Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Roughing a First Draft

An important part of making writing fun is getting rid of the dread, making the activity unexpected and engaging and opening a world of expression for your child. We've discussed a great deal about brainstorming, and now it's time to head into the first draft.

Really, the first draft is just a method to organize the brainstorm, nothing more. It should never be graded or slaughtered with that red pen. Typos, grammar errors, misspellings—they should all be safe in a first draft because nothing silences an idea like premature criticism.

A first draft is your child's opportunity to flesh out the skeleton of ideas he has accumulated through sketching and brainstorming. And it's supposed to be rough; thus, the name "rough draft."

A Writer's Vulnerability
The best writing happens when we open ourselves to others and become vulnerable. For a child approaching this scary moment of transparency for the first time, we have to create an atmosphere of safety. Your child may refuse to write because, bottom-line, he's afraid. Allow the rough draft to be his private laboratory for experimentation. Assure him that you will not read it, and provide him with the opportunity to think and feel and imagine with complete freedom, even from the grammar and spelling (those will come later).

Most likely, as your child becomes more comfortable with the process, he'll also become more confident and less protective. But even professional writers guard those initial rough starts and only share their earliest drafts with the most intense caution. Respect the vulnerability that comes with writing and, within reason, allow your child to embellish and perfect his final product before the big reveal.

If there is an instance when you must inspect an early draft, be most respectful and supportive.

A Teacher's Place
Critique is an essential part of teaching any subject or skill, and the time for the grading pen will come. The moment for circling the misspellings and grammar errors will arrive and most definitely has a leading role in the final stages. But for now, keep the criticism very light, even to the point of avoiding it all together. What do you look for in a rough draft?
  1. Check for completion. Depending on the grade level or ability of the student, this could be a required length or minimum, or it could be just a checkmark that a page with written text does exist.
  2. Check for main ideas. For more advanced students, you could require the child to underline for you the key idea for the future paper—the thesis. Even then, assure the student that you are only reading the sentence that is underlined (and it should be just one sentence). Then, you could offer suggestions on that one sentence. Is it concise? What challenges will he face with this topic and this approach? What advice can you offer to make either the sentence or the concept better? But remember, your critique should only go as far as that one sentence; the rough draft is really no more than an enlarged brainstorm.
  3. Check for structure. In most cases, it's too early to pay much attention to structure. But not every genre is constructed around a written thesis. For an advanced student writing a fiction story or narrative, you could require to have your student label his rough draft with the structure you are teaching. Have him write those labels in the margin of his draft, and assure him that you are only looking at those labels and the proportions of the paper—not reading every word. As with the thesis, you can offer suggestions for future adjustments to the proportion: climax seems to be a little late in the paper or too early; denouement is lengthy; etc.
In most cases, you could limit your involvement to merely checking for completion. Limiting your input at the rough draft stage will do a couple of things for you as the teacher, too. For one, it will save you a considerable amount of grading time; you'll only have to devote your full energy to one final draft. Also, limiting your critique at the early stages will prevent you from feeling like you are writing your child's paper for him.

The key to making writing less of a drudgery is minimizing the dread and the fear that comes with bearing your soul to the world. Allowing rough drafts to be a safe place for your child to learn the process of writing will, hopefully, free up some of those beautiful, timid ideas. And eliminating your dread of grading will give you both the freedom to enjoy the creative journey.

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