I am extremely privileged to work with young writers for my job with Chasing Driftwood Writing Group. I run seven clubs every week, catering to home-educated children and within schools as after-school clubs. Some are on Zoom and some are in-person. I work with children aged between 7 and 16, though sometimes younger and older. I’ve been doing this since 2015 and in that time, though I like to think I have taught them a thing or two about writing, it’s also true that they have taught me. Here are some lessons I have learnt from young writers.
Self-belief is key – One of the things I love about young writers is that so far they are entirely untouched by cynicism. There is a lot of negativity within the writing world and I have blogged about it before. A lot of adult writers, for example, get jaded and worn out, think it’s not worth it, they’ll never make it, never sell any books etc etc… but young writers don’t think like that at all. They’ll quite happily declare that they’ve started writing a book and it’s going to be a series and they’re going to get it published and become an author. They truly believe it and so they should!
The stories in your head are just as important as the ones you write down – One thing I can tell you about young writers is that their heads are just full of the most amazing stories. The tricky bit is getting them to write it all down! Of course – it’s physically and mentally taxing for young children to fill reams and reams of paper with handwriting, and most of them have not yet mastered fast typing on a laptop, so I spend a lot of time listening. Sometimes I help them out by writing it down as they explain it to me. I find it fascinating how much their imaginations conjure up! One young writer recently told me about some missing cats who had their pictures on wanted posters. This started off as a fake article as we have been working on article-writing. It soon morphed into a wonderful story about magical rainbow cats that have been stolen, and since they have vanished, the world has no colour and everything is black and white. Another was reluctant to write his story down but told me it was about a mythical creature that died mysteriously in an alley-way and its death opened up a portal to another world, and since it died there can be no happiness in the normal world. Another told me a story where children wake up to find that everyone but them have been turned into tiny sand-timers counting down to some sort of disaster. The children have to solve the mystery to save the world. Just brilliant! Sometimes my job involves encouraging them to put pen to paper and sometimes my job is simply listening in wonder.
It’s okay to let things go off tangent – This might be one of the biggest things they have taught me. I plan my half-term topics and most of the clubs will tackle the same topic at the same time. I usually plan the sessions in advance – for example, with article writing in schools, we started by talking about what an article is, who had read one, why etc – then moved on to creating our own crazy headlines. This involved lots of very dramatic words laid out on a table for them to move around. We had some brilliant creations such as Cats Are Broken, Donut Monsters Are Taking Over The World and Dragon’s Map of The Road Less Travelled… The idea after that was they would attempt to write a fake article to go with their chosen fake headline. Some of the children did this, writing a lead or intro under their headline, drawing a fake ‘photo’ even conducting fake interviews, whereas some of them vanished on a tangent for a story idea. I didn’t mind this at all. It would have been lovely to get them all to write the story in article style, but when an idea runs and runs, who am I to stop it? The end result was a mixture of article style stories and actual stories.
Everything is open to interpretation – It quite often transpires that my plans go awry with young writers. They inevitably interpret things differently and ask to do something slightly different and within reason, I like to accommodate this. Sometimes I’ll set a task and then when the results come in, it will become obvious how differently they have interpreted it. Again, there is nothing wrong with this and I think it shows the depth of their individual imaginations.
A support network is everything – One thing I have noticed over the years is that the more children talk about writing and share their writing, the more other children will do the same. I try to encourage them to share their work, either by reading it out or by allowing me to. They can be shy about this so I never force anyone. I have noticed, however, that they are naturally very supportive of and impressed by each other. Our Zoom groups for instance are full of supportive and kind comments in the chat and they seem to love listening to each-other’s stories. In the school groups, as they grow in confidence they love reading their work out loud to the whole class and sometimes I end up with a small mob surrounding me begging to read theirs out! I think this shows that writers do need support and the more they can get, the better. When you feel supported and valued, when your efforts are noticed and appreciated, you tend to try even harder.
Above all else, writing should be fun – This is such an important one and I think us older writers tend to forget this. Once we are bogged down in editing, proofreading, submitting, marketing and promoting, we find ourselves surrounded by some of the negative aspects of the writing world. I think there are far too many negative writer stereotypes out there and it’s easy to fall prey to that mindset. Writing is hard, it’s a torture, why do we do it to ourselves? I’m happy to tell you that children don’t see it that way at all. For them, it’s storytelling and telling stories is fun. It definitely helps to remind ourselves of this from time to time!
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!