Thursday, October 4, 2012

An Argument Against Outlines

So, a friend asked me to help her son with his writing.  He's eleven years old and he already has writer's block.  No surprise.  The school method is to teach the kids to write outlines at the start, before they even get a good flow of words going.  Then, they're checking their spelling and grammar. When are they supposed to get creative in all that? 

The easiest way to break writer's block isn't to ask a kid to look at what's wrong with his writing.  It isn't to spend half of his writing time looking in a dictionary for the right spelling or a bigger word.  It isn't to drag the whole process out into a queasy sphincter-tightening process that seems interminable and produces four mind-numbingly boring sentences.

I just asked my husband, Mike, if he ever used an outline. 

"I don't write stories," he said. 

"Yeah, I know.  You're a manager.  You write memos and procedures.  Do you start with an outline?"

"No.  I just start writing and then try to organize it when I've said everything I want to say."

There you have it. 

Sometimes priming the well can get the writing loosened up.  Start with a good subject.  So I looked up writing prompts to see if there were any good ideas on some of the educational websites.  Oh my God!  Most of these were the kind of thing that makes a boy tune out entirely.  Hell, they made my eyes roll into the back of my head.  You could kill me with the boredom and correctness of it all.

Here's one:  Good habits improve our physical, psychological and financial health.  Select one of your good habits and persuade others to make that habit a part of their lives. 

I think you'd get more of a response if you tried this instead.  You want to go to the Zombie Thriller Night.  You want as many friends to meet you there as you can.  Write about why your friends should come with you and what will happen there.

Another of the correct prompts says this:  What kind of job do you want to do and why?

And another: Tell about a time when your parents were right. 

No wonder these kids don't want to write.  The subject is just so .... bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv ggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg mmmmmmmmmm                                     cccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccc

I just fell asleep with my head on the keyboard, sorry.

Instead, they need to ask kids questions like: You're hanging from a cliff by the middle finger on your left hand.  Your shirt is caught on a root and has begun to tear.  It's all because of your arch nemesis, Phantom.  How did you get into this predicament and how will you get yourself out?

There's a venomous spider slowly dropping down over your best friends head, but he's fallen twenty-five feet down onto a narrow ledge of a cliff. You only have a pocket knife, a match, eighteen feet of rope, a roll of duct tape, and a single carabiner.  How will you rescue him? 

Describe a day in your life if you had a billion dollars.

Write out an argument for why your parents should let you take sky diving lessons, go dirt bike racing, or go white water rafting.  You name the activity.

Why are all of these prompts about lecturing a kid to do the right thing, become responsible, get a job?  Are you worried that you'll raise a bunch of adrenaline-junkie anarchists? Can't they just be kids for a while?  Can't you let their imaginations float up instead of weighing them down with all this ballast?

It just seems to me there's a better way.  I hate outlines. 

Thank you for listening, jules

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