Something concerning is happening about the way in which young people are pressured to view writing. Writing and reading are intrinsically linked—they always have been. It’s a well-known fact that the more you read, the better you write. But the way in which young people are reading is changing, and though this is not necessarily a bad thing overall, it is having an unexpected effect on the way they view writing.
I’ve been running writers’ groups for teenagers now for four years, and even over that short amount of time, I’ve noticed some alarming changes. Creative writing seems to be taking a backseat in lieu of the more structured academic writing.
When I first began running the groups, the creative writing workshops were very popular. Teenagers seemed to enjoy them and would attend at least for a term at a time, many for a semester, but most came for a year. They enjoyed the exercises and loved developing a creative work from the ground up. But it began to wane.
I wondered why. It couldn’t have been cost because I hadn’t put my prices up over the four years. It wasn’t content because the evaluations kept telling me they enjoyed the range of exercises and writing games.
But this year I have had many more requests for ‘essay-writing’ workshops than I have had for ‘creative-writing’ workshops. I’ve had students show up to groups expecting to be hot-housed for Selective schools, or for HSC, and then dropping out when they discover that the groups are designing to encourage people to engage with the process, take risks with their writing, but mostly to enjoy writing.
“My dad is not paying for me to have fun,” one boy told me when I asked him why he was not coming back. He was in Year 9. Fourteen-years-old. I felt incredibly sad for him. But he was annoyed with me for refusing to approach the teaching of writing with high expectations, lots of homework, and hard-core pressure.
In all the years I’ve been teaching, both primary and high school, and running writers’ group, I have found that a student learns much more easily when they are engaged with the process and enjoy what they do. And importantly, writing skills are transferable. Many parents, and some students themselves, seem to be oblivious about this.
When someone learns to write narrative, they learn to structure their sentences to convey meaning. They learn to use the technical conventions necessary (particularly grammar and punctuation) to communicate emotion, represent character, set the scene, and dictate rhythm. Writing narrative successfully is no piece of cake. But it can be a lot of fun! Exercises to create character, strengthen description, convey emotion, for example, are specifically designed to fine-tune the technical aspects of writing.
Developing and maintaining a narrative arc and ensuring a consistent plot provides a challenge to many an adult writer of fiction. But with rich imaginations still relatively intact, kids are natural storytellers. And developing the skills to communicate their thoughts effectively is enriching in so many ways.
Not only does it give them an opportunity to exercise their creativity, it helps them to develop a clear focus and alternative means of communicating (or escaping from) their realities — whatever their realities are.
When a student has to write an essay, they need to develop a coherent argument. They need to communicate simply and persuasively. They need to use correct grammar and punctuation, and write effective sentences and paragraphs. And in the case of exams, they need to do it spontaneously.
All these skills are developed and practised while writing narrative. The more one writes— no matter what style of writing—the better ones writes. The more ones reads, the better one writes. The more comfortable one is writing, the better one writes.
Learning to write is so important. Why spoil it for kids by placing so much pressure on them to write academically that they never get to enjoy it? When kids disengage from the writing process, by default they disengage with the reading process. This is never a good thing.
Let kids write. And let them enjoy it.