How to teach kids to write effectively

I’ve climbed the corporate ladder and I’ve supported my family for years as a professional writer. So I’m going to tell you—with total certainty—that however you’re teaching your kid to write, it’s the wrong way.

If you want your kid to be a great writer, as in the Nobel Prize in literature, you don’t teach that. People learn storytelling by having a passion for doing it and they do it, all the time, on their own. Storytellers do not need to be told to write stories. In fact, it’s such a difficult, struggling life for most writers, that storytellers probably need to be discouraged, so they don’t starve.

If you want your kid to publish great research papers, teach your kid to find their passion. You can’t learn to write passionate inquiries about things you are not passionate about. It’s easy to learn how to write a great paper if you have something great to say. It’s very hard to find something great to say if you don’t know how to find your passion and stick with it. Lessons in those passion-finding skills are way more important than any writing curriculum you’ve dreamed up.

It’s true, however, that a lot of the workplace operates based on written communication. So here a good writing curriculum for preparing kids to be good communicators at work:

1. Write short. Very short. The business world moves very fast. People don’t read emails more than 300 words and even speechwriters are writing shorter and shorter every year.

2. Write the way your audience reads. Some bosses like lists, some like constant chatter via instant message, others prefer a weekly summary, but whatever the boss wants, you write it that way. And it’s actually more difficult to know what format a person wants to read, than it is to produce what someone wants to read. So learn to understand peoples’ written preferences.

3. Write via iPhone. The future of work communication will be mobile. It will be rough-draft-and-hit-send. Even now, when I watch Melissa work – curled up in a chair or running errands –  she does almost all her work on her phone. And this work style is already common across a wide range of professions.

So in the future, writing be short, but also to the point, and no nuance, because it’s too hard to type nuance with your thumbs. So direct communcation will be highly valued.

Your kids can practice writing short and brilliant via Twitter.

4. Make videos with everything you write that’s long. The long-winded writing will be reserved for academia and there will be a video attached to it. So there’s no point teaching long-winded writing if you are not also teaching how to make videos. Check out Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution University for a peek at the future of academia.

5. Make ideas visual, not only text. Most people don’t want to read only words anymore, and it’s probably okay. A study by Jeremy Short at University of Oklahoma found that students retain more information from graphic novels than traditional text books. And people are so much more likely to read things with visuals that there is a huge online business in making information graphics as advertising instead of the old-school text-based press releases. (Here’s an example that is geared toward homsechoolers to advertise college@home).

The more people get accustomed to presenting things visually, the better the tools get. At this point, is much more important for kids to learn than it is for them to learn to write a five-paragraph essay.

Today’s children will need to be outstanding at presenting information in a concise and visual way. So, traditional writing classes are just another example of outdated curriculum created by people who are looking backward to protect a dead status quo.


38 replies
  1. CL
    CL says:

    What about podcasts/audio? Fred Wilson over at AVC (which Penelope pointed me to) uses VoiceBunny to create audio versions of his blog posts. I know that other people (audiobooks and the like are way too slow for me) like to listen rather than read, perhaps because they don’t read as quickly or because they have a different learning style. One of the first complaints that I had with my blog was that I needed to not be so text heavy, so I introduced pictures and videos. I don’t use podcasts, but I know that my professors use them.

    I really love your Kurt Vonnegut link. I grew up with his great-nephew, but I have never really read anything that he wrote. You just rectified that and the small taste is enough to whet my appetite for at least Slaughterhouse 5.

  2. Nonny Mouse
    Nonny Mouse says:

    OK, I’ll bite: what’s with the obsession with videos when it’s always quicker to read the text and graphics? Sure, you usually need an ‘executive summary’ to accompany long-form text, but making a video is a very time and resource-hungry replacement for that.

    Is it just another way that good looking people like Penelope are trying to marginalise the less attractive? Lookers of either gender are already more likely to get hired, promoted and paid more for doing the same job, so they should at least let the more homely or self-conscious hide behind the written word.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh, believe me, I agree that reading is much faster, and I have very little attention span for video myself. But I’m not reporting here about if I like video. I’m reporting that generation Z loves it. They use YouTube like people my age use google. So video is a done deal – it’s already surpassing text online for a significant demographic.


  3. Anna Louise
    Anna Louise says:

    There are a number of professions that still require substantive writing. Not only academia.

    Also writing is a form of THINKING. You can lay out a logical argument, analyze, plan,…there is no substitute for writing. If you want to read it on youtube too because some people would rather watch than read, then go for it but you have to start by writing it out!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Only a small portion of the world writes to think, it’s just that those people tend to stick together so they get the feeling that the world is full of people like them. Some people do physical activity to organize their thoughts. Some people talk out loud to organized their thoughts. And those are just a few, very common ways that do not involve writing.

      In general, people don’t want to read your thought process because it’s boring for everyone but you. Which is why few people publish their journals. In order for thinking via writing to be interesting, you need to either be great at academic papers, or great at writing short, or great at storytelling.


      • petra
        petra says:

        my thinking notes are just for me, and my handwriting is bad enough so nobody else can decipher it anyway :-)

        • MBL
          MBL says:

          On that note, my college studying strategy was to try to decipher my scrawled notes from class. That took so much creative effort that I was guaranteed to remember it.

 is one of the articles that notes that writing things out by hand strengthens the learning process possibly due to the increased tactile input via holding the writing implement. I wonder if decreasing the variety of stimulation from 10 fingers to 2 thumbs will have a similar impact.

          I know that when I hand write a list I am more likely to remember what was on it (when I invariably forget to bring it with me) than if I have typed it. Conversely, if I can access my list from my phone (which I am somewhat less likely to forget) then that could offset the issue.

          Must resist the urge to edit my use of the word ‘note’ three times in the first three sentences . . .

  4. Mark Kenski
    Mark Kenski says:

    When it comes to writing for the workplace, this post rings true. But “writing for the workplace” is like “math for the supermarket.” Useful? Sure, but hardly the point of math.

    Writing is not a skill you learn simply to get you ahead in the workplace, anymore than we learn to walk mainly so we can get from our car to our assigned cubicle.

    Shaping children to conform to some hypothetical “workplace” is what many of us unschool to get away from. Raise whole healthy children with inquisitive minds, strong hearts, and good honest character; and they will be able to adapt to whatever life sends their way, including–but very much not limited to–employment.

    • Hannah
      Hannah says:

      This is my thought exactly. Thank you. Learning to write is about more than pleasing a hypothetical boss. Life is more than that.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, if you argue that thinking of life in terms of growing up and working for a boss is narrow, and there’s more possibliities to life, etc. Then the same could be said of writing. People who learn and think kinesthetically don’t generally like to write. And they’re not great at it. People who are visual thinkers – like, artists – don’t generally like to write. And those people don’t generally need to, either.

      So I think the big takeaway here is that it’s really narrow to think someone needs to learn how to write well.

      You probably do need to learn a certain way of writing in order to please a boss. But you do not need to know how to write anything for a wide range of life choices, including staying at home with kids, to be honest – a parent staying home with kids needs empathy and patience way more than good written communication skills.


      • Hannah
        Hannah says:

        I think you missed my point. This goes back to the question: what is the purpose of education? If the purpose is to be able to spit back what the boss wants to hear, then I don’t see the problem with public school at all. That’s exactly what they are already teaching students to do. If education is to train, engage, and stimulate the mind with the beautiful, good, and interesting, then the tactics will look different. If my child is educated–mind, body, spirit–in the best sense of the word, he will be able to find a job someday, or make up his own job. I will not educate him today while looking at the current job market. Childhood, in my opinion, is a time for learning for learning’s sake. Interest-led, yes, but not necessarily for the boss’ interests. So my kids will know how to write effectively and use good grammar. You may not see the value in that but I do. And I am a stay-at-home mom who is glad she reads copiously and can write. My education and learning have not been wasted by my choice to stay home.

        • Hannah
          Hannah says:

          P.S. As a cellist, I might add, why do you stress practice with your son when he can produce sound and ‘his own music’ without it? Why do you want him to read music, when many musicians play only by ear? Because you want him to understand his instrument, and be able to reach his potential as a cellist in a variety of settings? Because, as you know, it would be much easier to just let him skip the whole discipline, attention-to-details thing…

      • Elizabeth
        Elizabeth says:

        Freelance artists are business owners. Like musicians and other self-employed creatives, we have to know how to write for our field — though Artspeak takes it too far:

        Whether selling our work to clients, getting commissions or grants or projects, writing is a huge part of what we do. As is financial/mathematical literacy — and, for some of us, geometry as well.

        “Writing for artists” was one class for my painting degree that was really useful. The most valuable insight was from the professor, who’d just landed a tenure post at a top university. When we asked how long he’d spent on the cover letter, he smiled.

        It had taken him three months.

  5. pPam
    pPam says:

    Excellent post! Insightful, visionary, and useful.

    As for creative writing, here’s a thought from Albert Einstein:
    “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

  6. redrock
    redrock says:

    Writing is a very versatile tool – the more kids and students do it the better. Video and graphics have a disadvantage: they predispose you to a much narrower view of the topic. Let’s say you write about a forest – in the written word I can think about it any way I like, if there is a picture, it defines how the forest should be. Which is probably one of the reasons video is surging and book reading declining.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think you need to encourage kids to do a lot of reading and then writing to hone their skills. And encourage them to do a lot of it so that they’re not afraid to fail. Their style, grammar, spelling, and voice will emerge after much practice. They’ll need to master the audio and visual formats from a learning and communication perspective. However, they’ll ultimately always need to be able to learn and express themselves with text. As proof of that, all you need to do is look at the comment section of this blog. It’s all text.

    • Adam
      Adam says:

      Totally agree. Good reading and writing go hand in hand, I was waiting for Penelope to suggest starting a blog or a journal! And I 2nd the video responses only because I always think Penny should start a vlog on youtube showcasing her crazy life : )

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      In my son’s world — the world of generation Z that uses YouTube as a search engine. In his world the scared and lazy people write text-based comments and the vivacious big thinkers leave video comments.

      I see this all day long, as they engage online, and I’m shocked by how different the world will be when their generation is in charge.


      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        Your son’s world also happens to be my world. I use YouTube and countless other search engines and technologies of various stripes. I would guess I use services his generation is not aware of. It’s not as if my generation, older generations, or younger generations have a monopoly on the use of current and emerging technologies. In fact, it is still the “older” generations that are developing technology for his generation – just as it was for generations before us.
        His world will be different but it’s not only because of the tools he used while growing up. The tools he’s using now will soon be outdated and content generation of all types will be infinitely easier to publish, search, and aggregate. There’s a time and place for all forms of communication whether it be text, visual, or audio. Some forms are just overkill for the task at hand. Using video where text will do the job is like getting out the snowblower for an inch of snowfall when a shovel will do.

  8. Kirsten
    Kirsten says:

    I love the idea that ALL the writing my kids do “counts.” I’m a professional writer, and what they do through social media has many more parallels to the work I do for my clients than a 5-paragraph essays (and for that matter, much of what I was taught in journalism school).

    The trick to becoming a proficient writer is writing a lot. Reading helps, too. A 7-hour school day tends to get in the way of both.

  9. JT
    JT says:

    I am teaching my kids to write properly, not short little things or iphone ditties to please a future boss. If I taught them according to your rules above, we’d have to rule out careers like lawyer, academic, etc. I want the whole world to be open to my kids.

    I am a lawyer, and many of my briefs are long. People read them, including judges. Sometimes it is in my best interest to be short-and-sweet, but I am able to write both ways. I can also teach myself to write to satisfy my bosses or superiors (who all have preferred different styles).

    Writing very, very short things is not always the right answer, for me. It would look as though I’d done a poor, incomplete job.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think your kids do need to rule out careers like lawyer and academic. There are no jobs. The number of unemployed lawyers is through the roof and law students are suing the law schools for false advertising because lawyers can’t get jobs.

      And the Chronicle of Higher Learning announced that people would have had a better chance surviving the Titanic than they do getting a tenure track position.

      So I think it’s really telling that you said that the reason to teach kids the old kind of writing is for being a lawyer and an academic. That might, actually, be true.


      • redrock
        redrock says:

        ok, I am sick home so I actually looked up the titanic survival rates – mostly because this expression is used so frequently that I got curious.
        the survival rate I think, at least for women were a lot higher then the chance to get a tenure track position – overall it was 38%. I think the expression was botched over the years and actually refers to the probability of the Titanic actually sinking, because it had been pronounced unsinkable. Which would mean it is impossible to get anything tagged with this probability of zero….language can be fun.

        • JT
          JT says:

          I don’t know what you mean by “no jobs.” Fewer than in the past, yes. But I know plenty of employed lawyers, and many, many academics in the college town I live in.

          If my kids wanted to go into these fields, I wouldn’t discourage them based on the fact that jobs are fewer than in the past. How defeatist! Instead, I’d tell them what they needed to do to maximize their chances of success (attend a good law school, get a PhD from a certain school, work with a particular professor, etc)

          • JT
            JT says:

            You could easily say there are “no jobs” for writers, but that is the field you are in.

            There are certainly “no jobs” for cellists, but you have been very encouraging to your son with talent in the cello.

            Why limit ourselves to areas where there are lots of jobs? You haven’t.

          • Nonny Mouse
            Nonny Mouse says:

            The question isn’t whether anyone is employed in those fields, it’s whether anyone’s hiring. I’ve seen top law graduates from top schools with excellent interpersonal skills and family connections in the profession fail to get a job in the field simply because the hiring tap was turned off that year. Then when firms started hiring again, they still missed out because new graduates were considered a better hire than someone who had been out of law school for a couple of years without working as a lawyer.

            So if you really want to be a lawyer, go ahead but be prepared for disappointment. If you’re only doing it because you don’t want to ‘waste’ the high school results (or other qualification, depending on where you live) that allow you to get into law school and you don’t want to do medicine, maybe it’s not such a good idea.

  10. MBL
    MBL says:

    I have never used Twitter, but the link to poynter regarding brilliant tweets is intriguing. I am “blessed” with an automatic gender tallying superpower and can’t help but notice the ratio of male:female examples in any given situation. Things tend to have a heavy male bias. Where gender is noted, Mallary’s examples are 1:2 and her reader’s best of picks are 1:1. That makes me wonder if Twitter, being social media, has greater female representation. Just wondering.

    The whole discussion brings to mind:
    “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter. Blaise Pascale
    (Also attributed to Twain, Voltaire, Thoreau, MLK, Cicero, Locke and various other men)

    I must say that I am all for anything that escalates the demise of the stultifying formulaic 5 sentence paragraph.

    JT’s comment makes me wonder if “long brief” is an oxymoron . . .

  11. Nonnie
    Nonnie says:

    Your list definitely leaves out READ A LOT. I work with a lot of engineers and their writing skills are astonishingly bad on every level. Grammar and spelling mistakes, incoherent structure, quarter-baked ideas, etc. And these are very bright, motivated adults. They just had no interest whatsoever in reading as children and therefore (I suspect) never developed an ear for our written language. I wonder if they can understand each other’s writing. I cannot.

    So read a lot probably comes before your whole list. Except you can’t/shouldn’t force someone to read, so maybe you can at least encourage non-readers to have some respect for the importance of communicating ideas.

  12. Greg
    Greg says:

    Gen Z are starting to produce some excellent Let’s Play videos. It’s a great example of how they are taking advantage of their comparative advantage.

  13. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    My first reaction to this post was that I totally agree with it. Then after reading all the comments, there have been some enlightened discussions that broadens the original. A few of my children were natural storytellers, and as Penelope said, that was enough to help them later become proficient writers. But, some of my children are not storytellers. They did need more guidance in coming to writing to a proficient level. I didn’t use the old format or focus of the research paper. Far from it. But those not verse in storytelling naturally may need some help, and that’s okay, too. I do find that help can happen in high school, though. I believe everyone should have a strong foundation in their respective strengths. And even in my non-storytellers, they did communicate to some level to have a beginning point later.

  14. Karen
    Karen says:

    Writing is changing rapidly, and it’s not just because its getting shorter. Even some long form writing is becoming more multimedia. A perfect example is this NPR Planet Money report on SS disability that I read today:

    It’s engaging and informative. The graphics and charts break up the post and provide additional information. For me, even as a reader/writer who reads and writes boring legal stuff, this is far more interesting than a plain written piece, or a newspaper piece with a few graphics.

    I don’t think long form writing will ever die, but it isn’t something everyone needs to know how to do. Everyone, however, does need good oral communication skills. I think those skills, like how to listen well, tell back what you’ve heard, and synthesize multiple pieces of information, and communicate your thoughts, are significantly more important than the ability to write an essay. Plus, once you have good oral communication skills, the writing part is easier. Organizing your thoughts and the information you are using is at least half the battle, if not more, in writing.

  15. Ellen Cavanaugh
    Ellen Cavanaugh says:

    As a college professor in the humanities, I couldn’t agree more. Students on the path to graduate degrees and doctoral dissertations are asked to write in traditional formulas using critical methods (still important to learn for those on the outer edges of human knowledge!). Students heading to the workforce have a choice to edit Wikipedia (the volunteer contributors are harsh critics), or create Prezis, Powtoons, Extranormal, Wix websites, or Presentation Zen type Powerpoints while working on their collaboration and oral presentation skills.

  16. Sara
    Sara says:

    I am late to the party on this post, but it really got me thinking. I teach high school ELA, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the role of writing in the college entrance process. In my perfect world I’d get to teach writing just as you’ve outlined here, and I tend to agree that traditional K-12 education often works really hard to protect outmoded paradigms.

    At the same time, the ACT (which includes an essay component) is a very real factor in college admissions for many schools. Many universities also require entrance essays. What are your thoughts on how educators should prepare college-bound students for these kinds of assessments?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think educators should not prepare kids for the writing part of the ACT. Educators should prepare kids for life, and test prep has nothing to do with that. It wastes kids time to learn how to please a a test grader. If you are in high school and you are not a good writer, the truth is that you should do a job that does not require a lot of writing – there are tons of those jobs.


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