Helping Young Writers Find Their Voice

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Today I got to coach two 9-year-old girls as part of a writing program for children at a library in south St. Pete. The goal is for each child to write a “book” by the end of the month-long program. There were about 20 students at today’s event — enough to make me feel inspired about seeing such young children expressing a passion for writing.

The first girl I coached with had already written two chapters of her book — a murder mystery novel featuring a main character named Max Electiva. I read over her story and marked the parts that I especially liked. When you’re reading a 9-year-old’s writing, you can’t be too critical. Of course, it’s not going to be up to par with what an adult would write, so you have to offer a lot of encouragement and first talk about what worked well. You can then follow up your compliments with a couple of suggestions about how to make it better.

I talked with her about character development, how to generate story ideas and how “show, not tell.” I shared some insights that other writing coaches have taught me along the way, and I stressed three key steps to becoming a better writer: reading, writing, and talking about writing. Having a conversation about your ideas and your writing process is so important if you want to learn to write better. In talking with this young girl, I learned something from her, too. She says she has a “junkyard” — a folder where she keeps parts of stories or essays that didn’t come to fruition. She keeps them there so she can refer back to them at some point and perhaps give them new life. Smart idea, eh?

The second girl I coached didn’t have a story yet. She said,”Um, I want to write …. a mystery novel!” (Must be a popular genre among kids her age.) She was soft-spoken and quiet at first, so I suggested we do some brainstorming together. I wrote three columns on a piece of paper and labeled them “Characters,” “Scene” and “Action/Drama.” Together, we thought of who the characters would be in her story. Then we talked about where they would be and the action they would create.

The more we talked, the louder her voice got and the more excited she became about the story. By the end of the coaching session, we had the makings of a story about an omnipresent ghost that invades a school and can’t be controlled. The school’s administration has to call in a set of detectives who want to tame the ghost before he starts visiting other schools. Chaos ensues, but the detectives finally find out what the ghost’s story is and how to get rid of him.

I didn’t have nearly as much time as I would have liked to coach each of them, but I came away with a sense of hope, and peace of mind in knowing that efforts are being made to foster a love for writing in children. I unfortunately won’t be available to coach the next two weekends, but I’m planning to go to the final event of the program the first weekend of December. I’m excited to see how the kids’ stories will turn out.