Posts Tagged ‘writing formats’

Do Formats Hush the Writing Voice?

Do formats hush the writer's voice

If a writing format is the “house” then the writer’s voice is the life within.

If you start with a freewrite, you want to then think about what kind of format would best house the writing. Often, just revising the freewrite for clarity, a sense of humor, organization and powerful language is enough. You will wind up with a paper that is a few paragraphs long that retells or describes or narrates or exposes or instructs or remembers or explores.

However, as your child develops skill in writing, it’s great to introduce some of the more common formats for writing. In The Writer’s Jungle, I share about poetry, letters, description, and the dreaded elementary school report (it gets its own chapter).

Some writing curricula focus on formats almost exclusively:

  • Write a portrait of your mother’s face.
  • Write a narrative paragraph about last year’s birthday.
  • Write an expository paragraph about Custer’s last stand.
  • Describe the autumn leaves in two paragraphs.

These kinds of writing tasks can be perfectly fine for kids who write naturally and comfortably. The issue is helping them first get those words onto the page and then helping them reorganize those words into a form.

So if the assignment calls for an expository paragraph about Custer’s last stand, the goal is to write about that last stand that exposes to the reader details about that moment in history.

Do you now need to consult those websites or writing books that explain what a topic sentence is, how many lines ought to fit into the paragraph, what a clincher is and so on?

They may serve as guides (though I would avoid those that treat formats like formulas or recipes that allow for no variation). As a caveat, the SAT/ACT test evaluators don’t like to be able to “see” the format in the writing. They want fluency and smooth transitions, not obvious emulation of a rigid format.

A writing teacher I admire put it this way:

“As a student grows his writing voice, he will not always use the most accurate or sophisticated structure. Yet it is essential that he develop his voice first, without those restraints, so that he knows what it is to speak genuinely and with personal confidence. It is at this point that formats may be taught.”

Do formats restrain the writer’s voice?

When they are taught, however, initially some of that spark may fade. The writer’s voice might become submerged in the restrictions and specifics of the format. That is because the student is putting his energy into mastering a new way of writing and gives less attention to what he has to say specifically.

The writer who has a sense of her own writing voice, however, will eventually move through the awkward, stiff writing phase and reincorporate the personal, individual writing style as she becomes more comfortable with the purpose and structure of the format.

What this means is that you may introduce formats for writing to kids who write fluently and naturally. As you do, don’t be surprised at a bit of regression in terms of flair and personality in the writing. As the child begins to master the format (like the expository essay), look for ways to enhance the content by writing more sophisticated transitions, by including personal experience, by upgrading word choices and so on.

Developing your writing voice before using formats is essential for genuine, confident content.

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Formats are the “next step” not the “first step” for your young writer.

 Questions about writing formats come up frequently. Keep reading about things you can do to help strengthen your child’s writing voice before introducing formats.
Partnership Writing

Do You Ever Teach Writing Formats to Young Children?

Writing Formats are a Tool

The process of learning writing formats is very similar to how we learn to speak.

One of our BW moms asked me this week about teaching formats to her daughter who is now comfortable with writing. Does the Brave Writer philosophy eschew with formats all together? Is there ever a time to identify a topic sentence, to explain a descriptive paragraph, to teach the difference between argumentative and narrative paragraphs?

The answer is most assuredly, “Yes.”

Writing involves the use of formats as surely as speech does. We often follow unconscious formats as we speak. We greet each other according to conventions we learn along the way, we answer the phone and give directions according to formats we’ve internalized after years of talking and emulating other speakers. Eventually, some of us make an effort to learn how to give a speech or business presentation. We are trained to make a sales pitch or to close a deal.

All of these speech formats come long after we’ve internalized speaking as a primary means of communication.

With writing, it works the same way. As your child shows confidence and competence in freewriting, revision and editing, it is perfectly fine to discuss writing formats and to even “give them a whirl.” Most formats can be found on the Internet (descriptive, narrative, expository and argumentative paragraph instructions proliferate).

The tendency (for unconfident parents and not quite convinced writers) is to forget about writer’s voice, freedom, saying something that is meaningful rather than regurgitating what is expected, when faced with formats. My advice is to see formats as a new tool to help shape your child’s original quirky self into a recognizable format.

“Writing formats are a tool to help shape your child’s original quirky self into a recognizable format.”

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In other words, if you are writing a poem, rhyme is a common feature of poetry. Putting your thoughts into meter and end rhyme is part of the fun of that writing style. Likewise, if the writer’s topic lends itself to description, then focus on sensory observations and organize the writing around a journey through the senses rather than falling into the temptation to narrate an event or to explain how to peel an orange (rather than describing it). A descriptive paragraph is a paragraph whose focus is description… that means that it needs to show me, rather than tell me.

A format in writing acts as a kind of container for the original thoughts and metaphors that the writer brings to the topic. My suggestion for brave writers, then, is that freewriting, exercises like the keen observation or musical language assignments ought to precede the attempt to write to a format. Get lots of ideas, images, words, thoughts out onto the page before imposing a format. Then, take the format and see how the ideas your writer has put forth can be organized to suit a specific format. Rearrange, embellish, adapt and shuffle until the writing is both an expression of a person and fits into the desired format.