It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.
– Ernest Hemingway
A question that I often come across on homeschool forums is what can you do to help a struggling writer. I had a struggling writer for many years, and now that he is 16 and thinking about college he is debating majoring in writing. Let me repeat that because it is a remarkable statement:
My struggling writer is now thinking about majoring in writing at college.
How did he get from the point of tears over writing to the point of loving writing? How long did the journey take? What materials were used? All of these questions I hope to answer now for the benefit of any of you who are trying to figure out what to do with your own struggling writer, and I hope to also give you hope and inspiration for your own homeschooling journey.
To do this I have to start at the beginning of our journey. My son Truffaut and his twin sister Autry were homeschooled from the start. There were many reasons why I chose to homeschool. One of the reasons that drew me to homeschooling was that the twins were born prematurely and I worried about their ability to move at the predetermined pace of a traditional school. As I look back over the years I am very happy I made this choice.
Tru was a very curious and intelligent little boy. He loved to listen to audiobooks, he loved building Legos and drawing, and he loved learning. He especially loved learning everything he could about history, science, and math. He also loved our studies in art and music. However, there was one area in which he struggled and that was in reading and writing.
While his sister picked up reading at quite a young age, Tru struggled with it. While his sister was a very young author writing her own stories at 6, Tru struggled with it. While his sister was filling out her handwriting book in a few weeks, Tru struggled with it. At first I wasn’t sure what to do about what I was seeing. I wondered why something could come so easily to one twin and yet be such a struggle for the other. I worried as all new homeschooling parents do, and I desperately tried to find a program that would work for him.
And then I decided one day that this was not worth it. He was not enjoying the process and neither was I. I put away all the writing curriculum I had while also putting away any preconceptions and hang ups I possessed. I decided that the early years were more important than any curriculum or standards, and as I look back I am very content with the way our beginning years looked. They were relaxed, care-free, and yet full of so many learning opportunities that I was not worried by the lack of written output that went along with those years. Truffaut was learning in a way that was meaningful and inspiring to him and that was all that mattered.
Then suddenly I found myself facing the transition years, those years right before high school when, as a homeschool parent, I felt a pressure that I hadn’t felt in a long time. How was I going to get my soon-to-be teenage son writing in a way that would reflect the student he was? What could I do to set him in the right direction?
At this point, I felt the time was right for a program that would hold both our hands as we transitioned to a formal writing curriculum. After spending too much time on the internet looking at samples I decided to go with IEW for the first step on his journey to becoming a confident writer. I chose IEW because it seemed like a perfect match for someone who struggled with writing as it gave step-by-step instructions on partaking in the writing process. It was a perfect match for my son in the beginning, and we ended up using it for about 6 months. We didn’t stick with it for very long because it became tedious and boring, and I wanted my son to grow as a writer which I didn’t see happening with IEW. It was, however, the right choice for a first step, and through it I did achieve my goal of helping Truffaut to understand how to write.
Next we moved to Writing with Skill, a program by Susan Wise Bauer. It is part of her classical writing series that starts with Writing with Ease. The program is recommended for fifth grade and up and is very rigorous. Tru and I used the first ten weeks of it at this point, and we hated every minute of it. It is a difficult program that takes time to figure out for both the student and the parent. Every time I dragged the books out we would both moan, but we did it. And I saw a great progress unfold in Tru’s ability to write academically, and he also felt more confident about the process.
We stopped after 10 weeks to work on creative writing as he needed a break from the academic side. This is where Tru’s writing really took off. I knew that he needed support in this area. I couldn’t just send him off and say write something because he still lacked confidence and had trouble getting his ideas and thoughts down on paper. Because of this I decided to make writing a family affair with all three of my children and myself working together.
The kids and I worked on writing in several different ways. We started with online writing prompts that were very enjoyable to respond to.
We would all read the prompt and then write for fifteen minutes. After that we would share what we had written. The sharing of our writing was the best part and we usually all got a good laugh from it. (You can read more about this idea here and see the writing prompts we used here.) Soon we were writing our own prompts for others to use.
My daughter was the one who came up with this idea, and it was great. It was another form of creative writing and the prompt became almost as important as the response.
The next step the kids took was to write stories together using Google Drive. I am happy to say that this step did not involve me at all. The kids came up with this writing game all on their own. How it works is that one person writes a few lines in Google drive, then the others will add to it. If someone doesn’t like what the other writes, there will be a debate and then revisions take place. Also, if someone misspells something or if their grammar is wrong the others will correct. It is this editing that helped Tru immensely, and it is the sharing of ideas that motivated him.
The last component that contributed to enriching his creative writing was RPG Maker. RPG Maker is a program that allows one to make their own role playing games. It is perfect for someone who loves video games, programming, and storytelling. When Truffaut first started working with RPG Maker I wasn’t expecting much, but I was wrong. He took off with it and began making very complicated games that included accomplished storylines. As of right now, he has made over 30 RPG games and all of them include a storyline. Right now he is working on a comedy game called Law and Disorder about a young obscure lawyer who makes a name for herself in the courtroom. RPG Maker is one of the main catalysts that pushed him on the path to becoming a strong writer.
After quite a lot of time working on creative writing we transitioned back to academic writing. At this point Truffaut was 14. We dragged out Writing With Skill again and worked through the whole book. Again it was tedious and frustrating, but we stuck through it even when we didn’t want to. When he finished the book we celebrated. It was a major accomplishment, and I could see he was more confident in his academic writing than ever before.
I followed Writing With Skill up with The Lively Art of Writing, which is a very helpful and affordable book on writing. In addition Tru took an online class at Bravewriter to cement everything he had learned up to that point. After this he began taking more and more online classes, and he has gone on to become a very proficient writer who knows how to put an essay together, write a strong thesis, analyze various materials, cite sources, and write a conclusion. If you were to read some of his essays today you would never think that he once struggled to even get a single sentence down on paper.
As for his creative writing Truffaut just completed a short horror story called The Radio Man that “explores the fragility of the human psyche in relation to traumatic memories of the past.” He is currently working on the editing process on this story (an area we have just started to tackle) and then he hopes to write more short stories which format he really enjoys at the moment.
He has also begun thinking about majoring in writing in college. It is one of a few different majors he is pondering at the moment. When he came to me to discuss this I was slightly shocked. I pondered how far he has come over these past few years, how much frustration he had overcome, and how many times he and I both felt that we couldn’t do this. I am writing to tell all those who have struggling writers you can do this. It takes time and you have to find the right programs (including ones that are fun to do) but it will happen. Naturally, with practice and determination, your struggling writer will one day discover their own abilities, their own voice.
Jill Harper is a homeschool consultant aiding families on their homeschool journey. She has a bachelors in film studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara and completed the multi-subject credentialing program from National University. Jill has been homeschooling her three children for over 12 years and has been blogging about creative homeschooling and her own journey at TAD Town. You can follow Jill on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.