The first piece of mine to be officially published was a letter to the editor of the Bemidji, Minnesota newspaper. Seeing my name in print cemented my dream of becoming a writer. I immediately started perfecting my autograph, adding extra loops and whorls to make it as fancy as possible because in my 5th-grade mind, famous authors should distinguish themselves that way. I lay in bed at night listening to the theme song of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” imagining the amusing answers I would give Johnny when he someday interviewed me as a bestselling author.
I’ve traveled a long and winding road as a writer since then. Among the things I’ve learned is the fact that TV appearances are going to be sparse. And I should have worked to simplify my autograph instead of gussying it up—all those loops wear out my hand out when I’m signing my books!
Newspapers have faced as many changes as I have in that time. But the format still works as a fantastic way to engage young writers. For the last three years, I’ve been mentoring a girls’ writing group. This season, they choose the creation of a newspaper as their big project, and it’s proven to be a goldmine for writing lessons of all sorts. We’ve covered point of view, objectivity versus subjectivity, identifying your target audience, interview techniques, research, outlining, starting with a strong lead, descriptive details, and many other concepts that not only make for good journalism, but make for better writing in many forms.
Each girl is the editor of specific sections (sports, news, food, entertainment, travel) and also works as a reporter on a variety of articles. They’re designing ads and creating comic strips. We’ll begin photo research and layout soon.
And this past week, with them, I got a chance to revisit my own “breakthrough form”: a letter to the newspaper. We brainstormed an advice column format that was suitable for their newspaper’s target audience. Then each girl wrote a letter asking for advice (on behalf of an imaginary reader), I had them switch letters, and they each wrote an answer to one of their friends’ letters. You might not take it this far with your young writers, but for my group I also added another layer of complexity, and I had the girls write their letters as epistolary (letter) poems. If you haven’t written letter poems in your classroom, here’s a link to an IRA/NCTE website with further details about how to tackle this fun poetry activity.
The lesson for me? When the road is winding enough, you eventually end up back where you started.