How to Build a Writer

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Build a writer

The other day a friend asked me, “How do I turn my kid into a writer?” After wondering why anyone would want to build a writer (there’s very little money in it for most writers, after all, and a whole lot of rejection and pain) I gave the question some thought. And I didn’t have much of an answer at first.

I don’t have kids, so my information on child-rearing is limited. I don’t know how to turn a kid into anything. And it’s not like there’s a clear roadmap for wannabe writers like there is for other occupations. Most of us sort of stumble into it at some point, either because our day jobs land us there, or we finally discover it’s the only thing we’re good at.

Sometimes a bright kid decides to be a journalist, but I don’t know too many elementary students who set out to be technical writers or marketing copywriters. Some want to be novelists or poets, but many grow out of it once the school system kills their love of reading and writing with its standardized testing and emphasis on dissecting works to microscopic degrees. What keeps the few who survive this process interested in writing? Genetics? Stubbornness? Insanity? I have no idea.

Eventually, though, I managed to put together a coherent answer for my friend. If you hope to raise a writer (and not even a professional writer/novelist… maybe you simply hope they’ll be able to write a decent college admission essay), here’s what I know from my own childhood and the experiences of other writers I’ve met over the years.

Give them toys/playtime that encourages storytelling/role playing. 

Kids learn to tell stories and put together coherent ideas and timelines through storytelling. Toys like action figures, Lego, dolls, role playing games, Matchbox cars, outdoor play, sofa forts, and anything else that requires imagination to make it “go” are all great avenues for storytelling. Toys where the entertainment is preordained  and prescribed (like anything on an iPad) don’t really get a kid thinking, “First this happens, then this happens, and this person gets involved, then this over here happens…” Using imagination to make things happen is the first step toward being a storyteller.

Books and more books!

All writers need to read. A lot. And the love of reading starts in childhood. Give kids access to books. The library, thrift stores, and hand me downs are great sources of cheap/free books. Spend time in bookstores and libraries letting kids explore the choices. And don’t censor their choices (beyond age/content appropriateness). Don’t get bent if a kid want to read something she’s already read, a cheesy movie tie-in, or something below her skill level. Heck, I still check out the odd picture book just to see the illustrations. Reading is reading so encourage it in all its forms. Also, model the example for your kids. When they see you reading, they think it’s a good thing.

Reward/praise writing and creative expression.

My parents paid me a penny a page for my stories. They also praised my efforts, no matter how terrible. Any time I did anything with writing (creative writing, journalism in high school, essay contests, etc.), they got excited. It ingrained in me the idea that writing is good. You don’t have to encourage writing above all else (my parents tried to make me enthusiastic about math, too, but that never worked), but just give kids the sense that writing is useful and fun.

Lead by example.

My dad was constantly scribbling in notebooks, writing down the family stories and dabbling in short stories. He also wrote some children’s books for me. My mother write long letters to family (this was pre-email). Both parents were always reading. From a very young age I understood that there was something important and magical about books and the written word. Kids model what they see so if you want to turn out a writer, let them see you writing and enjoying the written word.

Let the kids finish the story.

Don’t always read or tell the prescribed ending of a story. Start a book or an oral story and then halfway through say, “Now you finish it.” Let the kids learn how to construct a story and follow a plot line. Sure, their efforts might not make much sense at first, but they’ll get better at using their imaginations and developing a logical flow of ideas.

Don’t worry about spelling and grammar until they’re older.

Getting too heavy on the rules turns kids off, especially young kids. If writing time starts to equal nagging time, they’ll give up. Schoolwork and homework is for learning the rules. Those finer points will come with time. Let their at-home writing time be for fun and experimentation.

Provide the environment.

Give them a quiet area in which to work and which reinforces the idea that writing is special and valid. Their own desk, plenty of paper, pens, an inexpensive laptop with word processing software, or some nice blank books for journaling. You don’t have to spend a fortune, just give them a nice place to work and the proper tools.

Help them find fun reasons to write.

Writing gets old in school. It’s always, “Write this report,” “Finish this essay,” “Write 500 words on the American Revolution.” Boring. To keep writing fun and engaging, help kids find contests or safe online/offline publications where they can write about things that interest them. If they have causes that are important to them, encourage them to write letters to politicians or business leaders. Older kids can volunteer to write web or marketing copy for causes they like. If they’re old enough to handle the responsibility, help them set up a blog so they can write about a hobby they love. Not everything has to be for or about school. Help them find avenues to write fun and personally meaningful things.

That’s all I know. Of course, none of this is any guarantee that you’ll have a writer after eighteen years. Kids are individuals and what clicks with one won’t click with another. But I believe following these ideas gives you at least a decent chance your kid will be able to string together coherent sentences when it’s time to fill out job applications or write college admission essays. And who knows? You could end up with the next John Grisham who will support you in your old age. You can dream, right?

(Photo courtesy of 3dman_eu)


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