Writing: It's the Starting That's Stopping Us
- Tuesday, October 05, 2010
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.
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