Written by children’s author Caroline Starr Rose
As a former teacher, I’m well aware that writing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Can I let you in on a little secret? It’s not always my thing, either.
This is a strange confession coming from a children’s author, but an important one, I think.
If writing is sometimes “unfun” for a person who does it for a living, how much more challenging is it for the kid who doesn’t enjoy it in the first place?
Here are some things I’ve learned about the writing life — both as a teacher and as a student of the discipline — that I hope might encourage you and your young writers:
1. Everyone is creative.
While writing might not be every child’s strong suit, every person has a creative side. (For grown ups, it might take a bit of digging to find, but I promise, it’s there.)
When it comes to writing, it’s easy to focus on mechanics or fluency as ultimate measurements of ability or skill, leaving some kids at a disadvantage before they’ve even begun. We need to help children understand they already have what it takes to write because they were born creative.
2. Choice and freedom are key.
There will be times when young writers need to tackle particular assignments like research papers or responsive essays, but I believe it’s even more important that kids are given the freedom to choose their own topics as often as possible.
They should be given the freedom to write without some higher purpose (including concerns about grammar and spelling) and have opportunities to create for their own pleasure and benefit alone.
3. Listen to the world.
Creative people listen to and observe the world around them. In listening, we catch details we might otherwise miss, bits and pieces that enrich our thoughts and lives. If we invite children to look and listen, they will come to their writing with artistic pumps already primed.
One simple way to do this is to regularly model the things that make us stop and wonder. Another is to ask kids to keep notebooks where they paste, color, and collect ideas or questions that might lead to future writing projects of their own. Here’s a ready-made notebook your writers might enjoy!
4. Tinker, explore, create, play!
I’ve transformed my own approach to writing in the last year by dropping the “w-word” from my vocabulary. Instead of writing, I now practice, explore, or play. It’s impossible to have a “bad” writing day when I’m simply practicing, just as there’s no right or wrong way to play.
Any time I show up to my work with this mindset, there is something to be gained.
When young writers can be taught to approach their writing playfully, the heavy burden of getting it “right” falls away.
5. Frustration is part of the process.
There comes a point when I’m writing a book that I’m sure I’ve broken it. The story feels like it’s beyond repair. Sometimes this happens multiple times!
If kids know ahead of time frustration is a natural part of the writing process, the experience can be less intimidating. Those moments of struggle might be shorter lived.
Instead of fearing them, writing challenges can be seen for what they are: opportunities to go deeper and wider, obstacles that if faced will eventually lead to breakthroughs, growth, and change.
6. Revision’s where the real writing happens.
Revision means exactly what it sounds like — a chance to see a piece of writing again, this time in a new light. As a young teacher, I didn’t understand how crucial revision was.
I wish I’d known then to ask my students the questions I now ask myself after I finish a draft:
- What is it you’re trying to say?
- What was your original idea?
- How has it changed, for better or worse?
- What changes need to be made to bring this piece of writing in line with your vision for it?
This book is an excellent collection of revision strategies based on the work of published authors.
7. Writing as self-directed learning.
One of my favorite things about writing historical fiction is picking an era that intrigues me and digging in. I spend as much time as I need to learn all that I can. I’m both student and teacher in that I set the curriculum, scope of my studies, and pace.
The books that I write provide readers with a chance to learn, too. They’re not tools meant to point to historical facts but opportunities for readers to witness the world during another time, to see that though we might be different from people who lived long ago, our emotional experiences are largely the same.
My newest book, Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine, is a middle-grade novel about the Klondike gold rush. In it, eleven-year-old Jasper follows his brother Melvin to the Klondike in search of gold. Along the way the boys hear of One-Eyed Riley’s mine, a mysterious claim worth millions.
Jasper’s convinced he and Mel will be the first ones to find it. All they have to do is survive the rough Canadian terrain and some unsavory fellows also after Riley’s treasure.
If you’d like to use my newest novel to create a unit study on the Klondike gold rush, or if you’d just like to learn more, here are some helpful links:
- Off to the Klondike! The Search for Gold (3:38 video) :: WatchKnowLearn.org
- Klondike Gold Rush (9:08 video — heads up: brief mention of prostitution) :: WatchKnowLearn.org
- Front Page of the Seattle-Post Intelligencer for July 17, 1897 :: Wikimedia Commons
- Routes to the Klondike :: Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park
- Ton of Goods :: Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park
- The Mounties: The Force in the North :: Virtual Museum Canada
- A visual of the Chilkoot Trail :: National Park Service
- “The Spell of the Yukon” by Robert Service (poem)
- “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service (poem)
- “To Build a Fire” by Jack London (short story)
- Shopping in Seattle for Supplies (lesson plan) :: National Park Service
- Panning for Gold! (lesson plan) :: National Park Service
A note from Jamie: All of Caroline’s books are imaginative and full of heart, and her newest release about the gold rush COMPLETELY captivated my two boys–Jonathan read it twice, Elijah begged me to read it aloud, & the two of them spontaneously decided to act out much of it together while listening. Such fun!