Inspiring the Writer in Your Teen
- 2011 30 Dec
As homeschooling parents, we all want to know how to help our kids write better. Whether our high schoolers are planning to go to college or intending to enter the work force directly, we realize they will need to use their writing skills in almost any avenue they follow in life—which is why so many moms and dads are worried.
It’s true that writing is important. Words have the power to provoke a different way of thinking. They can spread radical new ideas, shape people’s perspectives, and change our lives as well as the world around us. Many of the great movements in history have been sparked or spurred on by the written word.
As the great Designer, God embedded a desire and affinity for verbal expression within our hearts and minds. What people read molds them into who they become. Newspaper columns can affect the way people understand political issues; magazine articles can enlighten us as to the underlying values of major companies; essays and books can challenge a city or a country to search out new solutions to old problems.
In fact, writing is a heavy responsibility as well as an exciting privilege. Words have the potential to create confusion as well as peace and knowledge; words can lead to negative outcomes as well as positive ones.
Most of us have received an encouraging note from a friend at just the right moment and felt our lagging spirits bolstered. Some of us have also felt the downward pull of an angry letter dragging us into frustration and despair. We may have read a convincing article that transformed the way we view nutrition, resulting in a new and healthy diet for our families, or perhaps we once read a book that lured us into the trap of focusing on ourselves too much, telling us we deserve more “me-time” in our lives.
An author who is committed to an unbiblical agenda can subtly but firmly plant seeds of doubt in our minds. Thankfully, another writer, passionate to proclaim God’s love and truth, can weed out those same doubts and confirm in our hearts the beauty and the rightness of God’s way.
The importance and the power of the written word are undeniable. However, too often we perceive writing as something other people do. Though we write in many different ways for many different reasons, we don’t usually think of ourselves as “real” writers. In turn, we don’t see our teens as writers either. Instead, we think of writing as merely something to be done, a school subject to be graded, a skill to be mastered.
Obviously, not everyone can be a great writer. Each person has different gifts. Yet we each must be confident enough to take up our pens and write when God gives us a message to speak. We need strong, Christian writers today—in fiction, in the academic realm, in the entertainment industry, in politics, in apologetics, in inspirational writing, and in every other area of the publishing world.
Whether our homeschooled youngsters are destined to be leaders or followers (and we do need both), they can all learn to be creative, capable writers. They must be able to express on paper what they are thinking and why they think the way they do. They can use their words to teach, debate, persuade, exhort, and motivate, and we must do our best to provide them with the tools for such writing.
All teens can be interesting, effective writers—they just need to believe it. All teens have something to say—they just need to discover what it is. All teens have a unique voice—they just need to be quiet long enough to hear it speak.
You know it when you have a natural writer on your hands. No one has to alert you to the fact. Natural writers are storytellers, and they tell their stories all the time. Some might start on the actual “writing” part early, composing lengthy, amusing stories, complete with detailed illustrations and realistic dialogue, when they can barely hold a pencil. Other natural writers won’t discover their bent until later in life—say, age 11. However, once they start, natural writers can’t be stopped.
Natural teen writers may write free-flowing poetry about everything in their lives—nothing apparently too trivial for them to ponder. They may write long, rambling letters to their distant cousins; they may fill journal after journal with deep thoughts on life and God; they may write adventurous plays or a 300-page novel. But though they instinctively express themselves through writing, natural writers still need to be challenged to grow in their writing and to use their gift for words wisely.
Teens who are writers-in progress show occasional flashes of brilliance in their writing, but they generally produce work that lacks any life or originality. They seem to find writing boring, and the boredom is apparent in their words. Often, these writers will complain that they can’t think of anything to write. They really believe they have nothing to say.
If you study the work of progressing writers, you will see that their writing only sparkles when they write about things that interest them or when they are somehow jolted out of their usual blandness and write with unexpected honesty about something that moves them intensely. Such purposeful writing needs to become intentional rather than accidental.
These high school students think they can’t write. Perhaps when they were young, they weren’t physically ready to write, and their parents or other teachers hadn’t heard of the wonderful narration alternative to written composition. Some of these kids struggled with spelling and other technical aspects of English, and the prospect of writing at any length was intimidating to them. Finally, many non-writers took several years to learn to read fluently, and they often lacked the steady input of excellent writing during that time.
Some of these teens see themselves as mathematically, scientifically, or mechanically inclined, and they are resigned to the fact that they will never be “good” at writing. This attitude isn’t true or beneficial, though. These young people can learn to express themselves well and even to enjoy the writing process.
Room to Improve
Like every other area of life, there is always room for improvement. All teens can learn to write more creatively and more effectively. They can explore and discover what they want to share through their writing. They can take pleasure in finding and using their unique voice. The best part is that the methods that lead to this type of growth and improvement in writing are the same no matter what the starting point. The non-writer, the writer-in-progress, and the natural writer (and, surprise, even the teacher!) all need to follow a similar route if they want to excel in their writing.
Don’t make writing just another subject you add to your teen’s already full schedule. Writing has to have a real purpose. That purpose might range from describing the town’s winter snowscape in a poem for the local newspaper to sharing the family happenings with a faraway, lonely relative to answering college application essay questions to competing in a national short story contest.
Let your high school students incorporate writing into the academics they are already studying and the passions they already have. If they are enthralled with botany, let them research famous botanists and their discoveries and then write about them in various ways, working to make their subject as interesting to their readers as it is to them. Do not make writing an artificially isolated skill. Teens should be writing about their lives and what personally matters to them.
Practice, practice, practice. Somehow it always comes back to that, doesn’t it? There is no magic pill to take, no special key that unlocks the secret door to “good” writing, no perfect curriculum that when finished unfailingly produces an excellent writer. It just takes practice. The more our teens write, the better they will express themselves and the more satisfied they will be that what they have written actually says what they want it to say.
If your high schoolers find it difficult to write or type out their thoughts as they are mentally composing, suggest they go back to the tried-and-true method of dictation—or rather, auto-dictation. Teens can record their stories and ideas on a tape or CD and then proceed to put it down on paper as they listen to their words again, feeling free to pause and revise as they go.
Another important form of practicing writing—one that can result in wonderful improvements in style and word choice—is reading. Yes, reading. It was a great model for our kids’ writing when they were young, and it’s still the best way to improve their writing now that they’re older. Make up a list of classic books (and lesser-known but other interesting ones, too), and require your students to read through them at a consistent pace. Don’t make them do book reports, please; but do ask them to share passages with you that they find fascinating, beautiful, or thought-provoking. Their writing will improve seemingly effortlessly, and you will be building your relationship with them at the same time.
But how should we evaluate our teens’ writing? Many homeschool parents do not feel up to the task of giving their high schoolers meaningful feedback on their work. This is an area where we need to relax—and yet be careful. First of all, we need to understand that we know what good writing is. If a piece of writing speaks to us, if it makes us think, if it makes us feel, if it amuses us or edifies, then the writer has done his job well.
Don’t worry about comparing your children to others. Simply look for improvement. Is your teen’s writing coming alive? Reaching you in ways it hasn’t before now? That’s what you’re looking to see. You need to emphasize the positive when it comes to giving feedback. Find everything good in your student’s writing. (Yes, there must be something good there!) Talk about what works. Encourage them to expand on their strengths.
When it comes to the weak aspects of their writing, avoid discussing the spelling and grammar errors. Just write in the correction for them to copy or circle the problem for them to research and fix. You should not focus on these technical issues; they will gradually get better if the students are reading and writing on a regular basis. (If your teens make the same grammar mistake repeatedly, and you note it repeatedly, and they fix it in their revisions repeatedly, they will eventually understand what they’re supposed to do.)
When you want to give your high schoolers constructive criticism regarding their writing (and you should), be very specific. You don’t want to overwhelm them. Begin in a limited fashion, pointing out a couple of things they can change that will result in clear improvements in their writing. For instance, perhaps they can use more active and descriptive verbs, change around their sentence structures, vary the pacing of their fiction, or add in historical and literary references to their essays. Give them examples of such changes, and then be sure to offer sincere praise when they start to implement these ideas.
Our young people need to take the risk of expressing their thoughts and dreams to others. Only then can they grow fully, and only in such sharing can they inspire others to growth and creativity of their own. Helping our teens to find their writing voice and encouraging them to “speak” it loudly, frequently, and honestly is not an arduous, thankless task. Rather, it is an honor for us as homeschooling parents. Our children’s words throughout the years will more than repay us.
Originally published on March 27, 2009
Kim Lundberg is the busy mom of 10 great kids. She and her family have been homeschooling for 16 years, and they make their home in beautiful northern California. Kim enjoys teaching drama, writing, and world history classes, as well as reading mysteries, baking goodies, camping, and listening to her kids talk, sing, and make music.
This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr 2009 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Get more great homeschooling help by downloading our FREE 8-page report entitled “The Secret to Homeschooling Freedom” by visiting http://HomeSchoolEnrichment.com/resources/report.htm