their childhoods, and many are not self-confident writers today. Yet many programs expect parents to instruct children in writing using similar methods that didn’t work all that well for them. These programs lead to similar results—mediocre, unsure writing. That’s not to say that some kids don’t find their way to brilliance and enthusiasm! Writers (kids who love writing) find their way regardless of method, half the time.

Helpful writing instruction requires a philosophy that is a paradigm shift away from how you, the parent, likely learned to write. The shift is in focus—away from form and accuracy as primary, and toward risk and expression as essential. Original writing is about how the mind generates thought—instruction is about how you foster an environment for creative thinking and language use to grow. It’s about recognizing that writing is more than words on a page, but is, rather, the valuing of the writer’s own perspective of the world—a writer’s personal experiences and values, curiosities, mastery of facts, passionate reads, hopes and aspirations, confusions and frustrations, challenges and arguments, connection to others, and reporting of information.

THIS is writing. All writing is this—this distillation of an individual’s mind life/thought world. Clarity and accuracy matter, but so do inspiration, imagination, critical thinking, and flexible, expanded vocabulary. Form helps to manage these aspects of the topic for writing, but forms can also stifle original thought. Knowing how to write means knowing how to manage the forms, rather than be managed by them.

WBWW 48Image by Brave Writer mom, Sandy

All this to say: “open and go” deprives writing of its essential context—space and room to explore. Can you imagine asking for an “open and go” parenting manual? “Open and go” driver’s training? “Open and go” sexuality and reproduction workbook?

When we are dealing with danger, complexity, values, intimate relationships, connection, or thought lives, we do our children a disservice to think we can teach them by opting out of the hard work of engaging with them. True partnership and dialog go more slowly, but so much more richly.

Brave Writer has materials and classes that support the relationship of new-writer to parent-coach. We even give you specific words to say, and processes and practices to try together. There are tools that can be used again and again as your young writers learn to internalize the self-inquiry style of writing generation. We give you projects to test together—with week by week instructions of what to do. But in each case, all the way until high school, your presence—your appreciation for and understanding of the process, your conversation and modeling—is essential.

Make time and space for writing in your family. It can look like teatime and poetry on some days. It can look like family movie night or read aloud time or freewriting or riddle-creating or limerick reciting. It may be the hard work of jotting down an endless story or the wise support you offer a teen trying to start a blog about recycling. Writing instruction might include the hard work of grammar study or learning to edit for spelling errors. But it isn’t essentially that. It is the discovery of what one has to say that is worth preserving and presenting in a cogent manner.

Writing is unlike any other subject in homeschool. In fact, —not a subject. Writing is about writers. Writers need readers. You are the reader—the partner, coach, and ally your child deserves, as you help your writers discover their voices, their vocabularies, and their powers of refining their messages in the written word.

No “open and go” workbook can show you how to do that. You need to live it alongside your kids, once you’ve adopted the principles into your heart. It’s a privilege to be that person in your child’s life. Don’t delegate it to a workbook! Yes it takes time. So do all the things you care most about.

Surprisingly, teaching writing this way is so pleasurable when you get there, it doesn’t feel like work any more. It feels like relationship. A good, rich one. The kind you want with your kids—the kind that lets you into their minds and hearts.

So worth it.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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No one likes to be criticized

Monday, March 17th, 2014

No one.

You don’t. You don’t want someone to come along and examine what you do in your homeschool and tell you that you’ve got it wrong.

I don’t. I don’t like being examined and found wanting.

Writers don’t. They risk putting themselves out there, even if what they risk appears paltry and disconnected from what they care about, and still recoil from editorial feedback.

Yet we all want to grow and become better versions of ourselves. Don’t we? In our most honest moments?

It takes some toughness to be open to criticism. There’s a reason for this. Criticism exposes mistakes. The experience of being mistaken is painful. You feel exposed—there it is, your failure, out there for all to see.

No one likes that feeling. Worse, if you are seeking support and feedback, getting criticism in return can feel like a betrayal of trust. You shared your struggle using the words available to you, and this other person picked them apart or misheard your intention or cared only about her superior understanding and appeared to take pleasure in her reconstruction of the “right way.”

There’s a way to deliver feedback that doesn’t leave the recipient undone, devastated, hurt, embarrassed. It’s the chief feature of our writing instruction, and is at the heart of how I operate in my family and business.

I follow these principles because they ensure emotional safety, while allowing for dialog for growth.

1. Value the person.

Your child, your spouse, your best friend, the member of your email list or discussion board needs to know that you value him or her first. The human being taking the risk to share “self” with you must feel that she is valuable, essentially worthy of care and consideration. That comes from the tedious, time-consuming task of using words, facial expressions, and internal postures that remind you that, in fact, this person is worthy of my time/energy/care. Most people want to be good people, or regarded as such, which is a good enough basis from which to begin.

Your kids want to be good kids, want to please you, want to do what they are supposed to do to become full-fledged adults. They want your guidance, too. Most spouses want to be loved and to give love back. Most best friends want to be trusted allies. Most participants on most lists and boards want to be heard and helped.

Yes, there are exceptions, but let’s start with the rule: Most human beings seek connection, and want a mirror that tells them: “I see you. You matter.”

2. Failure is painful.

The failure to live up to one’s own vision of success (successful living—homeschooling, marriage, career, writing a paragraph, being a teammate, running a household, parenting, managing finances, exercise and diet, calculating percentages in an online game) is painful. All by itself. This must be appreciated before offering a critique. Even the cavalier, halfhearted effort is often a cover for not wanting to risk full commitment to avoid giving a best effort and failing still. Better to only “half-try” and then when criticized you can tell yourself, “I wasn’t really trying.” This half-effort protects the ego because what if you gave a full effort and still failed? That would mean you were fundamentally flawed, unable to grow/succeed. “What more can be given than a ‘full effort,’?” goes the unconscious reasoning.

So before feedback, it’s important to have full appreciation for the pain of failure. Your comments are about to land someone in that pain (particularly if delivered with judgment, anger, or exasperation).

3. Frame your feedback in the positive by giving information, not criticism.

“Looks to me like you wanted the reader to pause here. We use a comma for that.”

Is much better than:

“You left out a comma.”

Or as one of our instructors says, she likes to use “Remember to…” rather than “Don’t forget to…” Even a simple switch to a positive is better received than a negative.

The premise is that everyone is trying his or her best. Even when they aren’t, they can be inspired to try their best when we find the glimpses of effort behind the half-try.

“I’m so glad you answered the question. I look forward to reading more answers from you this week.”

Much better than:

“You aren’t giving me enough material to read so I can comment. I expect more later this week.”

I’ve noticed that homeschool discussion board conversations devolve when the original poster asks a question, not using the evolved vocabulary of the group, and is then challenged for her errant thinking. This experience leads to online flailing: the need to reframe, restate, explain away. The original poster will then try to give some sense of her inner process to justify her poorly worded question, which is batted away by the experts as her not taking criticism/feedback well.

Some people are strong enough for that kind of aggressive help. But many are not. Most children are not.

It helps to receive the intention of the person first, to value the desire to connect, or to ask for help, or to share first efforts in work. It helps to remember that failing is painful, and that having a failure pointed out is exposing and embarrassing. What works at that point is supportive, positive feedback that takes into account the whole person, not just their weakness or failure to perform at the desired level.

You get there through a self-discipline of thinking in a new way. Take time to find it. Your child isn’t lazy. Your child didn’t do the work. Ask yourself why? Think about how you might support a change in atmosphere around the topic, or help your child to see the benefits of effort, even small, short bursts of concentration. Start there rather than a berating of character.

Your child isn’t addicted to video games. He loves playing them. He gets things from them that make him happy. What is he getting? What can you learn about video games to understand why he is so absorbed? What else can you offer him in his life that is also compelling, and could be of interest to him?

Or conversely, is it possible that something “not good” is happening in his world and video games are giving him a way of escape? Can you find out?

Conversations that are non-judgmental, curiosity-seeking, supportive explorations will lead to receptivity more than labels and reactionary anger.

Sometimes we all lose our cool and say mean things or jump to conclusions. Sometimes we’re right—the other person is being mean-spirited or recalcitrant and is not receptive to input from us. Sometimes we are in abusive relationships! No amount of supportive dialog will yield good results.

But on the whole, a practice of this kind will bring about trust, support, and growth. That’s how we grow brave writers, in fact. And it works beautifully.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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Free up space for written exploration

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Image by Juhan Sonin

A couple quick thoughts for today:

1) Speech before writing. Attend to the original speaking voice of your child. Really hear it. Respond to it. Make big facial expressions that show you are paying attention. In fact, pay attention! It’s too easy to seem like you’re listening when in fact you are rummaging through the pantry in your mind for tonight’s dinner ingredients. Listen, respond, engage (ask for “more” – “Tell me more about X,” “What else happened?”, “I want more details! This sounds __________ –exciting, scary, nerve-wracking, calming, wonderful, crazy, fascinating”).

The habit of attending to your child’s spoken voice creates the best foundation for writing. As you listen, sometimes you will want to jot down what is being shared. Do it! Write it down and share it later in the day with an interested party (other parent, grandparent, sibling, friend).

2) Writing is exploration, not performance. Use writing to explore thoughts and ideas, impressions and hunches. Kids need to know that the context for their written thoughts is a safe place to explore those partially formed ideas. It is not a place where they must prefer accuracy to risk. Risk is valued. Accuracy, not so much. Accuracy and technique are “value-added” features that come at the end of the writing process. They must never govern the process or control it. Rather, the experience of writing (particularly that initial burst of language through the hands) must be that risk is exhilarating and valuable.

If exhilaration is not available as a legitimate reaction to writing, the minimum ought to be that risk is permissible. Give permission, take risks, shock your kids and write your own risky, free, un-bound exploration of a word, idea, thought, belief, impression, experience, conversation. Share it. Model what it may look like to really let loose. You are the permission-giver and catalyst in your homeschool. Break your own rules, if you need to, to free up space for written exploration.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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“The obstacle standing in the way of fingers tap, tap, tapping on the keyboard”

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

The email below from Brave Writer mom, Cathy, was in response to a Daily Writing Tip. Here’s an excerpt:

When a child hits writer’s block with a current piece of writing, sometimes it helps to go back and reread a success! Pull it out from the homeschool tomb (aka, the homeschool notebook collecting dust in your basement cabinet) and read it to your child with enthusiasm and feeling.

Hearing polished words that came from inside can be a catalyst for more words to emerge, or for a style to be found that had been lost. Your child can even “borrow” old work into the new piece. We call that “repurposing content” in the publishing biz. Nothing wrong with that!


I’m always so grateful for your continued support which allows us to encourage and mentor good and thoughtful writing. You’ve taught me a lot over the years. I’d like to share my continued challenges and successes with writing in our family:

The weekend had almost come to its conclusion when I heard the words, “Mom, I have to prepare a one page short story by tomorrow for my English class.” There is never a dull moment in our family of eight, but trying to stir up energy at the end of the day, let alone a weekend is often an uphill battle.

It very quickly became evident that Louie’s attitude toward this assignment was the obstacle standing in the way of fingers tap, tap, tapping on the keyboard. Super homeschool mom to the rescue! I’ve got lots of ideas up my sleeve thanks to Julie and the Bravewriter philosophy.

“Louie, you’ve got lots of writing from when you were homeschooled, why not look at some of those to help spark an idea for your writing?” says a confident mom.



Like an alchemist exploring chemical reactions, Louie and I had our very own explosion at the computer desk. Space and time from one another was necessary.

Level-headed homeschooled sister eventually cajoles Louie back to the computer where she begins to type and collaborate with Louie on short story ideas. Laughter, banter and poking fun of one another is all that could be heard. The right attitude had been harnessed.

For the remainder of the evening, each worked side by side, mostly Louie providing the ideas and words, to complete a wonderful short story. It brought me back to the days when Sarah and Louie shared their days together as homeschool sisters.

Julie you have once again reminded me of the many important steps necessary to affect a small shift in our children’s attitude toward writing. Although I did suggest to Louie to look back at her previous work, I didn’t offer to read it which is so important for the moment when our kids are struggling. She was struggling with her confidence and me reading her work may have infused and reminded Louie that she is a good writer.

Keep the tips coming.

In gratitude,


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What is a “brave writer”?

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

I’m BraveImage by Steven DePolo

A brave writer is a person who has discovered that the risk to write is worth it.

A brave writer is a person who knows that s/he has lots of words inside and that after getting some of them out for this writing task, the supply hasn’t been exhausted and there are plenty more for next time.

A brave writer discovers that writer’s block is a condition that plagues even the most prolific writers, and then writes to unblock (or goes for a walk, or takes a shower, or jumps on a trampoline).

A brave writer already lives inside each of us, but some have been coaxed into hiding until a safe space opens the way to take the writing risk.

A brave writer writes what s/he wants to write and finds ways to “tweak” assignments so that they bend toward the writer’s strengths and interests.

A brave writer tells the true truth—choosing to generate insight rather than parroting someone else’s.

A brave writer explores a variety of writing voices and genres, knowing that content can be shaped for many different audiences.

A brave writer doesn’t start from scratch every time, but freely repurposes previously completed writing as raw material for new writing projects.

A brave writer sometimes writes poorly, hates writing, resists revision, gets hurt feelings, and wishes someone else could do the writing for him or her.

A brave writer knows that weak writing efforts are a part of a life’s work of writing.

A brave writer throws away some of his/her original writing.

A brave writer discovers that a trusted creative partner is a fantastic resource and learns to ask for writing feedback.

A brave writer relishes “having written” when it all comes together.

A brave writer is not always a good speller or typist or punctuator, but is responsible to ensure that final drafts have been edited to ensure those features are in place.

A bunch of brave writers live in your house already. They simply need to be coaxed to express themselves, and supported as they do.

Becoming a brave writer takes about ten years—the span of time it takes to be a fluent wordsmith, idea generator, speller, grammatically sound sentence-builder, fluent typist or handwriter, and insight cultivator. Take it a year at a time, a writing project at a time.

Become the brave writer you wish to see in your children, and live from that risky-self-expressing space. Your kids figure out what it means to be an adult by looking at you. If they see that being an adult means being a brave writer, they will be much more likely to want to be one too.

Cross-posted on facebook.

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The comparison game

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Apples & OrangesImage by TheBusyBrain

When you compare your kids’ writing output to what your neighbors’ kids do in school, you literally change the felt-sense atmosphere of your home. You dial up anxiety, urgency, and haphazard (spray it with a shot gun) tactics for “catching up” or “competing.” It’s like inviting depression in for tea, only when it arrives, it adds salt and soured milk.

Yes, your neighbors’ kids have been producing book reports and paragraphs about how much they love spaghetti and autumn leaves for months now. These kids are trained to start with a topic sentence based (often) on a topic the teacher selects.

The young writers must sit in hard chairs and write (right now!) without much help, dialog, or support. They have lines to fill and specifications for what to put on those lines. They get to the task of puzzle solving.

Occasionally they will freewrite a bit or brain map. Occasionally they do the work at home, by themselves, in a bedroom when they are tired and want to watch TV.

They will turn in writing assignments, and a teacher will sit in front of her favorite sitcom and read them enough to give them a grade. Her handwritten, red ink comments will be sincere, but also removed from the moment of writing and thus, not useful to the student in the end, who glances at the feedback but is already in a new non-writing moment.

By the end of the year, a folder of writing products will follow the child home. Some of these children will toss those folders on the backyard summer bonfire (our neighbors ritualized this activity each summer).

None of them will have eaten brownies while writing.

Your kids, by contrast, will freewrite oodles of pages with lots of parenthetical statements and remarks about how the process of writing feels (“I’m stuck” and “I hate this!” and “I wish I could play Mario Kart”). They will ask you to jot down their “too busy” thoughts. They will add a sentence at another time. They will hem and haw and not want to write.

So you’ll read books to them and recite poetry over scones and then one day, all of you will get the Best Writing Idea Ever. In you’ll go, the deep end of the pool, writing, revising, laughing, talking, clipping and pasting. The final result is one you hold in your hands and admire. That one project, that one happily executed, not necessarily well-planned project will be a source of pride and joy. You’ll all relish “having written.”

Then nothing. Nothing. Not a single word of writing for a desert of weeks at a time, maybe even months. The recovery from success feels like the line to Space Mountain. It moves so slowly and the eventual ride begins to seem absurdly unimportant for all that waiting.

But then, you arrive! At the next inspired writing excursion! Off you go again! The talking, writing, figuring out, adding, deleting, laughing, wondering if there is some photo to go with it, illustrating, showing it to Dad, showing it to Mom.

Maybe at the end of the year you’ll have 3-4 writing products and a slew of freewrites, and even more pages of copywork and dictation. But these you do actually have. And no one will burn them or toss them in the round file. You’ll hold onto them for years to come, long after your kids lose interest.

When your young ones become college kids, they will write differently than their peers and their college professors will notice. They’ll be intrigued—because the writing won’t be the cookie cutter formula writing so many of their students produce.

Don’t compare. Even though it feels like you’re behind, you are actually…ahead.

My motto: Keep going!

Cross-posted on facebook.

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A few thoughts about freewriting

Friday, January 17th, 2014

Image by Kelly 250The blank page/screen continues to intimidate even the most seasoned writers. It’s the blankness of it—the not-yet of words, the vastness of the task, the emptiness of the space.

The same strategy gets words to the page each time: Write. Write THAT. Write that thought right there—THAT one; how you wish the screen weren’t so blank, or that there were already words on it. You can start by writing that.

You can start with writing gibberish or arguing with the prompt: Why do I have to write? Why can’t this be easier for me?

Sometimes those very words lead to surprisingly relevant thoughts. For instance, if you need to write a college application essay, the stress of knowing that the essay may be the difference between admission and rejection can create paralysis. So let’s follow that thought and see what it might yield!

I hate the blank screen. I want it full of words—my words, in my own voice, not trying to impress anyone. I want to go to college badly because I imagine it as a place where I’ll get to learn and grow. It’s frustrating to be one of the herd of people applying, wondering if the admissions team can even see me, the real person behind all these words. I wish I could include a picture of me with my Kindle on a train in Europe while I read Homer’s Odyssey—a trip I paid for, a graduation present to myself. To me, that’s education. I’d just like to have someone to talk with me about it, to help me see what I’m missing…

A freewrite start like that reveals some excellent thoughts that could be shaped into quality ideas for the college app essay. The student wants to have an authentic educational experience not driven by grades but by acquisition of knowledge. This student is self-motivated already—reading, thinking, taking the initiative in his own education. This student is aware that a university context could enhance his self-study. There’s a fabulous anecdote lodged in the middle that could start the essay: riding a train in Europe reading classic literature, a trip he paid for himself.

Freewriting is free—it dislodges the you that is essential to your essay. Writing an “essay draft” doesn’t often yield that same freedom. “Drafts” tend to call forth attentiveness to the prompt, the expectations of the critical reader. Freewriting enables a writer to dismiss the value of the reader and their supposed expectations in favor of what he or she really wants to say.

Those “wants to say” items then can be mined and retooled to suit the reader expectations later.

The last thing about freewriting: There has never been a freewrite I’ve read or written or heard read aloud that didn’t freak me out a little bit on the first pass. Freewrites have this way of feeling “too free” – like, “Crumbs! What am I supposed to do with all those dangly, rambly words?”

Just know that even as a seasoned freewriter and writing coach, I still feel initially knocked sideways by the sheer ungainly-ness of most freewrites. You will too.

Read it. Walk away from it. Read it again later.

Then start looking for single ideas/sentences/words/items to lift from the raw writing that can be used like boards to build the house. You’ll see them, once you calm down.

If you are in the essay for college crunch, feel free to contact Brave Writer. One of our staff members tutors college bound students in completing those essays for an hourly fee, as she has time. You can email me and we’ll let you know if she’s available. (I don’t advertise this practice too much as we can’t handle a big volume.)

In any event:

Freewriting—blank screen, terror; filled with words, daunting; final outcome, writer’s voice and power!

Cross-posted on facebook.

Image by Brave Writer mom, Kelly (cc)

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It’s okay to help your kids a lot!

Monday, January 6th, 2014


Get in there! Give your kids attention, care, and HELP. Remember how you taught them to speak: you talked with them, you supplied the words they couldn’t find, you gently corrected them when their grammar choices were not quite right, you gave them scripts for answering the phone or thanking Grandma for the birthday gift.

Your involvement—a serious amount of conversation, sing-songy expressing, complete sentences stated for repetition by your children—created fluent speakers by five years of age.

Did you ever think: “She answered the phone using the script I gave her. Those must not really be her words. She isn’t really speaking. I shouldn’t have said so much”?

Of course not! You were thrilled when she “got it right” and was polite to the incoming caller.

Writing is the same. It’s okay to supply full sentences or new words or ideas. It’s okay to bat around a plot concept, helping your son think through how it will involve all the characters.

You can type papers, or handwrite them. You can give ideas and model full paragraphs. You can supply dialog punctuation that your child hasn’t mastered yet. It’s okay to be enthusiastic and to share an idea that popped into your head after listening to the first draft.

The collaboration of two people on one writing project is not an admission of defeat. It’s not cheating. It’s the way it works in the publishing industry! The author produces the insight and puts it in writing as best he or she can. The editor comes in behind and suggests alternatives—sometimes rewriting whole sections.

You are the more experienced language-user. It stands to reason that your ability to generate thought and language to go with it is superior to your child’s. Your kids deserve to benefit from it! You wouldn’t expect a child to learn to speak English in a crib removed from people.

You can’t expect a child to learn to write banished to a bedroom to “get it done” already, “without any help.”

So go for it, without guilt. You are the right person for the job. Support your young writers with:

Your own words
Help with mechanics
Brainstorming ideas
Typing or handwriting, as needed

As we like to say in Brave Writer:

Help helps.

Cross-posted on facebook.

Image © Kmiragaya |

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