Sunday, January 09, 2011

Write Like a Third Grader

I've learned more about the craft of writing in the nine years since I became a teacher than I did at any time in college. Granted, I am thinking more like writer, and seeing myself as a writer, which helps. But in teaching my third graders the craft of writing, I have received an education myself. By teaching the process, I think about my own process. When I teach my students strategies for planning their writing, I discover my own strategies. When I talk with my students about revising by identifying whether they have a good balance of dialogue, action, internal story and sensory details, I must ask myself the same question. Have I oriented my reader to the setting? Introduced and described the characters? Am I writing in scenes, stringing together small moments, or just telling what happened? Have I chosen a story or topic that I care enough about to spend time with?

I have to give a great deal of the credit to the writing curriculum we use in our school, a curriculum developed by Lucy Culkins. Culkins' curriculum is designed to help children think and work like real writers. As a teacher when I conference with students I must hone in on what they're doing well and what they need to work on. In a conference, I ask them "What are you working on today as a writer?" "What are you trying to do with that story?" "Can you show me an example of where you did that?" I teach my students to be the boss of their own writing. When they sit down to write each day, they make a plan, asking themselves where they are in the writing process and deciding what they will work on that day. Are they generating ideas? Organizing their thoughts, perhaps with an outline or storyboard, a timeline or a story mountain? Maybe they're writing a discovery draft or rehearsing their story. How can I not become a better writer when I ask these questions day after day and hear eight-year-olds telling me, "I noticed I didn't have enough dialogue and I didn't orient my reader to the setting?" If my third graders can hone their craft, so can I.

Every third grader in my class, and most of the younger students in our school, also know Lucy's mantra "When you're done, you've just begun." I finished my novel and sent it out. Now what? "When you're done, you've just begun." Go back to your writer's notebook and start thinking about ideas for the next piece.

If you are not a teacher but you are a writer, I encourage you to find some of Lucy Culkins' work. THE ART OF TEACHING WRITING is a great place to start. You might even use it as a template for your critique group if you have one.


  1. Thank you. A good observation. I love the "When your done, you've just begun." line. An apt observation for many artistic endeavors.

  2. Thanks for this, Cindy. Sounds like a great book for a group, and for personal use as well.


Popular Posts