Learning To Write


The easiest way to learn to write is to see something you would like to say (or would like to be able to say) being written.
Frank Smith, Essays Into Literacy

A child wanted to write or maybe draw in Storytent the other day. First, she wrote a message to a friend inside a blank greeting card. I helped her spell and chose between "b" and "d" and "9" and "P". When she was done, she wanted to do more writing. So, I got out some lined 3"x5" cards and took a moment to fashion them into a book with a bit of string.

"So?" I asked. "What will you write now?"

She pondered, and then chose to copy out the title and first page of Sleeping Dragons All Around by Sheree Fitch.

It was laborious; not least because she couldn't read many of the words. She copied letter by letter until the page was done. Then she turned to the second page.

I should be careful here. Grown ups love to ascribe motives to children on the flimiest pretext. But what I think happen was she saw a lot of strange words oddly arranged (Sheree staggers words for effect in many of her poems) and got discouraged. She closed the book and, waving at a pile of stories beside her, said, "I'm going to write out one part from all these books."

She chose Peggy Rathmann's Officer Buckle and Gloria. Bad luck - another passel of strange words. Then she saw the snippets of short text inside the front and back covers - Officer Buckle’s one-line safety tips - and declared, "I'm going to copy out one of these."

After that, it was snack time (a two-handed affair when you're eating raisins from a box). Then friends were by. There was a cat to watch. Finally, she just borrowed a book, scooped up her writings, and wandered home.

I remember some ten or twelve years ago working in a daycare which also offered an afterschool program. Although they had many exciting toys and a substantial indoor and outdoor play area, they only had 13 children's books.

Since books had always been essential to both my tactics for child management and the scaffolding of early learning, I began bringing my own books. Since they were my books, I felt able to allow them outside where they were often seized upon by the afterschool kids.

Senior staff repeatedly warned me that the children or weather or some equally mysterious force of No Good would ruin the books. I cheerfully responded with shrugs and such. When they began badgering the children about the books, I talked over top of them. This was, of course, the beginning of the end for me. I was fired about three weeks later.

One of my enduring memories from that period is of the school-aged children picking out board books like Byron Barton's Machines At Work or Boynton’s Oh My, Oh My, Oh Dinosaurs, and copying out the text into their scribblers. I especially remember one girl copying The Very Hungry Caterpillar into the back of her math book.

What was she doing? What were any of them doing? Did they not get enough copying in school? Were they taking possession of the stories somehow? Did they want to read them later at their leisure? What turned that one corner of the playground into a kind of scriptorium?

Once upon a time, in the days before PCs and CDs, I had a 200 page spiral-bound notebook I filled with drawings, very short stories and corny poems. I also wrote out long sections of John Morressy's Starbrat, White's The Once and Future King, Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein.

I remember studying (there is no other word) the way these sentences, paragraphs and passages were constructed. I copied them out because I enjoyed them; thought they were brilliantly stirring; wanted to savor the language. But I also copied them out because I wanted to write like that. It doesn't matter that I now think Morressy to be thin, derivative gruel or that I find Heinlein entirely unreadable: these were the authors I valued at the time.

Again, at the danger of ascribing motives, I think the girl in the storytent was doing something similar. I think she wanted to write independently, masterfully, but wasn't sure how. So, she copied out lines from books she enjoyed. I, as a younger teen, wanted to write heroic lays, and so copied out pieces of the most heroic fiction I could find. What did those school-aged kids want when they were copying out the text of board books? I don't know, but I'm guessing it had something to do with wanting to be able to master written words.

There's nothing unusual in this. All our lives we imitate the people we wish we were, and make hobbies of the tasks and vocations we wish we could master.

adult writing

One more story.

Some years ago, I had a learner whose daily writing consisted of excerpts from books or webpages. These were the days when my class put out a newsletter every couple of months. I invited her to submit something, and she submitted a collage of this copied text.

A more senior staff member picked up on this and decried the plagiarism and appearance of low standards. At the time, I was simply annoyed on behalf of the learner, and resistant to any idea I ought to criticise a learner's writing however unoriginal. Now, I have a different view.

I now believe this learner was acting in a completely appropriate way.

My adult learner wasn't plagiarizing. She was practicing. She was taking writing she trusted and approved of, and incorporating it into her own. One day, if she chose, she would find her own voice - just as I have done. But until then....

Well, there are worse ways to learn to write than by writing out something you find pleasant and/or true.

learning to write

1 comment:

Cheryl :) said...


I just finished reading your blog about writing. How interesting! I still have a book of poems I wrote out and wrote myself, somewhere. As well, camp songs, and other things - not to mention the books I still paste and write things in. Too cool - maybe everyone does it! (now I call it 'research')