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Home Education Magazine

November-December 1997 - Columns

Older Kids - Cafi Cohen

Developing a Writers Toolkit

As teenagers, our kids seldom did grammar exercises and never wrote reports and term papers. According to some in the educational establishment, they ought to be poor writers. Not so. Both got "A's" in their college freshmen English classes. Friends now often ask them for help editing assignments. Both enjoy writing and produce credible pieces for college classes as well as for real life purposes.

When we first began homeschooling Jeffrey and Tamara (ages 12 and 11 respectively), I already knew their strengths and weaknesses as writers. Jeff followed the rules of grammar and produced (what's a nice word here?) mechanical pieces. Although Tamara's creative stories entertained us, we struggled to understand them because they were so filled with grammar and usage errors.

In one way, I was probably a pretty typical beginning homeschooling parent. I saw my kids writing strengths, and I had identified the areas where each needed work. At the same time, and less typically, I think, I began to work on my own writing. I admired certain authors and wondered how I might develop my style and my voice.

In the beginning, I saw no relationship between trying to help my kids with their writing and improving the writing of an adult (me). For Jeff and Tamara, I looked for grammar exercises and creative writing assignments and topics for school-type reports. For me? I read good writing, and I wrote and rewrote, and I read about the processes of successful writers.

Successful authors, it turns out, never recommend diagramming sentences, memorizing verb tenses, taking spelling tests, and identifying parts of speech in random sentences. And they seldom advise using text-book writing techniques like identifying predicates and combining sentences by creating subordinate clauses.

Instead professional writers discuss developing leads, writing and rewriting, writing for real purposes, avoiding clutter, and choosing words. They talk about their writing toolkits - those practices that help them produce clean, informative, and entertaining poetry and prose.

Most significantly, successful authors describe writing as a process, not a product. Each writer says that his process, developed over a long period of time, is idiosyncratic; that is, his approach, often established through trial and error, is peculiar to him.

In reading about the practices of professional writers, I had to ask myself why I was trying to improve my (adult) writing one way (reading good writing, reading about writing, and writing and editing my work), and my teenagers' writing another way (with grammar exercises and pointless papers). And, of course, I had no good answer.

So I made a command decision: no more grammar exercises, punctuation drills, or assignments to write papers on meaningless topics. It was time to catalog and use with my kids the techniques suggested by successful authors. It was time for all of us to learn by trial and error. It was time to create our Writer's Toolkit. And that was what we did.

Here is part of our Toolkit. Take what you can use and leave the rest.

Read Good Writing

According to Gary Provost in his article, "The Seven Beacons of Excellent Writing" (in The Writer's Digest Guide To Good Writing), writers need the ability to recognize brevity, clarity, precision, harmony, humanity, honesty, and poetry in others' writing to begin to discern it in their own.

A few of the titles that fit into this category that my kids liked included: almost anything by Roald Dahl, Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell, America by Alistair Cooke, What Ever Happened To Penny Candy? By Richard Maybury, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Reader's Digest articles, and All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten and other titles by Robert Fulghum.

If your kids will not read "good stuff," read it to them. Read together as a family. It is amazingly entertaining and generates wonderful discussions, in addition to exposing everyone to examples of good writing.

Write For Real Purposes

Our kids' writing included articles and project proposals for the 4-H and Civil Air Patrol newsletters, public notices, journals, correspondence with out-of-state friends, computer bulletin board on-line notes, letters to the editor, contest entries, and - from my creative daughter - innumerable short stories and novellas.

My son, at about age 14, read about the amount Reader's Digest paid for short anecdotes like those featured in "Life in These United States," and decided to submit one. He labored over his 100-150 word piece, writing and rewriting, asking for editorial input, and worrying about punctuation. Reader's Digest did not publish the piece, nor did they publish 10-15 other pieces he wrote. But the goals (anticipated payment and publication) and focusing on real events created the motivation for Jeff to work hard on his writing.

Think Beyond Paragraphs, Reports, and Essays

Nancie Atwell in her book, In The Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning with Adolescents, lists approximately seventy types of writing that have emerged in her workshops for teenage writers. This Real Purpose writing includes jokes and riddles; reviews of books, records, plays, movies and TV shows; annotated calendars; scripts for plays and TV commercials; oral histories; resumes; song lyrics; diaries and journals; rules and regulations; instructions and advice; biographies; parodies, and much more.

Writing in your homeschool can encompass all Real World writing, not just paragraphs, reports, papers, and essays. If a teenager makes a shopping list, creates a recipe, and captions a scrapbook, it all fits under heading "writing" or Language Arts or English (for those of you who have to submit formal reports to school districts or umbrella schools).

Write What You Know

Every good writer says this. Begin with your experience and build on that experience with research. For a long time, I had been fiddling with an article on foreign language study (The toughest areas for those homeschooling older kids). My research was thorough, but the article lacked credibility.

I finally realized what the problem was. I could not write the piece as an expert because, despite years of study, I was not fluent in a foreign language. But I could write from the perspective of someone who wants to become fluent in a foreign language. And I could write as someone who has interviewed language hobbyists and reviewed a myriad of techniques and resources. Sticking to what I knew, to my perspective, was the key.

Encourage your kids to write what they know, from their perspectives. Ask any teenager if she would prefer to write about her favorite sport or about ancient Mesopotamia. Unless ancient Mesopotamia is the subject of a recent-release movie, my guess is that you will get a far livelier piece by focusing on what the kid knows.

Include Writers' Vocabulary in the Toolkit

When some authors discuss improving writing technique, they use terms like nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, parallellisms, semi-colons, modifiers, danglers, antecedents, and tenses. Because those who write about writing use these terms, those of us who read these authors need to know the lingo, the tools of the trade.

Some homeschoolers will prefer to learn this vocabulary with a formal grammar program, like Wanda Phillips' Easy Grammar or Warriner's English Grammar and Composition. A good alternative, a short summary of "the rules" is Strunk and White's classic, The Elements of Style.

Other homeschooling parents will prefer to help their kids learn a writer's vocabulary in the context of the kid's writing. This means learning about nouns and verbs and correcting punctuation and usage errors as they appear each kid's writing samples. Nancie Atwell, in her book, In The Middle, describes this procedure in detail.

Review And Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite

Most published magazine pieces are the result of at least two or three revisions, often ten to twenty revisions. At first, almost all teenagers will resist rewriting anything, so call the first effort a draft to encourage thinking of it as something that needs revising. Again, Nancie Atwell's book is an invaluable guide to critiquing your kid's writing and posing questions that will help him see the need for rewriting.

As your teenager's writing becomes more sophisticated, he may want outside input. Encourage him first to submit his pieces to other local adults whose opinions about writing you respect. Eventually, your older kid may want to find a writing mentor. Homeschooler Amanda Bergson-Shilcock and Susannah Sheffer, editor of Growing Without Schooling, taped a fascinating presentation, "Finding A Mentor: Our Journey," at the GWS 1997 Conference (tape available at 617 864-3100). The discussion shows how valuable a writing mentor can be for a young author and describes how to find one.

My recent experience with this column illustrates another reason to seek outside input. Other readers can help you avoid looking Really Stupid! I submitted a piece on volunteering a few months ago. We were in the middle of moving preparations; and, counter to my usual procedure, I did not ask anyone else to read the column before submitting it. Unfortunately, the piece contained a glaring logical inconsistency, which The readers rightly called me on in the September-October issue. I had actually noticed the inconsistency a few weeks after submitting the column, but it was too late for revision.

Read About Real Writers' Processes

There is no One Right Way to begin a paragraph, research topics, organize material, or edit papers. Some writers only define their objectives after they begin writing a piece. Like me, they use writing to clarify thinking and discover their themes. Others work from detailed outlines with all content defined in advance.

Some authors edit for content and mechanics at the same time. Others worry about content first and address mechanics later. Many famous authors dictate everything and leave the transcription and punctuation to someone else. Others have to work with certain pens and specific types of paper. Many could not produce anything without a word processor.

Because there is No One Right Way to improve writing, build a writer's toolkit by exploring the varied ways different individuals approach their writing (see Sidebar). Among the incredible variety of real writing processes are be tips and hints that will appeal to you and work for your kids.

Address Writer's Block

In reviewing successful authors' processes and by trial-and-error, we learned a few techniques to overcome writer's block. Brainstorming heads the list. Let's say your homeschooler wants to enter a non-fiction contest but cannot decide on subject. He begins by simply writing down all the possible subjects that are part of his experience (e.g. skateboards, hiking, action movies) and then lists ideas he associates with each subject. It is fun to do this as a family or with a group. Many find that discussing topics helps them decide on a theme.

Another aid to writer's block, especially for some boys who simply hate the process of putting pen to paper, is dictation. You say your kid will not keep a journal? Have him emulate the many great writers who dictate everything. Your teenager can orally review the previous day while you write or type. Alternatively, he can dictate onto a cassette tape and transcribe it himself. In either case, he has done the tough part, articulating the ideas. Separating the two processes - description from transcription - overcomes many cases of writer's block.

Keyboarding skills and word processors are also part of our Writer's Toolkit. Our son began writing more consistently once his keyboarding skills allowed him to bypass pencil and paper. And, of course, word processors enable all of us to endure and even sometimes enjoy the revision process. Grammar checkers on word processors actually taught our kids some usage principles I had given up on.

Some homeschooling parents credit communicating via modem - writing e-mail and contributing to various computer bulletin boards - with stimulating an interest in writing when all else failed. I myself generate reams of first-draft material on homeschooling computer bulletin boards. Of course, you need to exercise caution with the Internet, but the possibility of helping your kids find others with compatible interests and writing about those interests is probably worth your extra time.

You have a wealth of resources available to help you with your older kids' writing. The suggestions here are merely a beginning. Do peruse some of the readings listed in the sidebar. Most are not new and should be available through the library.

Once to you have expanded your Writer's Toolkit, you will be in a better position to help your kids. Try the different successful approaches that you read about. Let trial and error work for you and your teenagers. Finally, allow your kids time to find their own voices, using processes that work for them.

1997 Cafi Cohen

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