There’s nothing quite like a blank page to ruin a perfectly good day.
We need to put words to paper, but they will not come. The blank page intimidates us. The objects in the room call, our eyes wander, and our mind runs to places that are more desirable. We struggle to come back to the page with pen in hand. In the meantime, the white space has grown in intensity, until it is blinding. –Richard Mansel, “The Fear of the Blank Page“
It can be a formidable foe, this empty field of white—especially for the child who struggles to coax even a short string of words from his reluctant pen.
Fortunately, there are simple things you can do to help the most reluctant student find his footing—or at least his voice. Let’s look at nine ways you can encourage your child to face (and perhaps even conquer!) that blank sheet of paper.
1. Write first thing.
Consider starting the school day with a writing activity, while attitudes are still positive and minds feel more creative. Facing an unpleasant or challenging task earlier in the day—when your children are fresh and alert—may be the key to unlocking ideas.
2. Brainstorm separately before beginning to write.
Jotting down random thoughts—no matter how jumbled—can help release a log jam of words and phrases. Encourage your kids to brainstorm before beginning any writing assignment.
3. Set parameters for the assignment.
Few children find it freeing to hear: “Write about whatever you want.” The vastness of total choice can overwhelm even the most eager writer, so establish some boundaries for the assignment. For example:
- Specify the kind of writing. Will the composition be a personal narrative? A persuasive essay? A descriptive piece?
- Let students choose a topic within a particular genre such as mystery or adventure, or within a current area of study such as pioneer days or the Great Depression.
- Give expectations regarding composition length or number of sources you require.
4. Offer story prompts.
StoryBuilders are creative writing-prompt cards that let students choose a character, character trait, setting, and plot as the launching place for a zany (or serious) story. Mixing and matching elements of a story can unlock creativity and open the door for some fun writing experiences.
5. Give topic options and choices.
Encourage students to write about favorite, familiar topics—dogs, ballet, skateboarding, Legos, karate, etc. The more they enjoy the subject matter, the more vested they’ll be in the writing project.
6. Start with a personal experience or familiar story.
It can make an excellent foundation for a new story. Your children don’t always have to come up with something unique—it’s totally fine for them to retell a fable, fairytale, folktale, or other familiar story in their own words.
7. Provide a photo.
Pictures—especially those that “speak a thousand words”—make great prompts for generating story or narrative ideas. When searching for photos online, you’ll want to preview sites for appropriate content. That said, consider finding inspiration from one of these:
- National Geographic Photography
- 30 Examples of Perfectly Timed Action Photography
- Stunning Photographs with Meaning
8. Do some or all of the writing.
By the time a thought makes its way from brain to hand to paper, the reluctant or learning-challenged student has lost her grasp on the idea, and it simply drifts away. Letting her dictate allows you to capture those words before they dissipate. Then, once they’re written, she can more easily rearrange and modify.
9. Encourage a “rough draft” mindset.
Students who think their first draft should be perfect can gain a lot from adjusting their thinking. Writing is a debugging process. Starting sloppy deals a blow to the blank page as the student plays with early ideas and gets into the writing flow. As author and poet Margaret Atwood so aptly put it: “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”