It’s no secret: creative writing is challenging. While older writers have picked up techniques over time to jumpstart the creative process and combat bouts of writer’s block, kids lack the firsthand experience and a well of tools to propel them into a world of imagination. How, then, can you help spark your child’s creative inner flame?
“In my experience, I find that students get stuck because they don't have a ton of experiences and reflective reference points in their lives yet,” says Barbara Whitlock, a teacher of online classes. While accumulating these life encounters takes time, there are ways, in the meantime, to encourage kids to experience the world around them and infuse what they see into their writing. Here are some ideas from teachers and writers to help spark the imagination.
- Use photos to create a story. “Some of the earliest writing exercises I remember were based on photographs,” says Peggy DeMouthe, a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Give your child an image and prompt her to describe a landscape or build a character sketch based on what she sees. (Or, better yet, have her snap a photo of a place surrounding her, to which she can later refer when she dives into a story about this place.) “ Photos don't have to be fancy – we had ones taken from magazines and old calendars. They just have to have enough going on to make it easy for the imagination to take off,” says DeMouthe.
- Provide a framework. If your young child is penning her own nursery rhyme, a starting point allows her to focus on the creative. For instance, “an adventure with Jack and Jill has to include going up something,” suggests Elena Acoba, a writer, editor, and creative writing teacher in Tucson, Ariz.
- Focus on the five Ws. For a story, first explain who, what, where, when, why, and how. Apply this journalism technique to writing fiction – you will mine more detail and a better plot, says Acoba.
- Choose a relevant topic. “My Worst Job” is an effective prompt, suggests writer Mary Schultz. For younger students, "My Least Favorite Chore" is also fitting.
- Create likeable characters that face obstacles. “Character is everything,” says Schultz – a sympathetic character that is constantly challenged elicits emotion.
- Introduce examples of good (and bad) writing. Because reading for pleasure is uncommon, your child may not know what kind of writing she likes, says John Barnes, an author and freelance writer in Denver, Colo. “I assign a brief reading, something short that I know they'll hate,” says Barnes. (Hemingway's “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” Updike's “A & P,” and Heinlein's “Spotlight” have worked for him.) After, ask them: “What would this be like if it didn't suck?” The exercise helps your child figure out what she likes and dislikes in other people’s writing – and her own.
- Reconstruct a past conversation with a friend or sibling. Ask your child to imagine an encounter as she wished it would have been – not as it actually was – says Susan Tait, an instructional designer in Portland, Ore., who has used this exercise to illustrate the difference between fact and fiction. “It shows the power of fiction – it shows a way to find creative possibilities in difficult relationships,” says Tait.
- Make sure your child is safe while she writes. “Kids are even more vulnerable than adult writers. Lack of support leads to self-censorship and silence,” says Susan Shwartz, a fantasy and science fiction novelist. “While teachers and parents should watch for suicidal themes, they should do so with discretion and not impose values or ideas of what art is onto budding writers. “It's enough that they write.”
- Encourage the act of rewriting. Kids “often take rewrite suggestions as criticism, rather than valuable instruction,” says Bob Kalsey, a writer and filmmaker in the San Francisco Bay Area. Still, it's important to help students to look at their work critically. “Show them that great opening that's buried in the middle of their text,” says Kalsey, or “that terrific idea that could use more development.”
Ultimately, experiences and experiments are key to unleashing your child’s creativity. “Encourage them to live life. Life experiences are the best source of material,” says George F. Franks III, a consultant, coach, and mentor in Maryland. “Meet lots of different people. Travel to new and different places. Get out of your comfort zone. And write, write, write.”