Young writers’ reluctance to formality

Dr. Retta Smith has helped schools, businesses, and individuals improve writing. She is the current CEO at Editing Chick, a business writing and editing firm.

Some children who are labeled reluctant writers struggle to write. Some like no parts of writing. Others do their best to avoid the formality of writing.

Hundreds of years later, the question still lurks: Can writing ever be perfect? Professors of literacy do agree, however, that effective communication – words that clearly get the message across – is the main goal of writing.

Why is it important to keep this in mind? Because children who avoid formal writing activities oftentimes know how to get their message across.

I worked with young writers who vary in types of reluctance. I was intrigued mostly by those who were hesitant to participate in formal writing activities. The sudden shift in body language when the word ‘write’ was simply mentioned made me think these children were unbothered by their label. The message was clear: They were determined to stay far removed from formal writing, even if it meant conducting, as described by Ralph Fletcher, a sit-down strike.

Their other side intrigued me, too. During their free time, I watched how enthusiastically they constructed text messages. The ease in choosing the most engaging topics and the most compelling words to hold the attention of their authentic audiences should have earned each child an exceptional grade for effort. During their times of texting, I witnessed no signs of the familiar reluctance-to-write syndrome.

Clearly, there was a reluctance to the rigid expectations of writing. The constant don’ts of formal writing hindered the children’s creativity and stunted any hopes of becoming better writers. It was unfortunate that texting was their only enjoyable writing activity.

Blank stares and blank papers were not indicators of reluctance. Instead, those were clues that the writers were thinking deeply. As I listened intently to their experiences and interests, I discovered worthwhile content waiting for the right moment to be formally expressed. I remembered reading about James Cameron’s similar experience. He had to sit on his Avatar movie idea for 10 years, waiting for technology to catch-up.

The moment can happen much sooner for these young writers. The tool to formally accommodate their thoughts is readily available. It’s called authentic opportunity. Children yearn for real life opportunities to own the “what to write” and “how to say it” parts of writing. This outcry was evident in the young texters’ free time when they had flexibility both in space and time to participate in writing of personal interest.

Inclusive of authentic experiences is positive, sincere feedback. Children in environments that center on authenticity receive positive comments more often than they receive constructive feedback that asks them to adjust their writing. The strongest writer can lose enthusiasm by receiving comments that focus mainly on subpar skills, but positive feedback is like a supporter who cheers, “Give us more of that!”

That’s exactly what one of my cheerleaders did for me. Ms. Blum, my high school English teacher, wrote a brief message on my eight-page research paper: “Your best work yet! Aren’t you proud?” I took “yet” to imply that Ms. Blum knew more of the good stuff was on the way. That comment has inspired me and thousands of others to become better writers. That’s the magic of positive feedback!

Children who do their best to avoid formal writing can magically become willing participants. Authentic opportunities can help them analyze and appeal to diverse audiences to impact their parts of the world. After all, these young writers already know how to brainstorm, write, respond, and publish, and many children proofread by using features that ensure flawless messages. Offering authentic opportunities will not help them bring personal significance to writing but will ultimately strengthen their skill as effective communicators.

Now is the opportune time for these young writers to explore beyond rigid guidelines, especially while the definition of perfect writing is to be determined.

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