An alien, reading the stories of our primary school kids would be very puzzled. Did the human parents starve their offspring – all the small human children ever seemed to write about was food? Obviously travelling was a huge excitement for the humans too. Bus trips and car trips featured frequently in the small human's writing. While beds clearly had a mystical quality in human civilization – at least half the stories by the small humans started with 'I woke up …' and then finish with 'And then I went home to bed.'
Obviously the aliens would be wrong. Yet why do our children always want to fill up their stories with the minor details of life?
It's called 'warm-up' writing. People start with the safe and familiar. Professional authors know this and they guard against it. Some authors even count on cutting out the first few chapters, so their book moves more quickly and jumps straight into the action.
Young kids often have not learnt to cut out the warm-up writing. Do any of these look familiar?
- Food Fetishes: At Luna Park we all went on a roller coaster ride and then we had lunch. We ate hamburgers with chips and a big thick milkshake. Mum even let me have a second fizzy drink and Dad shared an apple pie with me with lots and lots of cream.
- Bedroom antics (the er … boring kind !): I woke up that morning and leapt out of bed. I hurried to get dressed in jeans and a jumper and then cleaned my teeth and put on my shoes …
- Trapped in travel: We all piled into the car and set off for the school sports. On the way we waved at the cars and sang songs about Mr. Tracey. Mark and I sat in the back and ate lots of twisties and chips …
- Fanatical about friends: Mrs. Ceniton asked me to help organize the stage for the school concert. So Andy and Jane and Phillip and I did all the backdrops. Tina and Pete and Malcolm did the lighting. Pam and Mandy did …
Put it all together and you do not get much room to tell the really interesting parts of the story. Sometimes we learn more about what the kids ate on the way to the zoo than what happened when the lion escaped!
See how this story improves dramatically when you cut out the warm-up writing. It is far more vibrant because the author now has something interesting to write about.
Before: I got up that morning and got dressed in my tracksuit and was really excited and scared. After all our training today was the state competition. We had to leave at 7.00 so Mum and Dad and everyone gulped down breakfast and raced to get out the door. My sister Jackie and I sat in the back and ate lots of chips and chocolate. Then she had this sticky drink that spilt all over her. It was a long trip. We finally got to the competition and everyone piled out and headed into the gym …
After: 'Look at those Queensland kids ,' said Jackie. 'Gee they're good.'
I watched a girl run at full speed onto the vault, sail high into the air in a double front somersault with half twist – and then totally nail the landing. She did not even look like she was out of breath.
I groaned and pulled my track top closer around me. It was cold in the gym. Or maybe it was just me that was cold. My sister Jackie and I had been training all year for the state championships and today was the big final. Suddenly my legs felt like lead.
So how can we help our kids to write with more action? Try this:
1. Simply tell them to cut out all the boring bits. Ban them if you have to. No beds, no bus trips, no boring lists of friends or food. (Show them the list above.)
2. Get them to 'start when the action starts' – and not at the beginning of the day.
eg In the gym, NOT in the car on the way to the gym.
3. Give them the starting line. eg 'That's a huge lion,' I said. We were at the zoo and …
So ban the boring – and help bring out the best in your kid's writing.
© Jen McVeity, National Literacy Champion.