I often write about reluctant writers and their struggles to produce just a few sentences.
But what do you do with an enthusiastic, highly verbal student who (when left unchecked) scrawls out a 19-page tome? How can you encourage this eager child—and her boatload of ideas—while helping her write a more manageable story?
Today we’ll take a look at some strategies for reining in wordy writers.
The Problem with Long Stories
Teaching children to self-edit is an important goal. Most kids already have a hard time finding their own errors, but it can be completely overwhelming when they’re faced with that stack of 19 pages to edit, polish, and revise.
Not only that, long stories are often filled with tangents that wander away from the main action, so it’s wise to teach kids to narrow their focus and write concisely.
Until your child has developed the skills to plan, organize, and write cohesively, you’ll want to guide her to write stories of a more manageable length. At first, encourage her to stick to a fixed number of paragraphs. If she wants to embellish and expand (or even write a novel), she can do that in her free time.
In most cases, stories that are super long have these common characteristics:
- Overly broad topic
- Many characters
- A number of different settings
- Many plots, subplots, and rabbit trails
- Long, wordy sentences or run-ons
Writing Strategies for Wordy Kids
Rather than try whittling down a long story into a shorter one, it’s usually much cleaner to start over. Challenge your child to keep her new story to five paragraphs or two typed pages by following a few simple guidelines.
1. Narrow the topic.
Instead of tackling a vast subject like the Ohio flood of 1913, it often helps to take a mental snapshot—zeroing in on one moment in the midst of a bigger experience.
2. Use fewer characters.
Perhaps she could write about one main character who must save his sister as the flood waters rise. Or, she could focus on a member of the Akron fire department who helps one family get to safety.
3. Stick with one setting.
Many changes in scene and setting add to a story’s length. Though a verbal child might want to have multiple scenes in her story, suggest that she settle on one or two.
4. Limit the passage of time.
Writing about an event that spans days or weeks pretty much guarantees that the story will be long and involved. But if she sticks to a time frame of several hours, she’ll more easily manage the story details.
5. Choose details wisely.
Details are important! They add color and interest, and they engage the reader. By all means, encourage her to describe characters, emotions, settings, and events. At the same time, caution her that trying to fit in all of her great ideas can bog down the writing or steer her off course.
6. Be precise and concise.
Enthusiastic writers enjoy words, don’t they? But often, their stories are tangled with awkward sentences and long strings of adjectives.
Without discouraging your student from developing a more mature writing style, explain that long sentences and big words don’t always produce good writing. Guide her to use simple language and choose more precise words.
A helpful strategy is to first invite her to write a skeleton of each sentence that includes a subject and predicate. Once she has the basic story structure in place, she can carefully choose modifiers, sentence variations, figurative language, or other details to expand each sentence and make it more colorful.
Even if their prose is a bit over the top, we’re thrilled when one of our children finds joy in writing. In what ways do you guide your wordy young author to write more concisely?
IT’S that time of year again, when your student hands you the writing assignment he supposedly worked on for the past month. Visions of triumph swirl through your head—this will be the crowning writing project of the school year, the showpiece for grandparents’ open house night. Yet now, as you stare down at the jumbled sentences, you see only a disorganized, cluttered mess.
This may seem like the perfect time for a homeschooling mama to panic or retreat. But before you do either, take heart! Your kids have a bunch of words and bright ideas to share with the world. They probably just need a little more guidance and instruction. Arm yourselves against the Cluttered Writing Monster, and let the battle begin!
Cluttered Writing Problem #1: Too Many Topics
Imagine that your 10-year-old’s book summary includes a paragraph like this:
The ship captain was a mean man. He never smiled. Every morning, the captain ate his hot breakfast in his cabin on the ship. The captain’s teeth were crooked. The food always tasted bad on the ship, because the cook was a runaway blacksmith. The cabin boy was the one who always brought the captain’s breakfast. The cabin boy liked to look at the maps in the captain’s cabin. The walls smelled musty, but the maps smelled like faraway places. The cabin boy didn’t want to run away.
Often, students think a “summary” means writing down as many facts as they can remember. But as you know, a one- to three-page summary should focus on a few important topics, not a boatload of trivia. If you want to stop cluttered writing in its tracks, help your child organize his thoughts out loud. Here’s one way to do this:
You: Who is the main character?
Child: The cabin boy.
You: What are four of the most important qualities about this character?
Child: He’s obedient, he loves exploring, he makes friends with everyone on the ship, and he keeps his promises.
You: Where does the story take place?
Child: On the ship.
You: Can you describe the ship in a few sentences?
Child: It has three masts, but one falls down and gets repaired. It has a captain’s cabin full of maps for distant islands. It has a galley full of smelly food and funny music from the cook’s harmonica. The ship was designed to sail quickly and to carry light loads.
Young writers can easily get bogged down with too many ideas. A simple conversation with your child can quickly narrow down the main character, setting, and supporting sentence ideas. Don’t forget to make notes together on a white board or notebook paper. Soon, your child will be able to take a sword to his own papers, cutting right to the point.
Cluttered Writing Problem #2: Too Many Words
Does your teenage daughter use flowery, pretentious writing, also known as purple prose? Consider this overdone paragraph:
Like a brood of vipers, Natalie’s ebony locks hung thickly on her hunched, crooked shoulders like the awful blackness of night. With shifty eyes and a sneaky manner, she furtively glanced at the dark, foreboding, overgrown forest behind her. Oh! How desperately she longed and dreamed and schemed for the day when she and she alone would vanquish the evil queen’s army and defeat every last law-abiding soldier who stood between her and the sweet taste of retribution and victory.
Though such writing would thrill a young Anne of Green Gables, teen writers—especially girls—may need to learn that bigger words and longer sentences don’t make them look smarter. Finding the one right word, and using it wisely, is the mark of a true wordsmith. Help your student cut down the towering monster of wordiness with the sword of concise writing.
Many factors can contribute to cluttered writing. In addition to disorganization and wordiness, spelling, grammar, and handwriting mistakes may be the problems that plague a child’s papers. Some of these will require intensive one-on-one training, while others may diminish over time.
If paragraph organization, word choice, or sentence style are among your children’s foes, look no further! WriteShop offers a host of writing curriculum for different grade levels. As you reevaluate your homeschool writing materials, you may want to consider one of these programs next year to help your kids tame the Cluttered Writing Monster!
Daniella Dautrich is a WriteShop alumna and a graduate of Hillsdale College. She and her husband fill their home with books on writing, literature, and computer science. Daniella blogs at www.waterlilywriter.wordpress.com.