Not just kids, but many people find writing difficult, and for a variety of reasons. Probably the most difficult paradigm to overcome is the idea that writing is an alien form of communication when compared to speaking. When writing, we take our thoughts, slow them down, and organize them using special rules. Wait! That’s what we do when we speak too. When people speak, they are communicating. They are sharing thoughts, ideas, and feelings, generally just information. They are putting words into the air. The only thing that changes when people write is the medium. Speaking and writing are the same things, just in different places. When writing you can see it. It’s visual. (It can be auditory too, but I’ll cross that bridge in a bit.) Writing is just words on paper.
You may argue ” But, it isn’t the same as when I text or email. I can type ” LOL ” or ” TTYL ” or misspell words and no one cares.” Well, that’s partially true. The person you are texting may not care, but the person you are texting is also your intended audience . You know that when you are texting. That person knows it too, and expects you to text in a certain way. It is understood between you. It is part of the transaction taking place.
Let me try to illustrate: if you have ever been around when two friends were talking about something, say an “inside joke,” something which was familiar to just the two of them, and you were lost–you didn’t know what they were talking about, because they were using special language that only the two of them knew–then you will understand the difficulty your teachers, professors, or even other students have when they try to read your papers. The reason is that you may not have had in your mind who is your intended audience. You had not agreed upon the form of the transaction.
How can you know who your audience is if you are writing a paper for school? Well, your intended audience is not the teacher, or the professor, or the other students. In these cases your intended audience is everyone . Every person on the planet. Everyone who at least speaks the language in which you are writing. How can you do that? The same way you can speak to a total stranger and he understands you; you both speak the same language. You both understand the grammar and syntax of that language (the forms, words, and usages of those words). Writing is just talking on paper. You should write so that the total stranger will understand what you want to say; so that anyone who might pick it up will be interested, will be entranced by it, will have had his life changed by having read it. If you are writing it, it is important. As important as you are.
Sure, you have to pay attention to spelling and grammar and syntax (what’s syntax, right? –I’ll tell you later) and punctuation. But guess what, most word processing programs do a lot of that for you automatically. You should still learn these things, because the tool is only as good as the purpose to which it is put, but you can learn them as you go. You actually already know more than you believe you know. You speak the language. That’s really the hard part, making sounds with your mouth that make sense to everyone else and being able to put those sounds in order by using groups of characters that make sense to everyone else. It took you probably about three years of your life and the lives of your parents for you to learn this. You just don’t remember learning it. Writing is just a different way of doing it.
Spelling takes care of itself. The more you write, the better you spell. the more you read, the better you spell too, but that is another discussion. Don’t ask why; it just works that way–I mean go ahead and ask if that’s what you want to learn, but focus on the writing for now. If you still have trouble with spelling because you are like me and deal with dyslexia or some other processing disorder, pick up a dictionary. People have been using them for centuries and they really do work. If you are a 21st century type person, try that spell check thing on your computer. Just don’t rely on it too heavily. You can spell a word correctly but use it in the wrong way, and the spell checker will never catch it.
Grammar. Well, there are only eight parts of speech.
- Nouns you know–person, place, thing, or idea.
- Verbs are easy; if it’s something that can be done, it’s a verb.
- Conjunctions are really simple; they just connect ideas– and, but & or make up the majority of conjunctions you will ever use. There are others, but pick those up later.
- Pronouns? They just take the place of a noun, and most of those you will use describe people– he, she, him, her, me, I, we, them, they, us, etc.
- Adjectives just describe or modify nouns or pronouns. Typically they come before the word they modify too, so if you see plump tomato, you know that a tomato is a noun, so plump must be the adjective. I know, sort of like cheating.
- Adverbs are similar to adjectives; they modify something else. The thing they modify is just different and you can tell by the word itself, ad-verb. That’s right, they modify verbs. So, when the plump tomato rolls quickly away, you know that quickly is the adverb. Here’s a little secret: most adverbs also end in -ly, so when you see that, it’s a pretty good indication of what the word is.
- Prepositions get a little dicier. Here’s the hint: there are about forty commonly used prepositions. The easiest way to figure out what is a preposition really is to memorize that list of forty. The other easy part is to know that prepositions typically indicate direction or condition.
- Finally, interjections. If you are my age, you remember School House Rock. “Interjections, show emotion, and are generally set apart from a sentence by an exclamation point, or by a comma when the feeling’s not as strong.” (Sorry, you have to supply the melody yourself). Whenever you’ve said, “Wow!” “Cool!” or “Crap!” you’ve used an interjection. Most of the time the rest of the sentence follows them, but get creative. See if you can drop one in the middle or at the end. You just have to remember to try to keep them between clauses or phrases.
That’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed Grammar Lesson. It does get more complicated than that; but again, you can learn as you go.
Punctuation is easy. Capital at the beginning. Period at the end. It worked for James Joyce, it can work for you. If you want to be more creative than that (and certainly keep more of your audience’s attention), you will need to learn a few more tricks. Take a minute and figure out how to punctuate a conjunctive adverb. Play with colons and semicolons. Heck, just learn where and how to use a comma. And, don’t be afraid of making a mistake. A mistake is only a mistake if you learn nothing from it. You can always edit afterward too.
A good source for information is a book called The Elements of Style by a pair of gentlemen named Strunk and White. I warn you though; it’s really dry and if you try to read the whole thing in one sitting, you may make your brain bleed. It is the bible of English grammar though, so at least become familiar with it.
“But, I can’t write how I talk.” Stop whining. Yes you can. (This is sort of that syntax thing I promised.) You can still use your shoulda-coulda-woulda-gonna’s, your ” Mominems .” You perhaps will just have to explain why you chose to. Even Queen Elizabeth I used the word ain’t. Shakespeare butchered the language in every play he ever wrote, BUT he did it in such a way that it was new and unique, and he made it work. The poet ee cummings (no, I didn’t screw up his name–he did) even played with the language to make it do strange and wonderful things. It will probably make what you are trying to say in an essay more difficult to communicate, but if it is worth doing, do it. It is the best way to transmit your own voice, so like the reason for writing, it is worth doing. Just be ready to work harder. Hard work never hurt you. Basically, every word goes where it belongs. Unless you are a George Lucas character, and “Learning to write, you are,” this is already going to be very natural for you. You have a head start, you learned to speak, to use the language, when you were two or three years old. Hopefully you have progressed as you’ve gotten older.
Last hint: read what you wrote. Don’t just look at the words and scan over your work…READ IT–out loud–to yourself. Really. If it sounds good to your ear when you do this, then it probably is. Sure, there may still be a few errors in there, but most of the problems in your writing will come out when you actually read what you wrote out loud. I do it. I did it for this. Eleven times.
What you write is important. It could mean getting a better grade. It could mean getting a better job. It could be that you just want to share, or want to be understood. Maybe you just want to leave behind something of yourself. What ever your reason for writing, it is worth doing. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well.
Okay, I lied, one final hint: the secret, the long lost secret to writing is…
…putting words on paper.
Just get started. Once you do, you may be surprised how easy it is. You may discover that the writing takes on a life of its own and you may not want to stop. Give it a try. If you are like most people, you will spend an inordinate amount of time stalling and complaining about having to write. But, if you spend that energy on getting started, you will be done before you even get a chance to complain. Go ahead, put words on paper.