guest post by Naomi Kinsman
A couple days ago, I stood in front of a third grade classroom acting out a scene between a giant and a young girl, complete with action and dialogue. Afterward, in our class discussion and in one-on-one conversations, the youth writers and I unpacked specificity of voice, gesture, subtext, tone, and more. Later, as I drafted my own work-in-progress, my scenes bubbled with extra liveliness.
This kind of rich conversation––and the crossover into my own work—is par for the course in my teaching with Society of Young Inklings. I wouldn’t be the author I am today were I not also a mentor for youth writers.
Teaching keeps my writing toolkit sharp. Why?
Teaching Keeps Craft Skills Fresh
First, in order to teach writing craft, I isolate skills and invent strategies to help my writers practice. This process makes what is otherwise invisible in my writing process top of mind. For instance, in a writing class, we might practice moving our bodies in a variety of ways to show anger. Then, we might write dialogue using language, gesture, and tone to put what we’ve done with our bodies into clear words on the page.
Back in my own office, I might return to an ordinary drafting session. Usually, I wouldn’t specifically think about gesture or subtext. When I’m top form, I might not have to, because nuances spill onto the page spontaneously. However, my first drafts always have one weakness or another. I can only think about so many of the details at once. Often, I end up with scenes that work in one way, but not in another. Constantly taking out one craft skill or another, practicing it with my students, and then returning it to my mental “shelf” helps keep my full range of craft tools top of mind.
Teaching Helps Writers Understand Craft Deeply
Second, my students constantly ask me: Why? I might share a solid piece of advice, such as “Make sure to use dialogue tags to show your reader who is speaking.”
In reply, a student might raise his hand and say, “Why? I mean, in a book I read, there was a whole page of dialogue without any tags, and it was exciting. I wasn’t confused at all.”
Now, the class and I have an opportunity to follow our curiosity and dig deeper into when dialogue tags help, when they may not be necessary, and to consider what happens to pacing and characterization when we use tags or choose to omit them. By the end of the conversation, we all have a better understanding of our many choices as writers. We’ve considered when rules might not be hard and fast, and in many cases, settled into a better understanding of our own preferences and style.
Teaching Reinforces a Positive Mindset
Third, when teaching, I focus on my student’s strengths and coach them to build their pieces by expanding on what’s working. When writers feel like their pieces are filled with holes and errors, their lack of confidence saps their energy. Every conversation is filled with “I can’t …” subtext. By flipping this dynamic on its head, we can note what is working. Then, we consider how we might elaborate on those successes, and students happily roll up their sleeves and get to work.
What’s true for my students is also true for me. As I witness their increased motivation and energy, I’m reminded of how much mindset matters. If I tell myself that my writing is a mess––in fact, that I’m a mess––I settle deeper into frustration and gloomy drafting sessions. On the other hand, when I begin by considering my strengths––say creating whimsical, sensory settings––I zoom straight into a scene with genuine excitement and in-the-moment flow.
Teaching is Rewarding
I founded Society of Young Inklings as a vehicle to help professional writers connect, writer-to-writer, with youth. From the very start, I’ve seen this relationship as a two-way street. Professionals who work and volunteer with our organization report that they grow in ways that reflect my own experience.
For instance, one of our Inklings Book volunteers, Jamieson Haverkampf, said, “Mirrors matter. In 11th grade, my English teacher changed my life, mirroring my talent as a writer before I knew how to embody it as my truth. As a mentor to young writers at SYI, it has been deeply fulfilling to offer mentees an encouraging reflection of their talents, knowing that the guiding mirror I present has the potential to radically transform how young writers see themselves and others.”
Would you like to explore the opportunity of working with youth and giving your own writing a boost, as well? You can often find local and national writing programs looking for mentors and teachers. At Society for Young Inklings, we have some opportunities available right now. If you’re interested, I’d love to get to know you better. Introduce yourself at this link, and let’s talk.
I strongly encourage you to look for opportunities to teach others about the craft of writing. The benefits go far beyond giving back and helping others. You’ll see your own writing blossom through the process, as well.
Naomi Kinsman is the founder of Society of Young Inklings, and the author of the From Sadie’s Sketchbook series. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University.