“Don’t Squelch My Drive!” (And Other Thoughts of Mentoring a Young Writer)

My favorite new author has some upcoming projects I’m especially excited about. One is a book that details the imagined culture and holiday traditions of anthropomorphic leopards, with backmatter that includes games and recipes. The other book is a portal fantasy based on a popular fairy tale and which, the author confides, has series potential. And she is allowing me to break a scoop, exclusive to the Mixed Up Files blog, that she will soon be tackling the picture book format in a new and innovative way.

She’s my daughter, she’s nine years old, and she’s very enthusiastic. You may remember her from my blog post about President Julie. And she’s not just an aspiring author and part-time commander in chief. She also does her own illustration, layout, cover art, book design, and author bios.

I am enjoying her work very much, but my quandary as a writer-parent of a writer-child is how to provide age-appropriate guidance without squelching her drive and creativity.

(“Don’t squelch my drive!” is what she said just now, as she was reading over my shoulder, so I probably should go into another room.)

Technology

I can’t teach her to write using the same methods I learned. When I was nine, back in the day, cut-and-paste meant using a scissors and scotch tape to shuffle handwritten paragraphs into a different order. When I got a computer in the 8th grade, I brought this practice with me. I used to save individual letters and words, dragging them around the document instead of deleting them, because it seemed wasteful not to reuse them.

My spell-check was a twenty-pound monster of a dictionary, supplemented by a thematic thesaurus. Today, there’s an app for that.

I don’t have personal experience with being nine and learning to write using 21st century technology.

I don’t have personal experience with being nine and learning to write while simultaneously picking up keyboarding skills.

I don’t have experience being nine and learning to write while simultaneously mastering all the functions of a modern word processor.

As much as technology makes our lives easier in the long run, it first requires a juggling act of multiple overlapping learning curves.

So how can I be sure that the juggling of writing and technology isn’t what ends up squelching her drive? I don’t know but I’m trying to keep in mind at all times that today’s young writers are learning in a different world than the one I grew up in.

Although I may still attempt to introduce her to my old thesaurus.

Revision

Putting technology aside, I want to teach her is that writing and revision are two separate but equally important skills. She knows this from school, but her first draft still tends to look a lot like her second draft, which tends to look a whole lot like her final draft.

Writing is more fun for her than revision. Writing comes more easily than revision. When given the choice, she spends the bulk of her time drafting new material while her nascent revision skills suffer from a vicious cycle of neglect.

This is where I’m torn. I want her to have fun with what she’s doing, so my instinct is to let her explore her writing process in her own way and in her own time. But is it better for her to write a flood of first drafts and introduce editing and revision into the process down the road, or should I encourage her from the start to slow down and develop the habit of polishing the gems that she is creating?

The habits she is developing today, good or bad, will be with her for a long time. Bad habits can be especially hard to change. A young author who hates to revise can become an adult author who hates to revise, and who presents rough drafts as finished product.

Publishing is different today, again due to technology. As self-publishing tools have become easier to use, and as self-published books have proliferated and become destigmatized, we are seeing some great books that might not otherwise find their way into print. But we have also created a pathway for authors who never feel the need to develop revision skills, much to their own detriment.

The self-publishing pathway did not exist when I was learning to write and revise. But guiding young authors to view self-publishing as a potential outlet for polished work, and to ignore the siren song of publishing unrevised drafts, raises yet another specter for potentially squelching their drive.

Criticism

Another thing I want her to learn, because it took me so long to realize, is that constructive criticism can be helpful, but only if you develop the ability to accept it, process it, and apply it. Again, my young writer knows this from school already, but accepting criticism is not fun for her, so she’s opting out of it wherever possible.

Writers need to develop a thick skin in order to accept criticism of our work without reframing it as criticism of ourselves, but we all start with a tender skin over our most vulnerable spots of insecurity and self-doubt. It takes time and practice before we can develop the callouses we need to protect ourselves.

While learning how to let brutally honest or mean-spirited criticism roll off our backs, writers also need to cultivate the ability to sort through a batch of well-intentioned criticism for the advice that is most helpful.

Inviting another person to share their advice and viewpoints can open a story up to exciting new ideas, approaches, and directions. A good thing, in general, but potentially overwhelming for a new writer who is struggling to hold onto the ownership of her own ideas, approaches, and directions. The vital skill that can take many years to develop is an ability to pick out just those bits of advice that push the story in a direction the author wants it to go.

My daughter can’t yet do this without feeling like she’s compromising her vision of what her story should be. So how soon and how quickly do I introduce these ideas without, again, squelching her drive?

Writing

For now we are focusing mainly on the mechanics of writing itself, where she’s more open to accepting my help. We had a great discussion the other day about the difference between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes. I can’t believe they don’t teach basic punctuation like this in third grade anymore!

This will be my focus for now as I gradually raise her awareness that writers need a lot of tools in their toolbox and that there’s more to writing than just putting words on the page.

While I’ve created classroom programs on writing for school visits, I have no curriculum yet for mentoring a single young author through the challenges specific to writing in the modern world. I’m working on it though, and I’ll continue to share whatever insights I come up with for others facing similar challenges with the young writers in their lives.  

Let me know what you are doing to keep from squelching your young writer’s drive, and maybe we can be a support group for each other.

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Greg R. Fishbone
Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the Galaxy Games series from Spellbound River Press. He lives in New England with his wife, two young readers, and a pair of stubbornly illiterate cats.
3 Comments
  1. I loved this post, Greg! Things definitely have changed since I was your daughter’s age. One thing I remember most while growing up is how much I appreciated being able to use my creativity. Some teachers tried to put me (and the rest of the class) in a box. But I always loved to go way beyond those constricting walls. I think it stretched my writing skills at the same time it fueled my enthusiasm for writing and its endless possibilities.

  2. Such an interesting subject! Your young writer sounds terrific. A fun and useful writing exercise is to look at the similes and metaphors a young writer uses in his or her story. Can they be fresher, funnier, scarier, more relatable, etc. Ask the writer to come up with new ones to replace old cliched images.

  3. Greg,
    Thanks for the insightful (and humorous!) exploration of guiding young writers. As both a parent and a teacher, I’ve faced many of the same challenges as I try to be encouraging yet guiding. One little trick I’ve learned along the way is to limit my feedback with young writers to a specific point of praise combined with a single teaching point.

    For example, I might point out and praise a place in a child’s writing where she made great use of sensory detail. This is a double-win because not only is the child praised, but she’s also likely to make efforts to replicate what was recognized as being done well. I can then follow up the praise by pointing toward a single, specific area where the child can continue to develop her writing. This helps provide guidance and growth without being overwhelming. Quite a challenge! 🙂

    Thanks again for such a great post!