It’s the Starting That’s Stopping Us
My child had been agonizing in front of the computer literally for two hours. She squinted her eyes tightly as she considered how to start her report. She typed a mere four or five words, groaned, and then quickly backspaced 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 believed when most people wrote, it came 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, lines to previous events begin to materialize. Perhaps the beginning will become clear. Or perhaps simply 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 on-line 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 them deeply into a scenario, and then asking them to give it an ending. Karen Andreaola 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 Them Their Topic
When a child is given an assignment to write a report, the topic area is sometimes too broad for them to get a clear starting point. You might say, “Do a report on an animal of your choice.” Wow! Talk about options. They may just sit there for hours thinking through each animal, waiting for the right choice to sort of jump out at them. It might be better to select an animal for them and then give them clear content direction. “You’re going to do a report on the Wombats. You need a section on their homes, social structure, enemies, diet and finally, impact on their environment.” Boom. Topic chosen. No thought needed.
6. Start With Things They Already Know
Some kids just need to get into the practice of writing. Asking them to think as well as write is more than they might be ready for. So have them write things that are already thought out, such as a process that is already known to them.
–How to make a milkshake
–How to best make a bed
–What do you see as you walk through Grandma’s house
–How to tie your shoes
–How do you cast a fishing line into the water
This type of writing is valuable in several ways. One is that they have to think in succession, in a linear fashion. Two is that they are developing the skills of a technical writer. But three is that it simply gets them in the habit of writing, of knowing that they are capable of putting words down onto paper(or onto monitor.) Later, once they are 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, 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. “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 Father’s 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 putting lines 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 comes off. Then you start listing various home repairs that Dads engage in. Another line from the center might be “Work”. You get the idea. You start with the main idea, 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 possible 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 it. They are given an assignment and sometimes just a few hours to produce finished copy. And it happens like that for them every day that they’re at work. They aren’t permitted the luxury of “Writer’s Block.”
So in our home we began a campaign. There would be writing every day. Just 15 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 15 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 along side of them.
I found writer’s prompts on line or created them myself. But the prompt wasn’t important. Seriously. One day all they had to do was make sure their writing included 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 point was developing 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 is a fresh, fun and popular conference speaker unlike any you’ve heard before. Her objective is to have the wit of Erma Bombeck crossed with the depth of C.S. Lewis, but admits that most days, she only achieves a solid Lucy Ricardo with a bit of Bob the Tomato. She is a frequent guest commentator on Focus on the Family’s Weekend Magazine broadcast, has been a guest on many radio programs and is a speaker to conferences nationwide. She’s the author of three books about dealing with (or possessing) a non-linear mind in a linear world: How to Get Your Child Off the Refrigerator and On To Learning, If I’m Diapering a Watermelon, Then Where’d I Leave the Baby?, and The Big WHAT NOW Book of Learning Styles. Her main websites are CarolBarnier.com and SizzleBop.com. You can also find Carol at her blog for moms with distractible kids at SizzleBop. And for fun, see her church humor blog at CarolBarnier.