Is writing learnable? Absolutely. Andrew Bennett says, “Great writers aren’t great first-drafters. They’re great rewriters.” Writing skills are learned, which is good news because the National Association of Colleges and Employers ranks oral and written communication skills as the fourth most desired competency sought by employers in new hires. Effective writing will help your child succeed in school and in the workplace. Below are strategies for becoming a better writer. The first five will foster an enjoyment for writing, and the latter five are steps for jumpstarting school writing projects.
Like any improvement, start with attitude. Believe it's possible to improve.
1) Connect writing to your child’s interests
One of my cousins has little passion for math, but he loves science fiction and has ideas for several novels he’d like to write. Whether it be animals, fairy tales, video games, trucks, sports, your child has an interest in something. Encourage them to draw pictures and write about their interests (like elephants or zoo animals) to help you learn more or to share it with their friends. The key is to make writing fun, not a chore. Like with reading, frequent practice with writing will help foster skills and a more confident attitude towards writing.
Some writing your child does in school may not interest them (for example, causes of the revolutionary war or pros and cons of wind energy). Just because the topic isn’t interesting, doesn’t mean writing can't be interesting. When it’s possible, encourage children to pick a topic that fascinates them. Motivation goes a long way in completing a project. Students can even propose a different topic idea to teachers.
2) Do it as a family
Similar to reading, when children see their parents writing, they connect the importance of writing to their life. Writing cards, grocery lists, and notes are all examples of day-to-day writing you can model.
Want to foster writing abilities and daily gratitude? Consider a family gratitude journal. Together as a family, brainstorm up to five things you’re grateful for that day. This can be a fun trip to the zoo, a tasty dinner, a cute pet, or anything that brings joy to your child and family. The benefits of fostering gratitude include higher self-esteem, better psychological and physical health, and increased mental strength.
UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center recommends journaling about gratitude for 15-minutes at least once a week and to be as specific as possible about what you’re grateful for. The gratitude journal can be rotated among different family members, or each family member can have their individual gratitude journal. The key is to carve out intentional family writing time 1-3 times a week.
3) Use art and games as writing prompts
In second grade, my teacher asked each of us to pick a mammal to research. We drew pictures in a pre-bound, blank book (available at most craft stores) and then added sentences explaining the pictures and the animal habits we'd drawn. It was fun to create our own book, featuring our drawings and writing.
To encourage confidence and openness towards writing, writing needs to be fun. Try making it into a craft or a game. Cut out magazine pictures and make a story line out of the pictures. Or put the pictures into an envelop and randomly choose a picture to make a story out of it. You also can look through old family photo albums for inspiration.
Another idea is to create storybooks out of your children’s drawings. Ask them to draw pictures, then paste them into a blank spiral book (or purchase the book for them to illustrate beforehand, as we did with our second grade mammal books). Encourage your child to be an author and create their own book! See more ideas on writing development for young children from Colorín Colorado.
4) Write letters
Receiving a handwritten letter in the mail is a delightful surprise, and beyond the thoughtful gesture, writing letters to family and friends can help your child’s writing skills later in work. Brian Garner, author of HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, suggests letter writing as a way for adults to brush up their writing skills. He states, “If you can write good letters, you can write just about anything…That’s because they help you focus on others. When you write a letter, you’re connecting with one particular recipient. And letters help you build goodwill with people” (pg. 46). Why not start early and help your child connect writing to real audiences?
While in school, it’s easy to forget about the “audience” you’re writing for. Most of the time, the teacher is the one reading the work. However, in college and the workplace, you have to connect with real readers about real messages (think about business emails, letters to clients, notes for coworkers). Written communication is not a one-size-fits-all activity and writing should be tailored to the specific audience. Letter-writing is a fun activity that requires your child to tailor a message to Grandma, a distant cousin, a friend next door, or another audience. Plus, it's a quick way to spread smiles.
5) Encourage reading
People of all ages learn new vocabulary through reading. In addition to exercising our minds, reading published works helps us understand what “good” writing is and how to emulate it in our writing. Additionally, students may find inspiration to write their own books based on the characters, settings, and adventures found in beloved books.
5 Tips for Surviving School Writing Projects
6) Set a timer
This can be particularly helpful when writing dreaded school essays or reports. Set a timer for 20- or 30-minutes, and cheer on your child to work on the paper.
Try setting a specific goal for each timed writing session: Session 1: Brainstorm topic ideas. Session 2: Find three relevant online sources. Session 3: Make an outline of three major points. Session 4: Fill in the outline with supporting details. Session 5: Write one body paragraph. Session 6: Write another body paragraph. Session 7: Write the conclusion. You get the point. It’s easier to find motivation to write when you know the end goal. You see the light at the end of the tunnel.
7) Explain that writing is learnable, and good writing is the process of many, many revisions
I worked with a professor who once told me that every academic journal article he published had been through 5-30 drafts. This is someone who is an expert in his field and has a PhD. Even he went through 30 drafts of the same paper! Remind your child that writing takes time and even professional writers spend immense amounts of time writing and rewriting. The good news is that writing is learnable. Remember, “good writing isn’t an inborn gift. It’s a skill you cultivate, like so many others” (Garner, HBR’s Guide to Better Business Writing, pg. xvii).
Ask your child what they’ve learned to do in their lifetime. Riding a bike, throwing a baseball, doing a cartwheel. Those are skills cultivated. Writing is one other skill that can be improved with practice.
8) Write it as you’d speak it
What’s the most academic way to say "start"? Initiate? Commence? Sometimes students feel pressured to write in an academic tone that feels unnatural to them. Your child might feel as if they have to write it the “right” way for school. However, struggling to find the “right” academic words can stop ideas from flowing, lead to unnecessary stress, and contribute to procrastination. Next time your child is stuck on a paper, tell them to write down exactly how they’d explain it to you verbally. Don’t fuss over the proper grammar or the ‘academic’ tone of it; just get ideas on the page. Later, words or sentences can be fixed to match the assignment requirements, but step one is getting ideas down on the page.
9) Write the easiest part first
If your child can’t figure out how to beautifully begin the introduction to an argumentative essay, tell them to skip it. Jump into the part that’s easiest to write. Often, this is a body paragraph or the main section of the paper. Even though it shows up first on a finished paper, it’s perfectly fine to skip over the introduction and write it last. In fact, saving the introduction for last is a good strategy because it ensures that the introduction matches the rest of the paper. Sometimes in the writing process arguments shift, and the introduction ends up serving as a preliminary argument but not the final argument of the paper.
Writing the easiest part first will help your child see progress. Progress feels good, and your child can go back and write the more difficult parts later.
10) Just get started
Ever heard of the Zeigarnik Effect? This psychology principle explains that people have a desire to finish what they started. According to Dr. Sarkis, “the brain has a powerful need to finish what it starts. When it can't complete something, it gets stuck on it.”
In practice, this might look like setting aside 25-minutes to start writing a paper and then moving onto a new task. An internal alarm clock in the brain will sound later to remember to finish the report. As the old adage goes, starting is the hardest part.
For more ideas, check out UNC’s handout on overcoming procrastination.