November 16, 2018

De-Mystifying the Writing Process

Though homeschooling parents have access to nearly 100 non-common core creative writing curricula and well over 100 options for expository writing, I very regularly address questions from them about how to teach writing. In their concerns,  I see two major misconceptions about writing:

  • Teaching formal grammar and spelling will automatically translate to good writing;
  • Kids can (should be able to) churn out a good story or essay instantly, on demand.

I believe the latter myth arose from our own experiences as children in school, before many (but still not all) language arts teachers began implementing what is called "the writing process." Most of us were told to, "Write a story," or "Write an essay on..." without ever receiving direct instruction in how to do so; thus, when we seek to teach our kids how to write, we follow suit. We know we didn't have a clue about how to proceed and many of us grew to hate writing as a result. But we don't know any better so we give the same nebulous mandate and hope against hope that our kids are somehow the "good writers" we always wanted to be.

The former misconception seems peculiar to homeschooling parents, who often start formal instruction in spelling and grammar even before their children can read. These well-meaning parents surmise that if their kids can spell accurately and parse any sentence set before them, they will, by definition, be good writers; in fact, homeschool curricula that focus on these mechanical matters eventually begin providing writing assignments that do the same thing as described above - i.e., telling the child to write something without providing any direct instruction in actual composition. Thus, it's no wonder that parents believe that mastery of mechanics automatically leads to competence with real writing.

In reality, though, most children do need direct instruction in how to write in order to do so competently and confidently. And, though mastery of spelling rules and grammatical constructs is one component of good writing, one does not automatically lead to the other anymore than knowing the location of windshield wipers and directionals on a car's dashboard equates to being a good driver.

As I mentioned, homeschool composition resources abound; I've used a few - particularly IEWEssay Styles for High School, and Christian Light Education's Research Paper II guide - that I recommend to parents, and I also sometimes suggest Spilling Ink. But these - and plenty of other good possibilities - all boil down to one thing: the writing process. I realize that parents are often (understandably) intimidated by the prospect of teaching their kids to write and will, therefore, feel the need for a curriculum. However, when it comes right down to it, we could have our kids write well - though not starting in a formal way until Age 10 or so - by simply walking them through the same, sequential writing process for every possible assignment or task, whether creative or expository, whether long or short, and whether designed to inform, explain, describe, persuade, or entertain.

  • Choose a topic. Of course, in order to write, the child must have something to say. And the best way to hone in on meaningful topics is by first instituting a free writing habit wherein a  child does nothing but free-write a couple of times a week for at least a few months; while experienced or natural writers often free-write by keyboard, it's usually best for a novice to write by hand in a notebook designated just for writing. Then, when it's time to choose a topic (along with a purpose and intended audience) for a formal writing assignment, he can choose a favorite from among the existing free-writes. Alternately - though this is rather artificial and, thus, not as effective from a motivational perspective - instruct your child to take some time to brainstorm possible topics (via lists and/or concept webs) each time you assign a "paper" and pick an idea that stands out;
  • Pre-Write. If the child has chosen from among free-writes, this task has already been accomplished; no matter how informal and possibly disjointed, he has already put pen to paper on the topic. If, however, he has picked from a brainstorming list, he must now get the writing juices flowing. Though some recommend brainstorming further by making lists about the chosen topic, I suggest having him do a free-write instead;
  • Write a First Draft. A free-write is the first draft. But if the writer has merely created a list of details up to this point, he can no longer avoid putting his thoughts into coherent sentences. His focus, however, should be on getting his ideas in front of him -  again, preferably on paper - without regard to organization or grammar and spelling, all of which come later in the process;
  • Revise. When the child has completed a handwritten first draft, instruct him to set it aside and not look at it for a few days. When he pulls it out again, he should read through it with revisions - not editing - in mind. Revision pertains only to ideas and organization, not grammar and spelling. While he may correct any mechanical errors he happens to see, his goal at this point should be to increase the clarity of the first draft by adding details as needed; deleting extraneous thoughts; replacing "weak" words with strong vocabulary; moving ideas from one part of the piece to another; and adding or modifying paragraphs. Ideally, he should make these revisions by creating a typed version of the first draft, revising as he goes, rather than re-writing by hand; this will make further revisions and editing much less tiresome than requiring a new handwritten copy each time;
  • Peer-Revise. The child should print out a double-spaced version of his newly-revised piece to share with you, the parent. However,  this is not the final draft and should not be "graded!" At this point, you will play the role of guide, not evaluator; your goal is to consider the elements of content and organization - does the piece need more detail in order to be clear, does it contain off-topic ideas to be deleted, does it have boring words that can be replaced with better vocabulary, does the organization need to be changed - not mechanics. So first read through the entire piece without pen in hand; just read. Then read it again and make constructive notes wherever necessary; be specific, remembering that your goal is not judgment but, rather, to help your child communicate as clearly as possible. And do not make any corrections to spelling and grammar!
  • Have a conference. Sit down with your child to discuss your suggested revisions. Begin by elaborating on the positive elements of the paper, praising him for good detail, clever use of vocabulary, and logical organization. Then gently walk him point by point through your suggested changes, being sure he understands what you mean and specifically why making the changes would result in a stronger paper. If the two of you come up with further revisions as you talk, jot those down as well;
  • Revise again. Have the child go back to his saved, typed copy and make revisions as necessary, then print out another double-spaced copy;
  • Peer-Revise again. Read the paper as guide and helper again, checking only that content and organizational issues have been addressed. If further changes are still needed, have another conference and repeat Revising and Peer-Revising as necessary;
  • Edit. When - and only when - the story or essay is solid in terms of content and organization, then it is time to address any mechanical concerns (i.e., grammar, usage, spelling). Since it's difficult for writers - even professionals - to see their own mechanical errors (because they know their intentions and, therefore, miss such nitty-gritty detail), your child will need your help. So read through the paper and use a simple copy-editing system to mark - but not correct - the errors. Then instruct the child to use the edits to make corrections on his own. By showing him where errors exist but then having him figure out how to fix them, you will help him to apply his knowledge of the windshield wipers and directionals (!);
  • Possibly edit again. If the first edit necessitated many changes, edit again as described above and have the child make further corrections;
  • Publish. When the child is confident he has made all necessary edits,  he should print out a single-spaced final copy for you. If you ascribe to grading protocols, this is when you will serve as evaluator and issue a grade for the paper, ideally by using a rubric to which the child referred throughout the whole writing process. Of course, writing for a grade or for one's homeschool portfolio isn't an authentic purpose -  and kids know this. Thus, finding a way to actually "publish" compositions - sending copies to Grandma, allowing Dad to read final drafts, creating an annual family writing book (which you can have bound at OfficeMax or FedEx Kinkos), sharing in a homeschool writers' group, posting to a blog, submitting to a magazine, etc. - is preferable. By seeking real ways for your kids to share their work with real readers, they'll feel like real writers and you'll increase their motivation to do their best.

Most of the time we only experience writing as readers; we read professionally published articles and books and we come to know the names of "good writers."  Because we only see the final, polished products, we mistakenly believe that good writers just "are" - i.e., that they don't struggle through the process like the rest of us. And we unintentionally put pressure on our kids to be like our idealized view of good writers. But any honest professional writer will tell you that - even if she has a particular gift - she wrestles with the same writing process as the rest of us.  She revises and revises and revises again. She self-edits until she never wants to see another comma splice in her life and then hires others to edit for her. And even after her work is accepted for publication, paid editors at a publishing house revise and edit it some more. Everyone - novice and seasoned pro alike - needs the process, so don't regret that your child needs it and don't deny him of it. It really is as straight-forward as described above, and if you make it a regular practice in your home, your child will, indeed, become a competent and confident writer, ready for whatever writing tasks he'll face in adult life.

Photo Credit: WorldArtsMe

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