How is a writer like a spelunker?

When you set a sheet of blank paper before your child and tell him to write, you might as well toss him into the absolute blackness of a yawning cavern without rope or flashlight and have him find his way out. Either way, he faces a slew of unknowns, and without the right tools to assist him, he’ll be lost.

Just as a spelunker, or caver, uses specific equipment to help him safely explore a cave, every student needs writing tools to help him feel more confident and successful.

So, how are writers like spelunkers? You’ll be surprised at the similarities!

They Need Clear Boundaries

Unless you’re on a tour, there are no handrails or paved walkways in a cave. A first-time cave explorer facing the unknowns of a dark cavern usually has no idea how to start, which direction to take, or how to get back at the end of the day.

That’s why novice cavers go with an experienced guide who can give direction and establish boundaries. When the boundaries are clear, the caver won’t worry about things like winding up in an endless passageway or falling into an underground stream. He also won’t huddle fearfully against a damp wall, paralyzed by the dark, unknown surroundings. Boundaries provide safety to explore.

Writers need boundaries too. It’s pretty intimidating to most kids to face a blank page and have absolutely no idea what they’re supposed to put on it. Students who lack skills and tools either hover anxiously over the page, unable to write at all, or they write in a disorganized, sidetracked manner.

To help your child feel more confident and secure, establish boundaries using some of these ideas:

  • Define the nature and purpose of the writing assignment, such as describe a food, explain a process, tell a personal story, or compare and contrast two novels.
  • Give specific requirements for length, such as number of words, paragraphs, or pages.
  • Provide topic options with the framework of the assignment. For instance, if the student must describe a food, give her several choices from which to pick, or let her come up with her own. When she’s interested in the subject matter and has a say in the topic, her confidence rises.
  • Give clear instructions so the student knows exactly what’s expected.

They Need Supervision, Structure, and a Plan

To practice caving safety, novice cavers need a leader with experience to oversee the expedition. He has a plan, makes sure everyone follows directions, and is responsible for bringing his group of explorers back on time.

Students also need an overseer—a parent or teacher—to ensure their writing success. Even if you establish boundaries for the assignment, your child can still get lost, delayed, or overwhelmed without direct supervision. 

  • Break the assignment into parts to ward off procrastination, dread, and hyperventilation. Just as a caver wears a head lamp to help light the way, your student needs to know where he’s going with his writing assignment too. Illuminate his path by showing him the steps of the writing process. They include prewriting, brainstorming, writing, editing, and revising.
  • Give a deadline for the finished piece—and stick to it.
  • Create a schedule or plan to promote timeliness. Ask your student to turn in each part of the writing assignment on its proper due date along the bigger timeline.
  • Monitor progress. Supervision and follow-through are key to his success. If you don’t check your child’s work each step of the way, you may impede his progress. He’s waiting for your OK before he moves on to the next part of the assignment; failing to follow up with him only encourages procrastination.

They Need the Right Equipment

Unlike a newbie, a seasoned caver would never dream of entering a cave with nothing but the clothes on his back and a pocket flashlight from the Dollar Tree. He knows that as he meets various obstacles during his adventure, the right equipment will serve him well: proper clothing, a good helmet, a helmet-mounted light, spare batteries and bulbs, food and water, and basic survival supplies.

On the other hand, novice writers think nothing of approaching a cavernous writing assignment equipped with nothing but pen and paper, when in truth, they need a well-stocked chest of writing tools.

It may take some time to fill that toolbox, but eventually they’ll have a wide assortment of proper tools to help them write with confidence and skill.

  • Graphic organizers and brainstorming worksheets for planning and sorting ideas
  • Stylistic tools, such as transition words to connect ideas and paragraphs and sentence variations to add interest to the writing
  • A good thesaurus to help them choose strong, accurate words.
  • Checklists or rubrics that remind them what to look for when proofreading and self-editing.

They Need to Develop Their Skills 

Much of what a person learns about cave exploration comes through . . . cave exploration! He can study caving techniques day and night, but until he enters his first cave and starts scrambling over rocks, traversing ledges, and crawling through narrow passageways, all the book learning in the world won’t make much sense.

Writers also learn by doing. As they discover new techniques and skills and put them into practice, they’ll gain confidence in their ability to write—and they’ll show noticeable improvement. Here are five important skills your writers will need to develop:

  • Teachability. They must be willing to take instruction and receive feedback.
  • Observation. Excellent writing samples and parent or teacher modeling can provide positive examples for students to follow.
  • Concreteness. Students need to avoid dull, vague writing by learning to choose strong, vivid words.
  • Conciseness. They also need to learn the art of using fewer words to make their point.
  • Practice with different kinds of writing. Finally, they need a variety of writing lessons so they can learn to describe, inform, persuade, argue, write poetry, tell stories, etc.

Simple tips and tools like these can set your student on the path toward success. And when you provide your child with boundaries, guidance, writing tools, and useful skills, he’ll be better equipped to conquer that once-terrifying abyss of a blank page.

Copyright 2010 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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2 comments ↓

#1 JoJo Tabares on 07.13.10 at 1:31 pm

Indeed! Even if you’re like my kids and I–never at a loss for something to write about, honing the skills is crucial.

#2 Kim on 07.13.10 at 1:40 pm

Wait. You’re never at a loss for something to write about?

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