By Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.
Writing well will help your child in almost every school subject, and in reaching major goals in his or her life. As a practical skill, it will enable your child to get and keep jobs, to achieve his or her potential, and to create stronger connections with others, at work and in social activities. Communication turns out to be critical for nearly every human endeavor; in the age of e-mail, frequent travel, and working from multiple sites, well-written communication makes all the difference in how you are perceived by others. Even romance has become more highly dependent on e-mail, messaging, and remote communication. As Cyrano de Bergerac proved centuries ago, good writers often do better in wooing their mates. And as recent studies confirm, good communicators also surpass their peers in keeping their relationships functioning harmoniously.
With abundant evidence of its benefits in nearly every aspect of life, one might assume that the goal of writing well would take a primary position in high school and college education. Instead, modern educational methods spend less time teaching the precise functions of the parts of language in favor of programs allowing students to infer the rules of grammar from the stories and essays they read, leaving a great deal to their imaginations. Many students improvise when it comes to constructing a proper sentence, succumbing to flaws such as sentence fragments and run-on sentences when they do not understand the rules. Paradoxically, reading, which, when well-supported by an understanding of grammatical rules, still serves as the best teacher of writing skills and a wide vocabulary, has fallen behind television, Internet use, and watching DVDs and videos as both an in-school and after school activity. Students who do manage to write well stand out; in classes ranging from English to history to science, teachers reward those students who can express themselves clearly and logically.
Parents can help their students who do not yet write well to improve their skills tremendously, even before the school year begins. The sections below outline a variety of ways to help students become better writers, enhancing their chances for success in academics, work, and social life. Part I focuses on activities to do during the summer, before school begins. Part II focuses on support for writing better papers in school.
PART I: BUILDING THE FOUNDATION
A. Encourage your teenager to read.
- Take your teenager to the library regularly. Encourage him or her to check out lots of books – a wide variety is best, at least at first.
- Visit used bookstores frequently and pick up copies of the classics and better novels, poetry, short stories, and nonfiction on topics of interest to family members. If you do not have enough bookshelves, build more.
- Read books yourself, in front of your teenager, and aloud with your teenager. Just because a child turns eleven or twelve is no reason to stop reading aloud. Saying, “Listen to this!” and reading a funny part aloud to your teenager can draw even a reluctant reader to a good book.
- Take books with you on car trips, when traveling, and even when you have to wait at the doctor’s or dentist’s office.
- Get books on tape from the library. Many classics and other good literature and nonfiction are available on tape. Some grocery chains and even travel or truck stops now carry rental books on tape that can be returned to any other stores in that chain. For a slow or struggling reader, listening to tapes is often the best method to introduce good writing. Most listeners can understand works two or three years above their reading level. Listening will also help to expand your teenager’s vocabulary.
- Give gift certificates for bookstores, and subscriptions to magazines of interest to your teenager.
B. Encourage your teenager to write.
Quantity matters more than quality at first, in order to get past writer’s block and to feel comfortable writing. Encourage your teenager to write everything from letters to diaries to lists. The suggestions below may inspire both your teen and you.
- Buy some new notebooks and journals to give to everyone in the family, along with new pens, and encourage each to write a diary or journal.
- Buy new stationery and cards, or make homemade versions, and distribute to the entire family for writing to friends and relatives.
- Buy scrapbook supplies that include sections for writing. Collect family photos or trip photos and set aside some time to get everyone in the family to contribute some written memories. Or you can encourage your teenager to make his or her own scrapbooks.
- Play word games and spelling games, including Boggle, Scrabble, Perquackey, Dictionary, and informal spelling games.
- Check out books on writing from the library and invest in a couple of your choosing, or let your teenager pick out a couple if he or she is so inclined. Read these books together over the last weeks of summer, and practice the suggestions from them in your informal writing with your teenager.
The Artist’s Way series, by Julia Cameron, provides inspirational exercises to work through, and some of the best advice for reluctant writers or those with writer’s block. These books are worth buying if your teenager commits to working towards becoming a better writer and is willing to put time into completing at least some of the exercises. For older teens, and those harder to inspire, Stephen King’s autobiographical book,On Writing, is part memoir, part excellent advice to writers, and comes highly recommended. Author Amy Tan says it is the best book on writing she has ever read (note: King uses some swear words in the book). Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones offers an intense experience to savor, many ways to conquer different problems, and good general advice on writing. Older girls may especially appreciate this choice. Finally, the classic book by William Strunk Jr., and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, should be on everyone’s shelf, although the tone is old-fashioned. It may work best to read the introduction and then skim a few pages a day, if you wish to read it with your teenager. More recent editions include E.B. White’s useful personal essay on style. Before school starts, make sure you also have dictionaries, a good thesaurus, and writers’ reference books on hand at home. Diane Hacker’s book, A Writer’s Reference, is invaluable and has marked section dividers that make it easy to use.
PART II: WRITING PAPERS FOR SCHOOL
High school and college teachers appreciate clear, well-written papers that move in a logical progression from introductory paragraph and thesis statement or hypothesis, through supporting arguments, to a concise conclusion. A quote from Hacker illustrates the process required to produce this kind of writing:
“Since it’s not possible to think about everything all at once, most experienced writers handle a piece of writing in stages. Roughly speaking, those stages are planning, drafting, and revising. You should generally move from planning to drafting to revising, but be prepared to circle back to earlier stages whenever the need arises.” (Hacker, 1999, p.3).
The biggest problem for many students arises because they are trying to think about everything at once, and the task becomes insurmountable. But the seemingly monumental task of writing a good paper can be broken down into practical, easily achievable segments. I like the following list of tasks from Hacker, because it includes the part that stumps many students: a set of staggered deadlines for the different components. Even a student with good skills, plenty of energy, and a positive attitude falls down on the job when he or she procrastinates and then does not have time to complete each part listed below. In Hacker’s book, she lists a hypothetical date to the side of each item, allowing a few days to accomplish each task.
- Take the college’s (high school’s) library tour and get familiar with computer search tools.
- Pose a research question and plan a search strategy.
- Find sources.
- Read and take notes.
- Decide on a tentative thesis and outline.
- Draft the paper.
- Visit the writing center to get help with ideas for revision.
- Do further research if necessary.
- Revise the paper.
- Prepare a list of works cited.
- Type and proofread the final draft.
(Adapted from Hacker, 1999, p. 51)
Just about any student can become a good, or at least a much better, writer; it just takes practice, hard work, and a commitment to follow a similar writing schedule. Using a writer’s reference, Strunk and White, and tools such as the dictionary and thesaurus are crucial to becoming a better writer; but having them on the shelf and actually using them are two different activities. Your student must practice the latter to become a better writer. If he or she still struggles with writing after trying several of these strategies, seek the help of a writing tutor as early as possible. The chance to improve the most important skill for your child’s academic success and future career makes tutoring well worth the investment.
Cameron, Julia. 1992.The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Guide to Higher Creativity. New York: Tarcher/Putnam Books.
Goldberg, Natalie. 1986.Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Goldberg, Natalie. 1990. Wild Mind. New York: Bantam.
Hacker, Diana. 1999. A Writer’s Reference, 4th edition . Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. This edition and all subsequent editions provide the best reference information. These texts are also available in computer versions.
King, Stephen. 2000. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft . New York: Pocket Books.
Strunk, William Jr, E.B. White, and Maira Kalman. 2007. The Elements of Style Illustrated. New York: Penguin.
Strunk,William Jr, E.B. White, and Roger Angell. 2000.The Elements of Style, 4th edition . Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Strunk, William Jr, and E.B. White. 1979. The Elements of Style, 3rd edition . New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.
Zinsser, William K. 2006. On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: the Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Collins.