September 24th, 2021

5 Things Kids Taught Me About Writing

by Ellen Buikema

Much of my career was spent working with young children and they gave me a different way of viewing and understanding the world. Life lessons from children serve as invaluable resources for writing and life.

Top 5 Lessons

1. Have Patience

When dictating stories for me to transcribe, children either spoke at lightning speed or slowly with great deliberation.  The fast talkers needed to be patient with me. And they were. Each and every one of them. Patient to a fault.

One pair of fraternal twins, sister and brother, were prolific, creative storytellers. Both spoke at a breakneck pace. Sometimes the duo’s words spilled forth with such speed that they tripped over syllables, making them difficult to understand.

After hearing me ask several times, “Can you please say that again?” they chose a different method to get their stories across—one word at a time with a few “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” beats between words. I found this maddening, but eventually we developed a flow that worked for all of us.

Mutual respect allowed for greater student-teacher patience.

Rushing your book-baby out is tempting but unwise. Art cannot be rushed.

Writing and “building a book” requires a lot of patience.

When composing, whether you are a plotter, pantser, or hybrid writer, lack of patience leads to frustration that can hurl you smack into writer’s block. Having patience with oneself is not easy. Remember that a plethora of great writers took many drafts to get their stories just right. After all, first drafts are awful by definition.

2. Be Disciplined

Someone once told me that working with young students was like herding cats. I totally agree!

The attention span of a four-year-old is very short. We’re talking eight to twelve minutes on average-- if they’re interested in the project being presented. Unless you’re well organized with backup plans in case of emergencies, you are toast—burned extra crispy.

It takes discipline to have all the pieces-parts prepared for the day—as well as a bag of tricks.

I’d planned a fantastic lesson. It flopped big time. I could tell by observing the wiggling bodies sitting on the floor with me. Time to punt. Beside me, sat a bag containing several items of different shapes and sizes. I decide to call it "The Mystery Bag." This went over very well. All forty eyes focused on the teacher holding a large, bumpy brown paper bag on her lap.

I asked the wiggliest student to come over and, without peeking, reach into the bag. “Describe the item for us, just from touching it,” I said. The student holding the hidden item chose each of her classmates in turn, following the customs of our classroom (preventative discipline). The students guessed what they thought the mystery item might be. After every classmate participated, the student pulled the item from the bag. The Mystery Bag activity continued until Circle Time ended.

This activity went over so well that the students continued playing the mystery bag game in small groups during free time.

Self-discipline or lack thereof, can make you or break you.

  • Self-discipline helps form positive habits.
  • Successful writers discipline themselves to write, making it habitual.
  • Self-discipline helps you be productive.
  • Commit to a timeline for your writing projects. Be an achiever.
  • Self-discipline helps with focus.
  • Focusing on the writing will get your work completed.
  • Self-discipline increases your self-esteem.

Achieving your writing goals boosts confidence.

3. Notice the Little Stuff

Children notice everything. When sitting on your lap to listen to a story, they may look up your nose and comment upon what they see. There is no such thing as a filter with young children. The social filter doesn’t start until around age seven, thanks to children’s increased capacity for empathy.

Everything a child sees and hears eventually makes its way to school, either with friends or trusted adults. Students write in pictorial form, or dictate stories about things they’ve seen or heard that evoke emotion—both the good and the bad.

Observation is key to great scenes.

My favorite grade school teacher gave us a simple assignment, never graded nor asked about. Find one item on your walk home from school and really look at it in detail. Take time to observe the little things.

I have never forgotten this assignment and have often used it over the years. There is beauty everywhere. Sometimes you need to look a bit closer.

Observation is much more than seeing. When writing scenes, the more senses used, the easier it is for your reader to become part of the story.

  • Choose what you want to observe.
  • Record your observations.

Use a cellphone camera, still or video camera, make a note on paper or an App like ColorNote, or an audio recording App like Voice Recorder for future reference. Sense memories are strong, but life is busy and it’s easy to forget.

4. Use Forgiveness

It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to hurt other people or yourself.

When my students hurt each other’s feelings in the classroom or playground, they were responsible to find a way to make the hurt person feel better. It’s easy to say, “I’m sorry.”

Finding a way to make it better takes thought. Forgiveness was implicit in accepting that gift, whatever it may have been. This didn’t happen overnight, but over time made a huge difference in the way students treated each other.

No one has the same writing path.

Mentors can steer you toward new possibilities, challenge you, and expand your imagination, but no one can tell you exactly what your writing process should be. Forgive those that suggest the “right” way. You will develop a system that may borrow from many but become your own.

There will be fantastic days when your writing flows like a bubbly brook. Others are drought days with a blank screen or page. If you lose patience, forgive yourself.

5. Laugh Often

Once our school nurse fell ill and needed to spend time in the hospital. The students made a book for Nurse Rita to help her feel better. Each child received one page to draw a picture, write their names to the best of their ability, and dictate a sentence or two to cheer her.

Rita smiled throughout the book until she found the last page. Then she laughed hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. On the last page was a drawing of an Angry Bird with the caption, Angry Birds will make Nurse Rita feel better.

Laughter is good medicine.

Humor is instinctive. There is a healing quality to humor. Laughter releases feel-good hormones, and a jolly belly laugh is a good workout.

Find more tidbits about humor in writing on the blog. Writing Humor to Heal Mind and Body

And remember that a day without laughter is wasted.

Happy writing!

What do you do to kickstart your writing process? What life lessons have you woven into your writing? What writing lessons have you learned from children? Please share them in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, Parenting: A Work in Progress, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon, a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are: The Hobo Code (YA historical fiction) and Crystal Memories (YA fantasy).

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by Dmitriy Gutarev from Pixabay

21 responses to “5 Things Kids Taught Me About Writing”

  1. These are wonderful lessons. And, as you mentioned in the introduction, they can certainly be applied to life in general -- not just writing.

  2. Bonnie Zelenak says:

    Hi Ellen, your post elicited sweet thoughts for me. I write with my eight-year-old granddaughter and love her imagination, her awareness of the world that surrounds her, and her empathy for all living things. Sitting and being her scribe makes me happy and her smile tells me she feels similarly. So far we've written "Cricket Goes to the Lake" and "Jungle Wonders." Such fun!

    P.S. Remember Erma Bombeck? Your work reminded me of some of her stories about parenting. Truly lovely.

    • Bonnie, thank you for the lovely compliment! Erma Bombeck was an amazing writer and humorist.

      Scribing with children can be magical. Enjoy this precious time with your granddaughter!

  3. Jenny Hansen says:

    This is such a perfect Friday post! Lots of sweetness to take us into the weekend. 🙂

  4. Eldred Bird says:

    Great post, Ellen. It reminds me of something the comedian Gallagher one said. He was talking about how his then three year old daughter changed his view of the world by the way she described things. He called it "seeing through new eyes." I've never forgot that. It's been a big part of my writing process ever since. It's helped me see the world (both real and fictitious worlds) through the eyes of my characters rather than my own.

  5. Kris says:

    Thanks for this post and your teaching stories, Ellen. What a sweet reminder about not only being disciplined in writing,, but also kind to oneself.

    • Ellen Buikema says:

      Kris, sometimes I think we forget about self-care.

      If I manage to catch myself falling into the deep end of life's pool, finding something humorous pulls me back from the edge.

      I may be using humor in writing to defuse characters' issues without being conscious of it. I will have to ponder.

  6. Loved seeing this all through a child's POV. Children taught me to remember to imagine. That it's ok to pretend. From Nerf dart wars complete with tuck and tumble maneuvers while vaulting over a couch (yes, there was ibuprofen involved) to crawling along the kitchen floor to escape some villain, kids have helped me feeling safe to imagine. (Although it helps that I've been a thespian and a director for a youth drama group through my church- those kids taught me so much about imagination! That all translates into writing is such as strong way. Thanks for the great article!

    • Ellen Buikema says:

      Thanks, Miffie! I'll bet you were an awesome youth director. I think this part of your life would make for a great novel or two, or maybe three.

  7. Yvonne Müller says:

    Love this post. I often feel overwhelmed by all the do's and don'ts in the writing world and recently I decided not to read a lot of blog posts so I don't get stressed, but I'm glad I read this one. Simple rules I know will be good for my mental well-being during my writing process. Thank you!

    • Yvonne, I am so glad you decided to read this post, and I must tell you that I can relate to feeling overwhelmed by the plethora of information. There is so much to know and sometimes I need to set it all aside and just breathe.

      My best to you.

  8. dholcomb1 says:

    Children definitely see the world through different eyes. We have to learn to step back, rethink our hardened, at times, views, and just let go... and the words will flow.

    denise

  9. pp48 says:

    Your words really hit home for me as a former early childhood teacher. Not only have kids influenced my writing, but they are usually IN my stories one way or another . And scribing....an absolute delight that I really do miss. What a treasure your school nurse has in her compilation of pictures! Great post!

  10. esmesalon says:

    Thank you for sharing your post at Blog & Inspire. I am not a writer, but can relate that what you discussed here. I took care of our one granddaughter for a day this past week, and what she said, did and expressed throughout the day has made me think a lot. Her Daddy went for surgery that day, and obviously this had an effect on her, in what she said, felt and how she responded. She asked if she may type 'diary style' on my iPad notes, and I only read it when I returned home that evening, and what you mentioned by how they feel and what they think and how they perceive things was clearly evident in her writing. She wrote from the heart and how she felt that day, and I could see it in her demeanor the entire day.

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