Saturday, February 28, 2015

Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook by Ellen Potter, Anne Mazer, Matt Phelan (Illustrator)

Good grief. I have 10 pages of notes on this book. Don't worry, I won't put you to bed with a long review, but the great phrases, advice, and lesson ideas had me paraphrasing oodles of sections. Speaking of "oodles," it is a word I've been hooked on lately. Go ahead, say the word. Now get a good gob of spit in the back of your throat and say it like a five-year-old blowing bubbles. My grandson reminded me of this fun bubble-spit game. This book advises to beware of certain "writing tics" such as my "oodles" fixation when I write book reviews (twitch, twitch). Using the same word over and over gives sentence structures excess baggage that threaten to annoy the reader and be repetitive. What is terrific about this book is that it gives clear instructions on how-to write, breaking steps into manageable bites that are marinated heavily with humor. Okay. That might be a bit much on the metaphor. I'll go back and reread the metaphor/simile chapter. Writing prompts are given at the end of chapters along with some thought-provoking asides on writing traps that teachers can avoid when teaching writing.

The book starts with the basics, some I recognized in our school's writing curriculum and others are advice from two authors that have spent years honing their writers craft. One of their criticisms of schools is that the focus is on the product and not the process and that product needs to be "good." This made me think of other subject areas that do focus on process. One of the strengths of STEM programming in schools is it focuses on the design process. I don't teach in the classroom but I do know that the creative writing units have suffered in the latest push toward nonfiction writing. Another criticism is directed toward teachers that praise descriptive writing while discouraging plain, direct writing. One of the author's is drawing from negative experiences her son had with classroom teachers that did not like his direct writing. More importantly, both authors stress not criticizing first drafts. They need to be messy and teachers need to point out the positive and guide the writing process. Later drafts can be critiqued. This book isn't directed at teachers, by the way. It is just what I got out of it as an educator.

Writing is hard work. Both authors reiterate this with Anne Mazer describing it at times as I slam "my head down on my desk and moan, 'This is hard!' Then I have a strawberry Twizzler and feel a little better." Both Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter use similar alternating voices that are funny and engaging. Students will like the short chapters and fast pacing. Some adult readers might want more depth on topics, but I personally liked the succinctness of the text.

The handbook had me reflecting on my own writing process of tooling out book reviews month after month. I've been doing this for three years and many of their processes apply to my nonfiction writing. I started writing reviews because I kept forgetting books during booktalks with students. When you read oodles (sorry, I couldn't resist) of books each year it is easy to forget them. What has changed is now I'm trying to study the writing craft and it is making me better at book discussions with classes. I now have the habit of reading on average two hours and writing one hour every day. I squeeze it in throughout the day in bits and pieces, doing the bulk on the weekends. The authors talk about developing habits and enjoying the process. What I really like is the freedom that comes just doing something for myself with no grade or criticism tied to it. In Journalism school they ripped our pieces up one side and down the other. It discouraged me and drowned my love for writing. Book review writing is resuscitating the joy that was there as a teenager and freeing me to experiment with voice. I'm not afraid in this forum. No more excuses for not writing!

5 Smileys

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