Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
December 2009

Writing Talent and Prodigies

Because I write for children and therefore end up at events for children, parents and teachers often ask me what they can do to help their children/students progress in their writing. I have plenty of advice to offer on the subject, but it isn't just for children. I think the same rules apply to all beginning writers.

First, there is a lot of very bad advice about writing being offered in schools. For example, one of the themes my children hear a lot is that writing becomes better if it has a lot of "interesting" words in it. Teachers actually have given out lists of said "interesting" words that students can put into writing. But a list of substitutes for "said" which they will then plug indiscriminately into their story is not helpful. Not using words like "small" and "big" but instead words like "miniature" or "humongous" will do nothing to make a student's writing better. Writing is not a vocabulary test.

I know, I know, these poor teachers are being forced to teach writing based on certain arbitrary rules of writing that were developed by some committee, also a group of people who are not writers. They insist that good writing is marked by good grammar, a wide use of vocabulary, "style," speaking to a particular audience, and so on. Well, this may be. But saying that my soup has potatoes, onions, carrots, and a variety of seasonings in it is not going to help anyone become a better cook. Taste a soup that has been made like that, and you will not want to eat soup much. Which is pretty much what happens to teachers. They get so bored reading assignments that they do it as little as possible. I can hardly blame them.

What I say to them and to you is, the best thing you can do to make better writers is to write. It's true for children and it's true for adults. Why do people try to avoid it? Well, because sitting down and writing is hard work. It's scary. And it may not end up making you any money at all. Therefore it may end up being a complete "waste of time," as I have heard some friends describe it when they ask me if I think they should keep working on a particular writing project.

But truly, if you knew someone who wanted to be a better runner and spent a great deal of time watching other people run, looking at the physics of running, analyzing stride rate and interval sets and pushoff timing, what would you think? I would think that this someone is trying to avoid the actual work of running and may want to talk about running more than actually do it. Writers are sometimes like this. Or people who want to talk about writing, rather. Also teachers of writing are sometimes like this, if they don't do their own writing. I don't know if you are like me, but I don't want a running coach who has never done any professional running anymore than I want a writing teacher who has never done any professional writing.

And the truth is, the best thing for running and for writing doesn't involve another person at all. If you want to be a runner, go out and run. The time for criticism of the angle of your head or your arm swing is not yet. I recommend to teachers of children that they do not criticize grammar in a creative writing exercise. By all means, do it when you are working on grammar assignments (I hate bad grammar as much as any other grammar fanatic does). But let students write in a journal where they don't have to worry about that. And adults, I think the same thing is true. Getting a writing group can be a great help to your writing, but don't share too early. Know what you want to say first, then get feedback on whether or not you are saying it well.

I don't believe that children should be published, either. I have known teachers who require students to submit to publications once a term and think this is like having a choral festival for choir students or a football game for the football team. But would you send your 14 year-old to play in an NFL game? No, you would not. He could be killed. Similarly, I don't think teenagers belong in the adult world of publishing. I know that there are certain bad examples out there, published as teens and then becoming bestsellers (which is a fate worse than death, or can be). It actually makes me sad to think that those teens could have waited and been published later when they were much better. We could have missed another Shakespeare because parents pushed him into early publication.

I wrote a lot when I was a child. I think my stories then were pretty good, for a child and even later for a teen. But they aren't worth publication. I put them up on my website so that people can be amused by them, and see how bad I was and how much better I became, to give people hope. I stopped writing for almost ten years in my twenties while I got my various degrees and I don't know that was a bad thing. My mind had a chance to mature, and then my writing had some substance in it as a result.

So if you are not a writing prodigy, and most people aren't, take heart. It doesn't matter. I don't put much stock in early talents. I think they exist. I have seen my own children show talent in one area or another. But I have also seen that hard work and persistence can make up for a lot of deficiencies, in the long run.

Years ago, I remember my mentor Rick Walton telling me that he had known lots of people who were better writers than he was in high school, but none of them stuck with it and therefore he had published dozens of books and they hadn't. I thought at the time that he was exaggerating. Now, as an adult, I know he wasn't. I see a lot of children with musical talent who are content to make a hobby of it, or to waste it entirely. Which they are free to do. I am not saying there is an obligation to use a talent, if you decide to make another choice of career in your life. But talent is cheap. Talent is everywhere. There are more important things, if you want to make a career of writing.

Hard work and persistence. Being patient and flexible. Knowing when to listen to your editor and when not to. Being a decent human being (unfortunately not a job requirement in every profession and a negative in some places, like Hollywood). Learning to type and making your own website can be useful skills as well. Being able to do your own taxes and other basic math skills, so you don't get cheated. Researching. Staying healthy.

And remember, there is more than one kind of talent in writing. One writer may be good at invention, another writer may be good at crafting good dialog, or at world building, or characters. One writer may be great at self-promotion (this would not be me) and that helps a lot in a writing career. In fact, sometimes that is what prodigies are really good at, putting themselves out there without embarrassment, not necessarily having true, lasting talent in a field.

If you want a career in writing or if you are crazy enough to think that you want your child to have a career in writing, focus less on the talent and more on the profession. I'm not the first person to say it, but writers write. If there were more classes on this simple principle in schools, I think there would be better writers today. So quit reading this column and get back to work!

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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