In the curriculum world, I notice there is an obsession with good writing. The problem with the curriculum is that it tells you WHAT to write, which is exactly the problem with school, telling you what to learn. The best way to learn is to do what interests you.
By the same token, the best way to write is to write what you feel like writing about. Part of learning to write is learning to identify what you want to write about. No one writes as well about a proscribed topic as they do about a topic that percolated to the top of their head.
So, if you are not focusing on prompting a kid with a assigned topic, then what will you focus on? Probably you should focus on getting out of the way. But here are three things to think about as well:
1. Focus on rhythm. Good writers write like they talk. Which means any word you don’t say is a word you can’t write. (Think: utilize.) Good sentences have a believable cadence. And some fragments. Verbal speech has an intuitive cadence and it’s disconcerting to read writing that does not have that same cadence.
A child intuitively writes in the cadence of their voice if you don’t bug them about spelling, grammar or topic. Writing in one’s own cadence is nearly impossible to teach after you bang it out of a kid. (When I was in graduate school for creative writing, over and over again we heard people say writing programs don’t teach writing, they give good writers a space to write.) So it’s not worth teaching a kid spelling or grammar at the expense of cadence.
(Anyway, there is spellchecker, and who ever heard of a kid who wrote and read every day who didn’t end up having good grammar?)
I learned to write a standard paragraph from The Important Book. The book teaches the rhythm of a paragraph, which is what you need to feel, in your brain, after you learn to feel the rhythm of a sentence.
2. Demand an insight. The Stanford Study of Writing shows us that kids write better when they think there will be a large audience. One reason is that they feel the need to tell the audience something new, that the audience will care about. It’s not enough to just report on something. A kid intuitively knows that they need to be interesting. And what is interesting to the kid will feel interesting to other people.
So the kid writing the paragraph has to learn something from writing it. Not a fact, but an insight about relating to the facts. So, actually, it might take five paragraphs to get one good paragraph. Which, actually, is how good writers write. I tossed out five paragraphs from this post, for example.
What I learned from this number two section is that facts are a path to a paragraph, but in the age of the Internet, they are not enough for a paragraph. Facts are commodified, and no kid will spend their life writing facts. Kids will spend their lives writing opinions, insights, and plans. That’s what people get paid for in the age of the Internet.
3. Originality doesn’t matter. There is nothing new. Nothing that has not been said before. So the only thing you can do is say it in a way that is unique to you. This is true for kids, to. Don’t falsely encourage them that their paragraph about lions is interesting. They will only feel that it’s interesting when there is a personal angle they added.
Take a look at the photo up top. It’s from my photographer friend James Maher. He took a picture of my two kids. Pretty standard. But he took one picture that is head-on and in focus and one picture that is my son in some other world, out of focus. The photo is interesting because it combines two standard things we would not think of combining that way.
Teach kids to do that. It’s not enough for kids to list facts. Demand that they have at least two things in their paragraph that will combine in an interesting way.
Kids should take other peoples’ ideas. Since the whole point of good writing is a kid learning to infuse themselves—through cadence, insight, and background—in the writing, it doesn’t matter if they start with someone else’s idea or not. For example, I stole the headline for this post from Practical Homeschooling. I thought to myself: I could write that advice much better than they did.