A few years ago, I had to write a thesis as part of my master’s program. I found myself researching, researching, and then researching some more. In fact, I was spending so much time with the research that I was inching toward the due date without having put any of my own thoughts on the page.
In a meeting with my advisor, she asked me how I was progressing. “Well,” I said, “I feel like I need to keep researching.” She asked me which aspects of research I still needed to do. I told her I wasn’t sure. She reminded me of the timeline, and I finally confessed, “I guess I don’t know where to start. The part I’m most interested in writing about right now isn’t the introduction.” She gave me as much of a soul gaze as one can across Zoom and said, “Just write.”
While I stared longingly at a stack of books and articles I still wanted to read, I knew I needed to follow her advice. So, starting somewhere vaguely near the middle of the paper, I wrote. And wrote. And then wrote some more. I did not need much in the way of additional research, it turned out, and finally admitted to myself that I had been using my enjoyment of that part of the writing process as an excuse to avoid turning the ideas floating around in my head into words, sentences, and paragraphs. I may also have been hiding a good bit of fear behind that clever procrastination strategy.
As kids are learning to write (and even when they’re in higher grades and feel like old pros), they get stuck, too. If I said, “Just write” to my anxious nine-year-old, his eyes would widen, and a look of mild panic would cross his face. He might actually run away from me (true story). Why is this? Because writing can be scary.
A reminder: The Simple View of Writing
If you’re a frequent Teach. Learn. Grow. reader, you may already be familiar with the Simple View of Writing and have read about the roles of transcription (handwriting, typing, and spelling) and executive function (self-regulation, planning, and organization) in the writing process. The part of the Simple View of Writing (represented in the visual below) that I’ll explore in this post is text generation.
Text generation is the part of the writing process in which we turn our ideas into a text. Students need to lean heavily on their executive function and transcription skills to be able to focus on text generation.
Why is text generation important?
Writing is a tool for thinking. During writing, our brain is engaged in mental gymnastics in which we deepen our understanding of ideas and form new connections. Text generation is the process of turning these ideas in our heads into comprehensible words, sentences, and paragraphs on the page. More often than not, these ideas are constantly changing as we write.
Writers—whether it’s me battling with my thesis or your third-grader stalling with a book report—sometimes make brand-new discoveries while they are writing. I certainly experienced this during the writing saga I mentioned earlier; I had a few powerful “Aha!” moments as I was writing that felt like cartoon lightbulbs above my head. These happened when I made connections I hadn’t made before, and I had to start putting words on the page before I could earn those lightbulbs. When your writer makes a new discovery during the text generation process, it will feel like magic to them, too.
How to support your writer in generating text
There are lots of ways to support your writer at home, many of them simpler than you may think. Here are eight tips, all designed to help make writing feel less scary. They work well for writers of any age.
- Be a sounding board. Ask any writer and they’ll tell you the same thing: most of the writing process is less about getting words on a page and more about researching and thinking and deciding what to say. It is helpful for writers of any age to talk through their ideas with someone. I do this with my husband sometimes when I find myself stalling on a writing assignment. I ask him specifically if what I am saying makes sense, and I ask him to stop me as needed to ask questions.
- Understand the assignment. Help your child identify and understand their purpose and audience. That means understanding what kind of writing they’ve been asked to do and who will be reading it. For example, writing an essay will require a different structure and style than writing a short story or a flyer for a student council campaign. Help your student consider the audience they are addressing, too. What they’ll share about sharks with their science teacher, who is a marine biology buff, will certainly be different from what they’ll share with their best friend, who is terrified of all creatures with teeth.
- Help with focus. If my youngest had to write a report on sharks, rather than handing him a pencil and paper and wishing him luck, I could offer him something more bite-sized (shark joke!) to guide and inspire him. I could say, “Why don’t you start with a sentence about how sharks use their gills?” Or “What is something you want to say about what sharks eat?” Or even, “What have you learned about sharks that you are most excited to share? Write that down for me.” Questions like this can help kids realize what they have learned during their research process and start ordering their thoughts. This also, very subtly, shows them that they have a starting point simply because they know something. They have important thoughts to share with the world.
- Start wherever makes sense (it might not be at the beginning). Writing doesn’t always have to start with the title or introductory sentence, especially if your writer is already in the (very good) habit of working from an outline. Sometimes it’s better to begin somewhere your writer feels comfortable. When I was writing my thesis, I felt overwhelmed by the idea of crafting my introduction. It was much easier for me to work on a later section first, and doing that allowed me to start generating text in a way that increased my confidence and allowed me to make visible progress. Your child will need to make sure to check that what they are writing fits in with their overall writing goals, of course, but an outline or other graphic organizer can keep them on track.
- Set realistic (a.k.a., small) goals. As my colleague Julie Richardson noted in “5 ways you can help kids develop their executive function skills for writing,” help your child articulate what they’re working toward, that is, what their goal is. Make a plan for accomplishing what comes next. Try establishing a certain amount of time per day for your child to devote to writing, for example, or aim for a specific daily word count (their teacher can help you determine what’s age appropriate). An outline or graphic organizer can help here, too, because both provide direction and reminders of what needs to be completed.
- Acknowledge physical demands. For very young writers (think kindergarten through second grade), a lot of physical energy is needed for writing: Holding the pencil. Keeping the page steady. Controlling how hard they press down on the page. For older writers, wrists get achy, necks get sore, and eyes get tired of looking at a screen. Help your writer by both acknowledging this (“That looks like a lot of work. Is your hand tired?”) and giving them plenty of breaks.
- Use tools that make the physical act of writing easier. Make sure your child has tools that make them more comfortable with transcription. For example, my nine-year-old experiences physical discomfort using a pen or pencil. While I want him to improve his handwriting, that effort toward transcription interferes with his ability to generate text. Putting him on a keyboard best supports his needs. Sometimes I also have him record ideas via audio, then transcribe them later. When my son does need to use a pen or pencil, there are special pencil grips that make it less physically uncomfortable for him.
- Celebrate revising, not perfection. Try not to pressure your writer to expect perfection as they start to write. They need time and space to process their thoughts and to turn those thoughts into words. I mean, even Shakespeare didn’t produce a perfect play on the first try; he went back and revised his own writing (a lot). That’s true of every other published writer you can think of. So don’t worry about spelling or punctuation, especially in the younger grades. The goal is to get words out; editing comes later.
Moving past writer’s block
Every writer is different, but one thing most of us have in common is that being told to “Just sit down and write!” is unlikely to do anything other than bring on a serious case of writer’s block.
It’s okay for your writer to use tools to help them organize their thoughts and feel physically comfortable. It’s okay to guide them in exploring what they think about a topic, understanding exactly what an assignment calls for, and celebrating the power of revising. All these things help writers of all ages do the most important thing: just write.
Many thanks to my NWEA colleagues Meg Guerreiro, Julie Richardson, Heather Cella, and Lauren Bardwell for their contributions to this blog post.