One January I asked my English class of 12-13 year-olds whether they had read any books over the Christmas break. Most said they had, so we chatted about what they liked or might recommend to others. It was a good mix: a few YA thrillers, Wonder, a couple of sports biographies, some sci-fi and fantasy, and one or two horrors which I personally would never go near.
Then I asked my class if they did any writing over the holidays.
Heads lowered. A few shuffled uneasily. Two girls made eye contact – their way of telling me they had, but weren’t mentioning it out loud (Fair enough). One boy nodded his head.
I waited, pausing to see if there might be any more responses.
A hand shot up in the back row.
I blinked. I blinked a few times, in fact. The boy with his hand up was a great lad. A good laugh too, but not one whom you would associate with keeping a journal or finishing off a story on his holidays.
I asked him what he wrote. His reply? Thank you cards – with his mum standing over him, arms folded and tapping her foot until he finished – to the family and friends who had sent him birthday presents.
I knew his mum. Let’s just say I found his account believable.
His tale got a few chuckles and led to a good discussion. Nearly everyone had been there before – given cards or letters which their parents had insisted they write. Some churned out the bare minimum – rewriting the same lines in each card or penning a Wish you were here – while others individualised each card and made them personal. A few told how these efforts were then inspected by parents who, if errors or insufficient content were spotted, demanded a re-write.
This snapshot is illustrative too. My school has an outstanding library and promotes reading constantly. It expects children to have a book on them at all times which they should read if they finish a task early. Over the holidays, these good habits continued. Most children read.
It’s not the same with writing. and it demonstrates one of the difficulties we face as parents and educators in getting children to write at home. For many of them, it’s a chore. For those children who keep notebooks to draw or jot in – like the two or three in my class – writing at home isn’t a problem. All they need are a few prompts and some stationary.
For everyone else, here are a few tips to encourage your child to write at home.
In some circles, creative writing is often synonymous with writing stories or poetry. It shouldn’t be. Expressing your opinion in print is creative. Describing a try scored in a rugby match on paper is creative. Writing a film review is creative. I could carry on, but I’m sure there’s no need. My point is that the best way to get your child writing is to take what interests your child most – gaming, football, lying in bed, whatever – and find a way to write about it.
Next, make this writing session short and frequent. Writing is a skill, like playing the violin or juggling. Practice it enough and you’ll get better. Ten minutes is plenty to start off with. Leave corrections and editing aside at first. There’s time for that later on.
This one is for parents with younger children or children who find the physical act of writing a cumbersome challenge. Scribe. Write down what your child says or type it out. It’s not cheating, it’s support. Go over it afterwards and encourage your child to suggest changes if he or she feels they are needed.
Make it fun
Write a scathing food review of the scrambled eggs and beans Dad served up last Saturday morning. Use post-its to write imaginary messages written by your dog or cat and left behind for others to find. Make treasure maps. Write fan fiction – new adventures for beloved story or TV characters.
Flash fiction are stories with a restricted word count. Can you write a story in 50 words? A 100? It isn’t as easy as it might sound.
Interact with writers and public figures
Back in April, I made a “10 Minute Challenge” for Authorfy (a great resource for parents and teachers), a short video about a parcel. Over the next few months I received snippets of children’s writing which parents and teachers posted to me on Twitter. I wrote back to everyone and, trust me, I am not alone on that. Writers love to hear from children who liked their books or were inspired to write or draw characters based on it. Okay, a few celebrity authors with huge social media accounts might not get in touch, but working stiffs like me certainly will.
The same, I am sure, is true in other walks of life. A child who posts a piece of writing to a public figure or sports star is always in with a chance of being heard. Try it. Because in the end, this might be the most important tip: every writer, no matter how young, needs readers.
Fire Boy is published by Hachette, and is available to purchase from all good booksellers, and more insight and information can be found via the previous stops on the blog tour- see details on the banner above.