3 Truths about Writing: What I Learned Reading Stories by Middle Schoolers

On Friday, I was able to help out at the Southern Illinois A.C.E. Junior Convention as a writing judge. I’d judged last year as well and was delighted to participate again. I go and read the kids’ stories, use a grading rubric to score the entries, and finally write some comments for each student. And for me, those comments carry the most weight. At least, if these middle schoolers are anything like I was as a kid, the number score matters, but the judge’s words will live in their memory for all eternity (or a few months, anyway).

I remember being that age and sitting cross-legged on the couch typing away at my dad’s heavy old laptop, trying to imitate the things I loved about my favorite stories. Sometimes I thought I’d written something really great—a beautiful description or exciting plot twist. But, more often, I despaired of ever writing a decent sentence.

I never would’ve had the confidence or perseverance to keep writing if I hadn’t had a supportive family and friends who patiently read my writing and cheered me on and wise teachers who praised what I did well and pointed out what needed to change. They made all the difference.

So when I have the chance to read what kids have written and give them feedback, I don’t want to take that responsibility lightly. Last Friday, I did my best to encourage and guide, and I hope my words touched each child for good. But while I was pondering what to say to each student, their stories were speaking to me, in ways I didn’t fully recognize at the moment. But today, reflecting, I think I pinpointed three truths about writing that these kids helped me remember.

3 Truths About Writing

Windows on the World

Each writer sees the world through a different window. These were kids from southern Illinois, right? All about the same age, all attending Christian schools. But we traveled from Montana to Louisiana in their stories, from kitchens to hospitals, through big and small families. We experienced betrayal, compassion, abandonment, hope, faithfulness. I have no idea what inspired each story, but every one of these students had something individual to contribute to our picture of the world.

If you, or maybe your child, likes to write but doubts whether you have anything worth saying that hasn’t already been said, don’t believe it. Your unique personhood—your values, upbringing, experience, personality—gives you a view of life that no one else has. That’s worth sharing.

Individual Strengths

I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece of writing, even by a child, that didn’t have some strongpoint, or something with the potential to become a strongpoint. These students were young writers, and of course their writing had weaknesses. But each story also had its strengths. One student described details well, another used strong verbs. Sure, each writer had areas to improve on, and even their strengths could be developed further. But I think that’s true for every writer, young or old, unpublished or world-renowned (at least I can say it’s true for me).

So if you, like me (especially as a kid), sometimes feel like what you’ve written is no good, don’t believe it. Every word you write is developing your skill as a writer, even if the words aren’t great yet. And even our imperfect stories (i.e., all stories) have a strongpoint, whether it’s an interesting character, or good spelling, or an inspirational theme, or that one paragraph on page eight that uses good words to describe the sunset.

Continual Growth

This year I enjoyed judging even more than last year because one student resubmitted, and I noticed improvement. As I read one of this year’s short stories, I began to recognize the writing style, and I realized that this same student had entered a short story last year. I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d told the writer before, but I remembered general weaknesses and strengths I’d observed then. And, reading their story this year, I saw that the writer had grown. Yes, they still had things to work on, as I do in my writing. But they had made visible progress, in just one year.

If you ever feel like giving up, don’t. Developing the art of writing sometimes feels like a long, long process, and it’s easy to get lost in all the things we think we’re doing wrong. But take small, steady steps, keep practicing, and you will get better.

Do these three truths about writing resound with you? What other, similar principles have you discovered about the writing process?

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