Some of the best advice you can give student writers is also some of the easiest for them to carry through on: to write better, they should read better.
Read better, as in: Read more. Read widely. Read outside their usual reading “type.” Read carefully. Read for fun.
Read ﬁrst for story, and then read as backseat writers.
I’ll warn you that there is a risk in “backseat writing,” in second-guessing the author’s decisions without ﬁrst allowing ourselves to savor their story. If we read only to analyze every decision the author made, it can strip all the pleasure out of the reading experience. So I encourage students to put the story ﬁrst, simply asking themselves if the book worked for them on the most elementary level: did the act of reading it bring them a payoff of some kind? Did reading the book give them an adrenaline rush or warm fuzzy feelings or make them cry or fall in love? Did it cause them to examine their world in a whole new way, or illuminate something about their life?
If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then after savoring for a while, I challenge them to think as a backseat writer. What tricks do they think the author used to accomplish those reactions? Are they tricks they could try in their own writing? How would the story be different if the writer had made different choices? Changed point of view? Used a different setting? Given the character a different motivation? Pointed the plot in a different direction?
It’s that time of year when “best of the year” book lists and children’s and young adult book awards are dissected and debated and detailed on blogs far and wide. In other words, it’s the perfect time to easily steer your young writers towards a whole year full of great reading. Ask them to pick up books—any good books will do—and then read them like backseat writers.
Before they know it, they’ll be teaching themselves how to drive.