Write NowF.R. DUPLANTIER
Want to help your children master the art of communication? Here are ten suggestions from professional writer F. R. Duplantier.
"The world is charged with the grandeur of God." So observed Gerard
Manley Hopkins, poet and priest, more than 100 years ago. Of all God's grand creations,
man is one of the grandest and Hopkins one of the grandest of men. If you have
not read Hopkins' poetry, you've missed some of God's grandeur. But not all of
it. Because God's grandeur is all around us. To experience it, you need only do
what the crossing guards used to advise: Stop, Look & Listen. This is the first
step, also, in the mastery of any art or craft. Stop, Look & Listen. Then Imitate.
(Identify the masters and copy them.) There are, of course, certain tricks that
make the effort easier. Here are ten suggestions for helping your children master
the art of communication:
- Set a
good example. Stressing the importance
of reading and writing rings false if your children never see you doing either.
If the only book in your home is a telephone directory, the true value that you
place on reading will be clear. Your estimation of the value of writing will be
revealed by the presence, or absence, in your home of pens, pencils, paper, typewriters,
computers, etc. If you watch television constantly, your children are not likely
to become avid readers. If you communicate with the outside world solely on the
telephone, your children may grow up to be good talkers, but they're not likely
to be good writers.
your eyes and ears. You don't have to go to the library to find good
writing worthy of imitation. It's all around you on billboards, in newspapers,
in the lyrics of popular songs and commercial jingles. Granted, most of the writing
done by journalists and admen is wretched, but some of it is quite good. Learn
to tell the difference, and help your children distinguish between the good and
the bad. Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," for instance, tells the story of
a reckless youth who would not heed his mother's warnings and lived to regret
it. It's just a popular country tune, but it displays all the elements of fine
literature: strong plot, vivid description, character development, and a moral
lesson. The theme for the television show All in the Family is a brilliant evocation
not only of the emotion of nostalgia, but of the thought process associated with
it. The theme for Green Acres offers a good example of the writing technique of
comparison and contrast, with its juxtaposition of the benefits of country and
city life, not to mention the attitudes of men and women.
Cultivate a love for language.
Play word games with your children. Puns and palindromes, jokes and
riddles, anagrams and acrostics, scrabble, hangman, and crosswords these are all
fun activities that can dramatically improve the verbal ability of practitioners.
What, for example, is the phone number for the Garden of Eden? (Adam 8-1-2.) What
is peculiar about the phrase "Madam, I'm Adam"? (Bob, Eve, and Otto can tell you
the answer.) What are the five other four-letter words that can be made by rearranging
the letters in the word STOP? What's the three-letter synonym for a salamander?
Can you deduce Shakespeare's true identity from the numerous clues provided in
- Cultivate the
habit of thinking. You cannot teach your children to write without
teaching them to think. Begin with basic logic. Teach your children to recognize
common fallacies and avoid using them unintentionally (an appeal to pity may be
their best bet against a lynch mob, even if they are innocent). Television commercials
are a great resource for explaining intellectual errors: If 90 percent of a certain
European sedan are "still on the road" in America, but the cars have only been
available domestically for fewer than five years, the implication of durability
is unwarranted. If the best teas in the world have a cloudy appearance when brewed,
the fact that one popular brand "doesn't get cloudy" should be construed as a
negative, not a positive, quality. If tuna is either pink or white when it's canned,
and the same color when it's opened again, the claim that one brand of white tuna
"doesn't turn pink in the can" is disingenuous.
Take charge. You are the editor and your children are the writers.
They work for you, not vice versa. A good editor, like any good boss, knows how
to use reward and punishment, the carrot and the stick. He knows each writer's
strengths and weaknesses, how to capitalize on the former and compensate for the
latter. He knows how to motivate a writer, with praise (and payment), with firm
deadlines and definite consequences for failing to meet them. He knows what topics
will capture the writer's interest. He knows what he expects from the writer and
gives him explicit instructions, so there's no misunderstanding. Don't ask your
children to write something about something sometime; tell them what to write
about, what style to write in, how many words to use, and when to be finished.
If your children suffer from "writer's block," let them pretend to be someone
else. Putting a mask on lowers inhibitions dramatically, as anyone who has attended
Mardi Gras in costume knows, and perhaps regrets. Let your children dress as a
superhero, a cowboy, or a ballerina and write a first-person narrative about the
adventures of their new personas. An alias is a verbal mask; encourage your children
to adopt pseudonyms, if that's what it takes to get them started. Having an audience
in mind can facilitate the writing process, so have them imagine that they're
writing to a particular person or group a favorite relative or friend, their fellow
knights of the round table, etc.
Make lists. Ask your children to do an outline before writing and they'll
tell you that they don't know how to do an outline. So, tell them to make lists
instead. Lists are readily converted into outlines. A grocery list becomes the
outline for a story about a shopping trip. A list of chores becomes an outline
for "A Day in the Life of (Your Child)." The five senses, the colors of the rainbow,
the mysteries of the rosary, the roster of a favorite sports team - all are ready-made
lists waiting to be converted into outlines and essays. Any child can write a
15-page paper on American presidents, once he realizes that all he needs are introductory
and closing paragraphs, and 43 paragraphs in the middle, one for each of the men
who have held the office.
wisely. Encourage your children to write about what they know and like.
Don't ask them to choose topics; choose for them (remember, you're the editor).
Make an assignment. If you're an attentive parent, you know what their interests
are. You know that kids don't like the same things as adults, that boys don't
like the same things as girls, and that one kid doesn't like the same things as
another. If you want young teenagers to write a descriptive piece, have them describe
what they think would be the perfect mate. If you want them to demonstrate comparison
and contrast, have them juxtapose this perfect mate to the polar opposite. Maybe
such an exercise would not appeal to your teenager; then choose a different topic.
- Put first things first.
Your children can learn to write well by copying good writing, but
don't start with Shakespeare. Master the primitive forms before tackling the more
sophisticated. For poetry, start with Mother Goose rhymes and have your children
make up their own words for "Little Boy Blue" or "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Move
on to popular songs, television themes, and commercial jingles, and have your
children rewrite Clarence Carter's "Patches," the ballad of The Beverly Hillbillies,
and the Oscar Meyer hotdog song. Don't move on to sonnets and epic poetry until
they're ready. For prose, start with fairy tales and fables. Have your children
"retell" the ones they know by heart, like "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Tortoise
and the Hare." Then give them the basic plot and characters of tales they haven't
heard and see how well they can flesh them out. Move on to classic short stories
like O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Ransom of Red Chief." Have your
children recreate these stories before (with a parent's outline) and after they've
- Criticize constructively.
How can you correct your children's writing without stifling their
creativity or making them dread the whole endeavor? First, find something to praise.
Whatever your children's level of ability, there will always be some element of
their writing that you can point to with pride. Keep looking until you find it;
point to it. Then, instead of criticizing all the rest, ask questions. Questions
are much less demoralizing than accusations; they also force your children to
think, which is the ultimate goal of all legitimate education. If your children
have retold the story of Little Red Riding Hood, but left out the woodchopper,
ask them why? Was the woodchopper on strike? Had he accepted a bribe from the
wolf? You know what Little Red Riding Hood was wearing, obviously, but did your
children tell you what was in that basket? Was it Grandma's favorite pastries,
or a refill of her prescription from the pharmacy? What kind of woods did Red
walk through the easily negotiated piny kind, or the thick overgrown brushy kind
that you have to hack through with a machete? Ask the right questions and you'll
get the right answers. When you've elicited all the necessary responses from your
children, have them write their stories over again, plugging in all that extra
information that they thought of themselves.
F.R. Duplantier. "Write Now."
Printed with permission of F. R.
is a free-lance writer and editor with more than 25 years' experience in journalism,
advertising, and publishing. He is the author of Politickles
and a Catholic homeschooling father of six.
Copyright © 2002 F.R. Duplantier