Editor’s note: For girls who love to write, coming up with creative writing ideas may not be a problem. Instead, the snags might come in when it’s time to decide how to respond to what she’s written.
When 11-year-old Annie shows her parents a story she’s written, they usually respond by telling her what a good job she’s done. “They probably don’t want to offend me by saying anything else,” Annie speculates. “They might want to point out mistakes or say things they think could be better, but they don’t because they’re afraid of hurting my feelings.”
As Annie realizes, it’s sometimes hard for adults to know how to be a writing coach when presented with a child’s writing. You want to be encouraging, but what else can you offer besides a blandly enthusiastic “That’s great”? You see errors you’d like to correct and suggestions you’d like to make, but how to offer that information without discouraging her?
When a girl hands you the rough draft of a poem or story, it’s an act of trust. Sharing her writing makes a girl vulnerable, and certain responses can make her feel like chucking the paper into the trash. Other kinds of responses, however, can invite her to think more deeply about her writing and will leave her excited about working on it further. These, of course, are the kinds of responses we want to inspire.
Over many years of responding to young people’s writing, I’ve developed a few guiding principles.
Find out what you’re being asked to do. If you wrote someone a love letter, would you want his first response to be about your misspellings? If you showed a friend a letter you were sending to a prospective employer, wouldn’t you want her to point out a confusing sentence? Different forms of writing have different purposes and seek different responses from first readers. Before saying anything at all, it’s best to get a sense of how the girl views what she has just handed you and what kind of response she’s looking for. Is the piece so rough that she just wants to know if you can follow it? Or is this the third draft of an assignment due in an hour? Is she ready to hear technical information about spelling and punctuation, or is she just looking for a sense of how effective it is? Is she open to restructuring it, or is she so close to handing it in that she only wants you to point out typographical errors?
Your response will vary depending on how she answers these questions and where in the writing process she is. Find out what kind of help you’re being asked for, or, if she isn’t sure what she’s looking for, offer her some options and invite her to think about which feels right.
Acknowledge the good before criticizing the bad. Often we look at a rough piece of writing and immediately think of all the things we would change. The challenge is to avoid rushing in and starting to list all those things right away. First talk about what was effective. No matter how rough the piece or how glaring the errors, there is always some strength or potential to acknowledge.
Be as specific as possible. Girls benefit more from focused attention than from general praise. And just as detail is more vivid than generalization in a piece of writing, so too is specific criticism or praise more helpful than a general observation. See if you can tell your daughter which parts of the story helped you picture what she was describing or understand her point of view. Being specific means you must first pay close attention, so that you can offer more than general praise. This also helps you show her that writing is about helping readers see what the author sees and feel what she feels.
See possibilities rather than failures. A young writer’s early draft often contains sentences that seem vague or trite. When you notice such things, frame your comments in terms of your interest to know more rather than in terms of what’s wrong with the piece. That makes your criticism more welcome and easier to absorb.
Suppose a girl has written, “My cat is pretty.” A response like, “That’s a bland way to describe your cat” calls attention to what wasn’t done. A response like, “I’d like to know more about what your cat looks like,” calls attention to what she can still do. It’s essentially the same comment, but framed in terms of possibility rather than deficit. It also reminds her that a rough draft is malleable, like clay that hasn’t hardened yet. Questions such as “What parts of the house do you remember?” or “I’m curious why the father would say that,” suggest that the story could be developed further and you’d enjoy seeing the results. These kinds of comments often inspire a girl to keep molding the clay–in other words, to go back and add to her piece.
Say “I couldn’t” rather than “You didn’t.” What’s the difference between saying, “I couldn’t tell for sure who was speaking there,” and “You didn’t include quotation marks”? The latter focuses only on the technical error; the former demonstrates that writing is about communicating with a reader, and that spelling, punctuation, and grammar are tools for doing so. Telling her that you couldn’t understand something focuses on your response, and leaves the issue open as a problem to be solved, possibly in a variety of ways. The girl might decide that even though you couldn’t tell who was speaking, surely another reader could. She might be interested in learning how to indicate speech in writing, thus making it less likely that readers will be confused. Or she might respond in an entirely different way. Regardless of her solution, your comment was offered in a spirit of interest and desire to understand. Thus information about how to use quotation marks becomes more than an irrelevant technical point; instead, it’s information that can help her tell her story.
Take the writer’s own goals into account. Maybe this is a journal entry she’s sharing with you and she has no interest in clarifying it for a wider audience. Maybe you’re intrigued that the story takes place in India, but for her, the magical charm found by her character is the heart of the story. Giving feedback is designed to help a writer reach her goal, whatever that might be. Asking her what interests her about the piece, how she’s thinking of it, and what she is hoping to do with it will tell you a lot about what kind of feedback to give. And it will also probably tell you a lot about the girl herself.
Susannah Sheffer is the author of Writing Because We Love To and A Sense of Self: Listening to Homeschooled Adolescent Girls. For information about her writing-mentoring by mail, write email@example.com.