thoughts on writing and editing with kids

I haven’t posted since the beginning of November, when I nervously embarked on my misguided, first-ever NaNoWriMo.  I was right, using every moment of my free time to write and not getting to bed until midnight or later did take its toll.  In fact, it’s only now that I’m starting to feel human again.  By December I was 100% burnt out.

This month I had intended to edit my novel as suggested by the folks at NaNoWriMo, but I can’t bring myself to touch it yet.  My kids, on the other hand, have been begging to get back to their beloved Young Writers Program (the kids’ side of NaNoWriMo) stories, so we’ve started the editing process.

Initially, I had thought that we would attack their stories element by element, channeling the story-writing checklists I made years ago as a teacher: read to make sure it made sense, edit for spelling and punctuation, polish the beginning, work on some description, check for vivid verbs…  But as soon as we began that first read-through, that approach felt too fragmented.

No, editing your work is really more holistic than that.  When I read over my writing, I don’t scrutinize just one part of speech at a time, I assess the overall effect of my words–am I clear?  Is the tone right?  Do I have enough detail to create a complete picture but not so much as to drown my reader?  And so I began it with my kids.

After our initial read-through on that first day, we’ve been taking the stories a paragraph at a time.  First I read the paragraph (or section, if it’s dialogue) aloud to them and ask if there’s anything they’d like to change.  Then I go through it line by line and help them improve their work.  I show them where pronouns have unclear antecedents, I explain my mental image after a particular sentence and have them clarify or correct as needed, I point to something I find interesting and ask for more detail, I ask if they can pick a more interesting noun or verb or adjective to replace a mundane one, I ask if a certain section has anything at all to do with the plot.

As we’ve gone through this process, two things have struck me:

  1. The over-the-top colleague who insisted on spending hours each week poring over her third-graders’ writing word-by-word with each of them…she actually had the right idea.  Somehow I had it in my head that excellent writing would just begin to grow naturally in children and I should keep my hands off lest I taint their authenticity.  After all, I learned to write simply by writing.  But I learned to draw well in part because of careful instruction.  I learned to clean and to cook and to drive because of supervised, scaffolded experiences.  Why shouldn’t writing be the same way?
  2. This whole experience affirms for me the need to approach writing instruction from multiple angles.  I had tried a theme book from IEW (Institute for Excellence in Writing) and loved what my children learned–vivid verbs, who/which clauses, sentence openers…but by halfway through we were feeling stifled by the routine and the narrow constraints of the assignments.  This year I thought we’d do more freewriting, but sometimes we’re just not inspired to write, and often the results of our inspirations were lackluster.  Editing with my children has shown me both the joy my children glean from their own creative writing and the worth of a program that helps them learn the tools to write well.

So how will this affect writing instruction in our household?  First of all, I’ll remember that my active modeling and instruction will help their writing develop just like it helps other skills.  And I’ll remember from now on that I do not have to commit wholeheartedly to one ideological camp or another, nor do I have to finish one curricula in sequence.  As I’ve learned with all the subjects we’ve worked on so far, the best choice for our family is a sprinkling of different things.  So going forward, I just might pull out that other IEW theme book I purchased and choose a lesson or two to do…and then perhaps we’ll do some writing of our own and try applying our new techniques to our own writing.  Because writing is both mechanics AND creativity, and having them come together seamlessly takes practice.

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