Over the last five years we’ve run hundreds of writing workshops for both adults and kids. The adult ones tend to be a lot more sweary and the kids’ ones tend to involve a lot more glitter and googly eyes, but the main difference between them is their approach to writing.
The adults are riddled with self-doubt. They procrastinate because they worry they’re not good enough, or because their first draft is shitty, or because they can’t get over writer’s block, finding a million different reasons NOT to write.
The kids, on the other hand, jump right in. They have an idea, they write it down. They head off down random tangents and plagiarise with wild abandon. They let their excitement for the story lead them onward no matter whether things are going to plan or not. And by the end of the workshop they leave beaming with pride. They believe in themselves.
Recently, my two kids have become utterly obsessed with writing and drawing comics. The house is full of ’em. I even caught my youngest sitting up in bed scribbling away at 3am the other night because he woke up to pee and just had to carry on with his story. Their love of stories makes me squee with happiness but also makes me ache with guilt and sadness that my own passion for writing has become so jaded over the years. I was exactly the same as a child; I’d get home from school and head straight for my notebook. I’d write in lessons, at break times, and deep into the night. I always had a story in my head. But somewhere between adolescence and adulthood life took over. Work, chores, child-wrangling, money worries, my pathetic social life – somehow all of it gets prioritised over writing, even though storytelling remains ingrained in my tired, grown-up, semi-responsible heart.
And so I started watching my kids a little more closely (and jealously). What do they do that I don’t? How do they manage to be so prolific, so effortlessly? And why have I made writing into some sort of chore? How do I learn to write like a kid again?
#1. Do it now (not later, NOW)
Children are pretty literal minded. They live in the moment. The future is abstract. When they get an idea they want to bring it to life RIGHT NOW, not in five minutes, or tomorrow, or next week. NOW. Not only am I all too aware of how often I tell my kids “in a minute” but also how often I tell myself the same thing. Why am I not writing right now? Will the world end if I spend half an hour hashing out a scene instead of starting dinner? No. No it will not. Stop putting it off. Let your inner kid badger you into starting right this moment and not a minute later.
#2. Steal shamelessly
Both my kids are superfans of Dav Pilkey, author of the Captain Underpants and Dogman series, and their comics often borrow plotlines and characters wholesale. Similarly, my first ‘novel’, written at the age of eleven, was a shameless Star Wars rip off. ‘Stealing’ is how we learn to write. Fan fiction is another great stepping stone – using readymade characters, settings and situations to develop your writing chops. Shakespeare stole, rewrote, emulated and straight up plagiarised a good 90% of his masterpieces. There are no new stories under the sun etc etc. Tl;dr, it’s OKAY to use your writing influences to kick you off. Somewhere along the way you’ll find your own niche and make it different. (Don’t believe us? Try our ‘Increments of a Story’ exercise and see…)
#3. Storyboard your story
The kids’ comic-writing obsession made me think about screenwriting and storyboarding and why the hell shouldn’t you sketch out a scene before you write it? Why not consider things filmically and think about framing and shot choice when planning your description and structure? My kids use jump-shots and extreme close-ups and flashbacks with natural flair in their comics. They skip the boring bits and focus on the action rather than getting bogged down in waffle. It doesn’t matter how shit you are at drawing – stick figures are fine – but looking at your story in a visual way can bring a scene to life.
#4. Give your story a theme tune
My kids’ comics are always accompanied by some sort of noise. They make their own sound effects, speak their dialogue aloud, and sing atmospheric, mood-setting theme tunes to help them along. Make yourself a writing playlist (movie soundtracks are great for this), hold imaginary conversations with your characters, shout ‘boo-fuckin-ya!’ when you nail a scene. There’s absolutely no reason to write in silence.
#5. Make it colourful
Everything my kids write is splashed with colour, whether they’re illustrating their work or simply deciding to use a rainbow of pens for their prose. Get off your laptop for a minute and brighten up your notes with something a bit less monochrome: spider diagrams, brainstorming, charts and timelines and sketches and colour-coded scene summaries and images to inspire your characters and setting. Staring at a screen is dull and uninspiring for the most part – the more you can stimulate your senses the better.
Sitting still is for losers. My children jiggle and bounce and gesticulate wildly as they write. They pace the room. They stand on their heads on the sofa and write upside down. They sit on the floor. They write on the toilet, in the bath, in bed. They carry their notebooks around everywhere and settle down to write whenever inspiration grabs them. I’m not saying you have to turn into a 6-year-old fidget but at the very least you can switch up your usual writing space. At the very least you can stand up and get the blood flowing every so often. At the very least you can do a little bum wiggle in your chair as you type.
#7. Don’t overthink it
Like, seriously. The first draft is for splurging onto the page. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just needs to exist. Kids don’t stop to consider their target audience or whether they’re fully exploring the themes of their story or all that literary criticism bullshit that (while very interesting) can sometimes hobble our ability to just write. Stop thinking. Start writing. Deal with the editing bit later.
#8. Let mistakes be mistakes
On a similar theme, kids tend to be less concerned with fucking things up. Sure, they might throw a tantrum or two or rip up a perfectly good picture, or scribble out an entire paragraph in rage, but they always try, try again. Tantrums are fine. Mistakes are fine. Cross it out and start over. Or see if you can turn an unexpected miss-step into something new. Don’t let one sticking point stop you from carrying on.
#9. Make it fun
When did we stop enjoying our writing? When we decided we’d take it ‘seriously’? When we started to feel the pressure of the huge odds stacked against us? When we compared ourselves to other, better writers and wanted to crawl under a rock? Kids don’t do any of that. They write because IT’S FUN. They write about the exciting bits and leave out the dull stuff. They don’t necessarily write with the final product in mind but for the pure joy of the process.
#10. Show it off
The moment my kids have finished a story they shove it in my face and jump on me until I’ve read the whole thing and handed out the appropriate praise. They take constructive criticism with good grace and use it to start a brand new story. They take their comics to school and share them with their friends and teachers. They have no sense of embarrassment or self-deprecation and why the hell should they? They’re awesome. Writing as an adult, on the other hand, is a lonely old business. We shy away from sharing our work and fear criticism like the wrath of Khan and we convince ourselves that our writing isn’t worth reading. Well, quite frankly, fuck that. Put your work out there. Submit a story. Find a beta reader. Get feedback. Develop, learn and improve. No writer is an island.
So, throw your self doubt out of the window and write like a kid. ‘Cause I don’t know about you but this is the kind of writing session I wanna have: