Archive for the ‘Writing about Writing’ Category

Pressure and Motivation

The Difference Between Pressure and Motivation

Evaluate these two comments:

“This paragraph has so much potential!”

“I can’t wait to find out what happens next!”

In an attempt to give compliments, sometimes a parent exerts pressure when what she wants to create is motivation. Take the above example. If when you read a paragraph your child has written and you see its flaws, but want to convey that you appreciate the content, you may be tempted to say:

“This could be a great paragraph if…” or “I see a lot of potential here” or “Except for the mistakes, your paragraph is really getting there.”

Each of these statements focuses on the paragraph as something to evaluate, not as something to be read and understood.

I’ve said versions of these at times to my kids. Because they feel safe with me, they immediately fire back, “Wait, don’t you like it? Why are you focused on what I didn’t do?”

Which made me defensive: “Hey I gave you a compliment! I think it’s a great paragraph! It’s just that it will be even better when you fix x, y, and z.”

What my kids heard, however, was pressure. They weren’t worthy of my full admiration until they had presented me with error-free copy. They were deflated! It was as if I was only interested in the paragraph to demonstrate a mastery of the mechanics or expanded detail. My focus was on the potential of the piece, not the actual.

The second example showed my true interest in the purpose of the paragraph: to engage me, the reader (not for my evaluation as teacher).

The communication:

“I read your paragraph, and now I want to know where you are going with the story or information because it was compelling.”

No evaluation of its potential—rather, a focus on the actual:
the impact of what is already on the page.

This kind of response to a person’s writing is often experienced as “motivating.” It validates what has been offered while inviting more. It gives the writer permission to add to the existing piece rather than requiring the mess to be cleaned up before deserving a compliment.

When we look at writing, pressure is the key reason so many kids lose heart. They feel pressure to write more than they offered, they feel pressure to not misspell any word they’ve ever once spelled correctly for fear they will be reminded that they KNOW how to spell it so why the mistake?

They feel pressure to move the story along in a clear linear pattern, to never ramble, to use proper punctuation, to write legibly. They worry that unless they coordinate all these skills, the meaning and thought they have put into their writing will not be “heard.” Until all the pieces are lined up, they don’t get to hear: “That story is so good, I want to find out what happens next.” Motivation comes from the desire to get a positive reaction again.

If your child puts out two or three sentences that are misspelled and poorly punctuated, sincere parents will believe they are providing motivation by extolling the child’s capabilities like this:

“You have such good stories to tell! I know you could make them even better if you just checked your spelling first. You have the best handwriting when you take your time. I see great potential here for you!”

This “back-handed compliment” feels like pressure to the child—to do better.

Yet even poorly spelled and punctuated writing can be read for its entertainment value.

If you notice the thoughts, ideas or story, you might find that
the desire for mechanical accuracy has space to grow.

You might say:

“I was reading along and I became amazed at what you know about trebuchets! I didn’t quite catch this word (pointing to it)—can you tell me what it was in your head? Oh! ‘Launcher.’ I get it now! So you are saying that the trebuchet is a kind of launcher. What great language! What would you launch if you had one?”

If your child experiences your curiosity about a misspelled word as your desire to really understand the meaning of the piece (not as a correction for not living up to his potential), he is more likely to take your comments as motivation to care about his spelling.

This is true in every arena! The goal of teaching isn’t to remind our kids of how much they could do well if they only just… (fill in the blank).

The goal is to be a mirror to a child who is taking learning risks—to show them all the ways those risks are showing up in the world and that you value them.

Motivation is internal—it’s a felt need to produce/risk for personal satisfaction. We create a context for motivation when we are amazed by who our kids are today, not who they could be tomorrow.

The Homeschool Alliance

Header image by Brave Writer parent Sheetal

How to Bring Feeling into Writing

How to help your child bring feeling into writing without asking for writing that shares feelings.

I tell parents not to ask for feelings in writing. We don’t actually want feelings (these are usually label words that don’t get at the heart of the experience). We usually ask for feelings because what we are reading feels wooden or dry. What leads to better writing is a more expanded address—addressing the topic by showing, rather than telling.

So instead of “It makes me feel sad to think of Jews being killed in concentration camps,” write about the conditions of the concentration camps so that the reader is moved to sadness—to the experience of sadness.

What mostly happens is that a child will write: “6 million Jews were killed in World War 2” and a parent will say, “Write more about your feelings” because what the parent really wants to read is writing that evokes feelings (totally reasonable).

So to get there, a better set of questions might be:

  • Tell me more about these concentration camps.
  • Can you describe the conditions?
  • Can you explain how the killing took place?
  • Can you write from the point of view of a person standing in line for a shower?
  • What might that person be thinking, wondering?

Like that.

This is how we bring feeling into writing without asking for writing that shares feelings.


Kidswrite Intermediate helps students apply their unique flair to the academic task.

Brave Writer Online Writing Class Kidswrite Intermediate

Help Your Kids Breathe Life Into Their Story Characters

How to help your kids breathe life into their story characters

by Brave Writer instructor Karen O’Connor

Have you noticed that when your children are glued to a well-written story you can hardly pry them away for a meal? They get totally caught up in the lives of the characters and are often inspired to create stories of their own. You can help your kids breathe life into their story characters with a few simple guidelines.

Encourage children to:

1. Get to know their characters intimately. ‘Live’ with these boys and girls as they would a sibling or best friend. Have them create a short profile of each character. What does he like to eat? What games does she enjoy playing? What style of clothing does he choose? What are her habits and hobbies? What is he afraid of? Why is she so bossy?

2. Assign each character a distinguishing characteristic or core quality. For example, in one story, Jasmine is a ‘walking dictionary’ as her brother calls her. She has taken it upon herself to learn at least one new word each day starting with the letter A. Your son or daughter might create a character with a special talent or a personality trait that attracts attention.

3. Create multi-level characters. Talk with your children about the physical appearance, emotional makeup, and mental capacity of their characters. Suppose one of the girls is short for her age, quick-witted, and yet embarrassed to show her real feelings. On the other hand, imagine a male character who is “tall, dark, and handsome”—and that’s it. A reader might have a hard time relating to such a stereotype. Talk about what would help readers relate to the character.

4. Avoid labels. (Sue was sad. Andy was happy). Flat statements such as these rob the reader of drawing his own conclusions based on what the characters do. Remind your kids to show rather than explain. For example: Sue dropped to the floor and sobbed. Andy dashed through the door waving his first-place ribbon. Bring the characters on stage and let them talk and act for themselves.

5. Choose a name that helps to identify and individualize the characters. For instance, Gabby could be a cute nickname for a talkative boy whose given name is Gilbert. A striking and to the point name, like Dot or Liz, might work for a tough loudmouth.

6. Study characters that catch your children’s interest in the books they read. What makes them special? What is memorable about them? Creating characters of depth and substance takes time and practice. But all the effort is worth it to hear from a happy reader that their story characters are ‘true to life.’

Karen O’Connor is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction—for children and adults and a writing coach (Write for Fun 1 and Write For Fun 2) with Brave Writer.

Write for Fun!

What if my child doesn’t like freewriting?

What to do if my child hates freewriting

A Brave Writer mom asked on BraveScopes:

Any suggestions for easing a reluctant (but very capable and creative) writer into Friday Freewrites?…He’s just about 11.

Not all kids love the timer or freewriting. I like to suggest that you freewrite yourself (with which ever kids in the family will participate) and pair it with brownies. You can also try freewriting at a local Starbucks, the library, outside on a picnic table, or inside UNDER a table. You might try “midnight” freewrites where everyone gets up at midnight and freewrites by candle light.

Noah, my oldest, was this way. He even today (28 years old) says that the timer is too much pressure for him. We got to a place where we didn’t set a timer for him. I also taught him how to keep a “special events” journal where he only wrote when there was a special event to remember. He has one journal from an entire childhood and it has probably 15-20 entries. It was enough. It helped. Stay open to who your child is. Don’t listen to me! Listen to him. 🙂

And for an 11 year old—remember that they need to be shown that you really are okay with what they write (telling doesn’t always convince them). You might scrunch up the page first, you might ask them to assign you a topic, you might freewrite first and ask your son to read yours to you and give you feedback, you might offer gel pens and black paper… And of course, you can catch him in the act of thinking and jot down HIS words as he says them to you spontaneously in an unplanned moment. That counts too!

Let him create his own list the day before you freewrite. Set the timer for a minute and ask him to write in a list down the page ALL the things he loves and knows a lot about. Any topic. Then when you go to freewrite, he can choose from the list or just write what comes to mind. His choice.

Mix it up! Get rid of the schoolish element. See what happens.

Party School!

5 Ways to Get Writing to an Audience

5 Ways to Get a Child's Writing to an Audience

by Finlay Worrallo, Brave Writer student and intern

Over Dinner

Chose something you’ve written and ask your family if you can read it to them over dinner, or at another point in the day when you’re all together. Read clearly and a little slower than feels natural–that will result in a pleasant reading speed. Afterwards, ask your family what they thought of it and listen to their feedback.

With Friends and Extended Family

Pick a handful of people you know well whose opinions you value, but who you don’t see every day–friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. Then select a piece of writing you’re proud of, and send a copy to each person, either by post or email, along with a quick message asking for some comments on your writing. Be specific–for example, ask them to chose one sentence they liked and one that was difficult to understand. Wait patiently for their replies and read them when they arrive. With any luck, your chosen people will give you some constructive comments on your piece. Remember to say thank you for their time!

On the Internet

Blogging is easy these days and it’s a simple way of getting your writing to an audience. First, set yourself up with one online, with your parent’s permission and help if necessary. Then begin with a post about who you are and what your blog’s going to be about. (This is always a good start, as it helps readers to work out whether they fit into your potential audience. If you’re writing reviews of computer games, your best friend might love to read your blog, but your best friend’s aunt might not.) After that, start blogging articles! People like blogs which are updated regularly, so it’s a good idea to add a new post at least every week, or more often if you’ve got time. Then tell all your friends and family about your new blog and spread the word.

In a Magazine

If you read any newspapers or magazines, why not send a letter to the letters to the editor’s page? The whole point of a letters page is to showcase the opinions of readers, so it’s a window of opportunity that’s always open. And if you get your letter published, your writing will potentially be read by thousands. So think about what sort of topics the letters tend to be about–current events, readers’ own lives, comments on the magazine content–then write a letter in a similar vein and send it off!

Through a Competition

It’s true that entering a writing competition is a way of finding an audience that might involve spending money–but on the bright side, you might actually get some money in return. Look for student writing competitions online and see if you can find a free one or one with a low entry fee (few are more than $10). Read the guidelines and bear them in mind while writing your story, poem or article. Send it in before the deadline and wait and see what happens. If you win, brilliant! If you don’t, remember you can try again as many times as you like. After all, the first Harry Potter book got rejected 12 times!

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