When we think of writers who have left their names etched in history, such as Robert Frost or J.K. Rowling, two words that come to mind are talented, unique, and we lift them up on a pedestal of literary greatness. We set them apart as endowed with a gift for fashioning one-of-a-kind creations. But this idea is a myth, one that has ruined students of writing for years, including me. In reality good writers have no greater knack than the average person. What they do have is the wherewithal to work hard. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn this lesson until late in life, and since I was never labeled as talented, I always criticized my work as lacking that mysterious gift of distinction. This hindered my writing or made me avoid it altogether. But when I started homeschooling my children, I didn’t want the talent myth to hurt their relationship with writing as it did me. It is a relationship after all, whether you like it, love it, deal with it, fear it, or avoid it. Of course, I wanted my kids to have a positive interaction with writing, so I knew I needed the right approach. That tactic is to teach them what all good writers do: revise, read, and reap from others.
It’s believed that Hemingway revised the final chapter of A Farewell to Arms 39 times. Now I’m not suggesting I had my eight year old revise her snowman story even close to that amount. I’m not Mommy Dearest. The fact remains, however, that proficient writers don’t quit after their first drafts. They revise, revise, and revise again, so I knew I had to teach my children this habit right at the beginning. For their very first writing projects of the year, I focused on revising. The first thing I had them do with their initial drafts, though, was tuck them away in their folders, not to look at them again (at least for a few days). In the meantime, we read a few stories and articles done by professional and child authors, especially children within a few years of their ages. Many homeschool writing curriculums include step-by-step samples of children’s writings along with the revised versions, so I used a few of these along with a sample from one of their favorite authors. We looked at the before and after versions, discussing what we liked and didn’t like about the samples, what we might have done differently and why. I topped this all off with a cute video of two elementary school kids teaching about revising. The video was a hit, and in the end, they were anxious to get back to work on their own pieces, frequently asking to do so. I firmly believe that stepping away from their drafts for a while was an important aspect. It not only gave them a break but it allowed them to return to their work with fresh eyes, so they could better see where improvements could be made. We now always take at least a few days, no more than a week, hiatus between first drafts and revising for each writing project. Showing my kids the powerful effects of revising has had a positive influence on them.
I agree with Stephen King, who writes, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Good writers read for entertainment, yes, but they also read to reap skills from other writers. After all, authors use most of the same techniques; they just use them in different ways to make their ideas meaningful and to suit their purposes. I try to teach these same skills to my children through what I call focused reading. During this time, which is often our hiatus from a writing project, we read passages that model a particular skill that I’ve pre-chosen. For example, one time they wrote a description of something that was special to them (a toy, friend, family member). I also wrote my own description. Then we read a paragraph from The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, which provides wonderful physical depictions using similes. We talked briefly about what made them interesting, and using my example first, worked together replacing one of my descriptions with a simile. They then practiced the technique with their own descriptions. Again, we usually read from a variety of sources including works done by other children. It’s only a matter of finding a piece that is representative of the skill I want to teach—a topic more deeply discussed in a future post. I would be careless if I didn’t mention that I keep focused reading separate from reading for pleasure. If every time they read turns into a lesson, they will find it burdensome and may become reluctant to read. Needless to say, I provide plenty of opportunities for free reading as well. I have no doubt they are still learning then, too.
In helping my kids practice the three Rs, they will not only become proficient writers, they will also learn that their favorite authors are not much different from them, that there’s no special gift of writing bestowed on a few, no mystery to it. There are only techniques and tools they can use to create whatever inspires them.