It’s the Starting That’s Stopping Us
By Carol Barnier
What to Do When Your Child Just Can’t Get Started on a Writing Assignment
I watched my child agonize in front of the computer literally for two hours. She squints her eyes tightly as she considers how to start her report. She types a mere four or five words, groans, and then quickly backspaces it away, finding herself once again staring at a blank screen. I know that once this girl gets going, her thoughts just fly, and she often writes far more than is assigned. A lack of words is not this child’s problem, but somehow, the starting process often is. Her stumbling point? She truly believes that when most people write, it comes out of their heads perfectly the very first time.
This misconception is not uncommon for younger writers. What they don’t know is that most authors will rewrite a piece many, many times before deciding it is done. They will often labor over a single sentence for days, tweaking it, until it produces just the right effect.
So what are some concrete actions you can take when your writer just can’t get started?
1. Skip the Beginning
Very often kids have a great idea for a book or a story, but the idea belongs somewhere in the middle. They know that. So they sit there staring at the paper, trying to find the right beginning to this story, when what they really want to do is to go straight to the middle. That may be exactly what they need to do. Tell them to go write the part that they already have.
They need to really get into it without even knowing or caring how they got there. Most of the time, in the process of doing this, things become clearer, ideas begin to emerge, and lines to previous events begin to materialize. Perhaps the beginning will become clear. Or perhaps the chapter before or after it will become clear. Don’t worry about it. Write it as it emerges.
2. Write Drivel
Don’t be afraid to start by writing stuff that is useless. Sometimes there is value in putting onto paper the very conversation that is going on in one’s head.
I can’t believe I’m supposed to be writing about skunks. I don’t like skunks. They smell dreadful and I always do my best to avoid them. Why do I need to learn about skunks? If I have to write a report on skunks I don’t even know where to begin. An encyclopedia? The Internet? What things about skunks would I even want to know . . .
For some kids, this process clears away the “junk” in their minds that is preventing them from moving forward. It allows them to “clean house” and get ready for the real work to follow.
3. Writing Prompts
Writing prompts do exactly what they say: they prompt the writer and give them a start. You can find these online by the hundreds simply by googling “writing prompts.” You can also create your own.
For a really reluctant starter, my preference is for a prompt that goes far into a story, taking him deeply into a scenario and then asking him to give it an ending. Karen Andreola created a whole book of these more developed prompts called Story Starters.
4. Different Endings to Known Stories
Are you worried that you couldn’t create such writing prompts on your own? That’s fine. Take a known story and let it be your writing prompt. Try “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” What if when the bears came home, they and Goldilocks actually became friends, finding out that they had some things in common, like perhaps a love of skateboarding? How about “Jack and the Beanstalk”? Instead of finding that the Giant was mean and frightening, what if he was a wanna-be stand-up comedian and kept trying to make Jack laugh? How might your student write that story?
5. Give the Writer His Topic
When a child is given an assignment to write a report, the topic area is sometimes too broad for him to decide where to begin. You might say, “Do a report on an animal of your choice.” Wow! Talk about options. He may just sit there for hours thinking through each animal, waiting for the right choice to sort of jump out at him. It might be better to select an animal for him and then give him clear content direction, like this: “You’re going to do a report about wombats. You need to include at least one paragraph about these areas: their homes, social structure, enemies, diet, and finally, impact on their environment.” Boom. Topic chosen. No thought needed.
6. Start With Things He Already Knows
Some kids just need to get into the practice of writing. Asking your writer to think as well as write is more than she might be ready for. So have her write things that are already thought out, such as a process that is already known to her. Here are a few examples:
• How to make a milkshake
• How to best make a bed
• What you see as you walk through Grandma’s house
• How to tie your shoes
• How to cast a fishing line into the water
This type of writing is valuable in several ways. One is that the student has to think in succession, in a linear fashion. Two is that he is developing the skills of a technical writer. But three is that it simply gets him in the habit of writing, of knowing that he is capable of putting words down onto paper (or onto monitor). Later, once he is comfortable with the act of writing, you can begin to sneak in more thought requirements. But go slowly. Thinking can be a painful thing.
7. Thought Mapping
This is really a great exercise that is frequently used by businesses, design teams, consultants, and many other groups for generating new ideas. It’s called “thought mapping,” and it’s really easy.
You write your topic in the center of a blank page. Let’s say you want to write a greeting card for Father’s Day. The word Dad goes in the very center with a circle around it. Now you start looking for offshoots of this main idea. What kinds of things do fathers do? You draw one line off of the center, and at the end of that line you write Sports and circle it.
Off of that you start adding lines labeled with any number of sports that dads like: golf, football, basketball, and so on. Back to the center. What else do dads do? How about home repairs? Okay, another line gets drawn, starting at the word Dad and extending outward, labeled Home Repairs. Then you start listing various home repairs that dads engage in. Another line drawn from the center might be labeled Work. You get the idea. You start with the main idea and then branch out into sub-ideas. But the magic in this exercise comes in the sub-sub-sub-ideas.
When you start really breaking things down is when you get something new, fresh, and creative. Here’s where the ideas really start to zing.
8. Assign Something Daily
My children often whined when given any substantive writing assignment. They really believed the task was huge and that they couldn’t possibly climb this mountain. One year I decided to conquer that problem. I started by informing them that a journalist is not given a choice on what to write about. He or she is not given days or weeks in which to write the assigned article. A journalist is given an assignment and sometimes just a few hours to produce finished copy. And it happens like that for him or her every day that he or she is at work. Journalists aren’t permitted the luxury of “writer’s block.”
So in our home we began a campaign. There would be writing every day. Just fifteen minutes. That’s all. I would give them their topic. Before we would begin, we would recite our motto: There’s no such thing as writer’s block! I told them I didn’t care what they wrote. I didn’t care if it was grammatically perfect. I didn’t even care if it made sense. They just had to write.
At the end of each fifteen-minute period, we read aloud to each other what we had written. And yes, I wrote too. Somehow they were better focused if they knew that Mom was going through the process alongside of them.
I found writer’s prompts online or created them myself. But the prompt wasn’t important. Seriously. One day all they had to do was make sure their writing included mention of the color blue. Another day they had to describe their dream house. I wanted them to know that they surely had something to say about anything and everything at any time. (I knew from living with them that this was true.) What they wrote didn’t have to be fully formed or particularly profound. But they had to say something. The goal was to develop the discipline of learning to write on demand. Three weeks of doing this removed their fear that perhaps they had nothing to say.
Writing really should be fun. Talking is! And writing is little more than speaking on paper. Get your child past the hump of starting, and the words will start to fly.
Carol Barnier, author of The Big WHAT NOW Book of Learning Styles, is a popular conference speaker, frequent contributor to Focus on the Family’s Weekend Magazine, and fellow homeschooler. To see some of her writing prompts, go to http://www.sizzlebop.com/. Check out her speaker’s site at http://www.carolbarnier.com/.
Copyright 2010. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine®, Summer 2010. Used with permission.