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Natalie's Rules: Freeing Kids to Write

Donna Glee Williams, a NCCAT Center Fellow and author of "The Braided Path," shared the thoughts on writing below in this blog post. Thanks to Donna Glee for these writing tips.

In an earlier post, I discussed how successful writing rides a tricycle of creative mess-making, technical know-how, and thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgments. Teachers I know seem pretty confident with the technical how-to and the assessment wheels on the trike. It’s that third wheel, how to free kids for the first steps of drafting, that they want help with. But how to unlock the brave, playful, reckless energy that lets novice writers smear down that first draft without being paralyzed by the blank page?

The best advice I ever got on this problem in my own writing came from Natalie Goldberg in her stunning little book "Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within" (Shambhala Publications). If you want to kick your writing into orbit, you couldn't find a better booster-rocket than reading this book cover to cover and trying the free-writing practice it describes. But teachers don’t have a lot of time to read, so here’s the Readers' Digest Condensed Version of Natalie Goldberg’s free-writing practice.

Natalie’s Rules

1.KEEP YOUR HAND MOVING. For the period you have set yourself to write, don't stop, no matter what. Keep going forward--don't pause to correct or to think. If you run out of things to say, keep writing--maybe copy the last sentence or the original prompt over and over until your brain gets bored with it and forks over another idea.

2. LOSE CONTROL. In lots of areas of life, staying in control is a good idea. Not in free-writing. If you start to "lose it," great! Ride the wave. See where it takes you.

3. BE SPECIFIC. If an abstraction or a generalization comes your way, cool--but then push it to the details, those juicy, juicy details.

4. DON'T THINK. This isn’t about story-boarding, outlining, or planning. It's about the straight brain-to-hand connection. You can think, plan, and organize later.

5. DON'T WORY BOUT SPELING, PUNCTUASHUN, OR GRAMMER. Don't fritter away your forward energy by line-editing as you go. Fix that stuff later. (This, by the way, is why I almost never draft on a computer--too easy, too tempting, to go back and fiddle with little errors. Gotta keep my momentum.)

6. FEEL FREE TO WRITE THE WORST JUNK IN THIS CORNER OF THE GALAXY. No one will see your work, anyway—not in this condition, anyway. You'll pretty it up—arrange its hair, put its makeup on—before letting it out the door, so give yourself the same permission you'd give a well-loved toddler with finger-paints.

7. GO FOR THE JUGULAR. If you’re standing in front of a class and start to feel your eyes tear up or your voice get all trembly, you’re likely to back away from whatever is coming up inside you. But in the privacy of your journal, if you feel any bodily sign of emotion, don’t back away—go straight at it, full speed ahead. Those little signs are the clues that show where the hidden treasure is buried.

8. SPEND IT ALL! Don't save anything for later. Write as if this is your last day on earth. If you find that something is holding you back from playing full-out, just turn around and write about that thing.

Take Natalie's Rules out for a spin. Sit down, put a timer on for five minutes, and write like there's no tomorrow. Then see if there’s anything in this process you might like to offer the young writers you’re teaching.

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