The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Authors in the Classroom

gender-1459661_1280.png"Ackk, I've been asked to do a school visit! What do I talk about?" Often there's some panic or anxiety to the question.

The amazing thing is I've talked about the same topics and done the same writing exercises for a variety of ages for school visits. Yes, of course, the wording or detail is simpler for younger kids than for older kids; the exercises less complicated, but it's the same material.

I like showing my first book to a group of children and asking them, "How long do you think it took since I started writing this book to when it was published?" They'll guess a month. I point up. They guess three months, six months, a year. I keep pointing up. The students are shocked when I finally tell them seven years! I talk about why it takes so long: writing, rewriting, critiques, rewriting, submissions, waiting, rejections, acceptance, contract, editing, time for the cover to be created (or the illustrations to be done), printing. I also tell them, "No, I didn't do the pictures."

I've done the same thing with short stories. Talked about how after I wrote it, I had it critiqued (explaining what that means), rewriting, submissions, editing, time till publication. My first story for Highlights for Children took three years to be in print after I signed the contract! I've told them things my editor said on this short story and how I fixed the problems. In this story's case, it took two rewrites with the editor. Since kids think writing a piece once is good enough teachers love this.

So what can YOU talk about? Here's a list of ideas:

  • What writing the book was like.
  • When you write.
  • Where you write. (I write at home, sometimes in my pajamas, on my laptop. Or at my desktop where I stand. I like meeting other writers to write in coffee shops.)
  • What inspired you to write in general and this specific book in particular.
  • The hardest thing for you to learn about writing.
  • Number of rejections on this book.
  • If you have an agent, what that person does for you.
  • Rewrites and edits.
  • Read various drafts of a paragraph or page so they can see the difference writing makes.
  • Funny writing mistakes you've made.
  • Titling your book.
  • Naming your characters.
  • Why you decided to write from the viewpoint of your main character.
  • Why you included humor, or romance, or facts about science or baseball.
  • How you came up with the personality of your main character.
  • How you chose the setting for your book.
  • The unique factors of your book.
  • The skills of the main character and where you got that knowledge (experience, research, interviews).
  • Plotting your story.
  • Big problems you had writing this particular story. E.g. I couldn't figure out how my main character was going to . . . And then . . .
  • Your favorite part of the book.
  • Read a scene from the book and ask the kids what they think might happen next. (If they haven't read the book.)
  • Q&A - but I strongly recommend having some starter questions that are on the topic you want to discuss or having the teacher work with the kids to prepare questions ahead of time. Kids will go off topic, will make statements instead of asking questions. If they read your book ahead of time, they may have "why" questions.
  • Your education to prepare for writing, if any. Or that you attended lots of conferences and workshops, read books, etc.
  • Money! Tell students how much you earn per book or explain advances and royalties. (They'll often think authors are rich, so you may have to put it in some kind of context.)
  • Ask them about their favorite books or authors and tell them some of yours appropriate for their age level.
  • Book genres.
  • How many copies of your books have sold and what that would look like if they were stacked or laid out end to end.
  • Your book an ebook? Make sure they know what that means. Talk about how those books can be read. Ask if any of them (or their parents) read books electronically. (One safe way to ask some questions is to say, "raise your hand if . . ."
  • What you cut out of your book and why.
  • Why you wrote it in first person or third person or from different viewpoints.
  • Did you go somewhere and do research? Show pictures!

You can also do activities. I like to do an activity related to something I talk about. Some writers mostly do activities. (Remember two things: have kids raise their hands to answer or ask questions, and plan very simple writing for under fourth grade. You can do a lot of the writing on a white board for younger children.)

  • Create samples of poor versus good writing to read. Ask them which they like best. Ask them why they like it better? Talk about those reasons. E.g. They say it is more exciting. You explain about action, suspense, details, etc.
  • Have them draw something from your story.
  • Do a simple story outline as a group. First, decide on a character, then this person's problem, discuss possible solutions, etc.
  • Give a simple scenario about a kid with a problem and have the students write for five minutes as if they were that kid. (Give very specific guidelines.)
  • Explain about the five senses. Ask the kids to write a description of their favorite place using as many senses as they can.
  • Think about activities related directly to your book. Your main character collects words. As a group create a list of interesting words. Your mc makes wishes, each student could write down three of their wishes and share a top wish with the group.
  • Your next book is about a specific age gender who lives in a specific place. Make a group list of what hobbies this kid could have. Does she have older, younger siblings? How many? Does he have pets? What kind? This is showing them the kinds of decisions authors make all the time.
  • Give each student (or small group) a verb or noun and have them come up with more specific verbs or synonyms. Everyone will get to share and you may add suggestions. This can lead to a discussion of a thesaurus.
  • Have volunteer students read a scene from your book as if they are the different characters. They have to act out what the characters are doing, so you'll provide some appropriate props. You can be the narrator.
  • Ask what kinds of problems they've read about in stories and/or know about from real life. E.g. someone sick in family, wanting to win a contest, earning money for something special. Write them down for all to see and pick two or three to combine into a new story idea. Talk about how you'd get ready to write that story.
  • Tell them how writing was your dream and ask them what dreams they have? Think how you can turn that into some kind of writing activity. Would you have them write about the steps they need to achieve their dream? The kind of education or training they'll need? Or why they want to reach that goal? Of course, you'll make it age appropriate.

Remember, kids of all ages like it when adults are interested in them. They also like the novelty of special guests in the classroom. That means that most of them are happy you are there. Listen to them as well as talk and you'll probably have a satisfactory visit.

If this was helpful, you may also want to read these older posts: Dragged to the Podium and Going Back to School.