I’ve been working with young writers since I started my company, Chasing Driftwood Writing Group in 2015. I was no stranger to working with children as I was a childminder for five years and as a mum of four myself, I’ve always felt quite confident dealing with young people. At the moment, I run seven writing clubs for children aged between 7 and 16. I have four physical, in-person clubs and I have three clubs on Zoom. These clubs cater for schoolchildren and home educated children. Currently I’m working with fifty young writers every week. It’s a privilege combining my love of writing with working with kids, and I consider myself very lucky. There are of course many challenges and here are ten things I have learnt from working with young writers:
- Drawing is writing too – quite often when a child is new to a club, they will ask if they can just draw. I never mind this, as it’s amazing how much writing can evolve from drawing. They might start off just scribbling or drawing something that interests them, but more often than not, they will get an idea from the drawing and will start to talk about a possible story. Sometimes allowing drawing can form part of a deal too. Younger writers are not keen on writing too much but often I can get them to write a paragraph, then go back to their drawing and so on. They often surprise themselves when they start to write as well as draw!
- How quickly they improve year from year – it never fails to amaze me how quickly young writers mature. It’s always exciting to note the improvements in their writing skills. Just little things like them starting to self-edit, picking up on repetitive phrases and words for instance, or using body movements in place of dialogue tags. It’s amazing how fast their storytelling skills mature from one year to the next.
- Talking is writing too – sometimes talking is writing and it’s good for young writers to realise this. Talking about writing with other writers can be so helpful. If one child is a bit stuck and we start talking about it, suggesting ways to move forward or to generate more ideas, or to get the plot moving again, it’s still writing! There might be less words on paper but often they have learnt a lot more.
- Give them options, not instructions – I learnt early on that running my writing clubs ‘my way’ was not going to work for every child. There are children who thrive on instructions and being told what to do, and don’t mind coming into a session, finding out what the tasks are and getting on with them. But there are children who come bursting in with their wonderful new ideas who then feel completely deflated that we have something else planned. For this reason, I always have options. There is never just one task, or a one size fits all approach to my clubs. For example, we have been trying creative non-fiction in a lot of my clubs lately and I always give them a list of prompts to choose from. Some kids whizz quickly through the whole list, responding with short paragraphs to each one and some spend the whole session on one prompt. They definitely prefer having choices! One of their favourite things is to have different writing activities on each table so that they can move around the room and try different things.
- Eventually it sinks in – Young writers tend to get a head full of ideas and want to write their story instantly. Inevitably, they often get stuck or run out of steam so I’m always trying to impress on them the importance of character development and plotting, which can happen alongside the actual writing, but certainly can’t be ignored. I often meet resistence to this and it can take time for it to sink in. The moment when a child shows you their plot ideas or their character bios or their map for their location, when you haven’t asked them to do it, is a very special one indeed! Eventually it does all start to sink in.
- They take things off on own tangent and that’s a good thing – as I mentioned already, talking about writing can be just as beneficial as actually getting words down on paper. And sometimes talking within a writing group can help children get unstuck. Often I find, I have planned a session with structured activities I aim to take them through together, and the whole thing will get hijacked by young writers going off on their own tangents. It might be an idea they suddenly get that they just have to share. It might be something I have mentioned has sparked off a memory about something else. Or it might be that my suggestions lead them in a direction I had not anticipated. Either way, as long as they are writing and getting excited about writing, I really don’t mind at all!
- How surprised they are when you say they are a good writer – This always gets to me. When you listen to something they have written, or they pass you something they want you to read and you reply with positive feedback and tell them they are good at writing, they always get this wide-eyed look of surprise on their face. In our groups we focus on writing for fun and don’t focus too much on grammar, spelling or punctuation. We do of course edit and encourage young writers to self-edit and we do mention correct spellings and grammar, but they are not tested and not pushed. If a child hands me a story or a poem with incorrect spelling, I still tell them they are a good writer, because they are.
- Some of them are natural writers, which is very exciting – I think all children are natural storytellers, just as they are natural artists and dancers. It is human to create and it is very human to make up stories and pass them on. Some children come along to writing groups and start to improve their skills very quickly, for example learning how to use dialogue, how to fully develop their characters, how to utilise back story and so on. And some children come along as almost fully formed perfect little writers. Actually, perfect is the wrong word. Natural, is closer to what I mean. They instinctively know how to structure a story, how to reveal character and how to build tension. It’s so natural that they don’t even realise they are doing it. I find this very exciting!
- Jumping from idea to idea is okay – I’d have to say that the one thing most of my young writers have in common is how much they jump from one idea to the next. I do try to encourage them to stick with a story and finish it, and everything we work on from character to plot, is aimed at helping them achieve this. However, I never mind when they get bored of a story and come up with a new idea. Having a lot of ideas is very exciting for them and I’d hate to get in the way of new ideas spilling out whenever they need to. I always insist that they keep everything they write somewhere safe, so that if an idea has not worked out, they can come back to it another time. I also encourage them to write down all their ideas for other stories, if they are sticking to the same one. Keep those ideas safe and the more you have, the better! Writing is very much like a tap, I think. Once you have turned it on, it wants to keep flowing. Your mind is finding new ideas to explore for you and that is a good thing.
- The quietest ones sometimes have the loudest minds – My writing clubs can be noisy excitable places at times! It can be a challenge keeping the noise down so that the quieter students can focus on their writing. Some children are very creative and like to talk about it and share it around. While some are quieter and like to keep it to themselves. I tend to find that the really quiet ones, the ones that keep their heads down and write away endlessly in a corner, have the loudest minds when their work is finally revealed. They have so much going on in there that they just have to focus on getting it down on paper.
I think I could add more than ten things I have learned from working with young writers, but that will cover it for now! It is a challenging but rewarding job. One of the best feelings is when a parent emails to say their child is writing more at home now, of their own accord, or that their teachers have noticed their writing has improved in school. Another fantastic feeling is when children bring in finished work they have been doing at home. They are always so proud if they have seen a story through to the end. Introducing them to new things is also really exciting. Getting children to enjoy non-fiction or poetry, for example, feels amazing! You can’t win them all and you can’t please them all, but I aim to keep the clubs as varied and exciting and as challenging as possible. Sometimes I look at these kids and wonder who will be a best selling novelist one day!