So, my 11-year son has just written his first literature work yesterday: A short fantasy story about werewolves in a forest chased by a group of courageous men. Half-full of mistakes of all kinds, still it seems that he is getting the taste of writing.

The problem is either he is very confident of his work or he is too lazy to improve it; he refuses to correct his mistakes. Though he looks forward to my praise, which I surely do, he gets bored every time I try to outline his flaws in the story.

How can I show him the right way to do it without making him feel obliged to, encouraging him in the same time to do better?

Note: This is my first post and I do not know if this question is posted in the right place. If it isn't, please tell me where to post it.

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    When you say "mistakes" are you talking about spelling and grammar? or character and plot? – wetcircuit Nov 8 at 13:24
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    I think mistakes is also a bit of a harse assessment. It is his first writing. of course things will not turn out perfect. If he takes your criticism the wrong way you are either telling him the wrong things to motivate him or he needs to be shown things can be written differently. I cannot imagine him having read any hard literature at that age (maybe i am wrong though) but an introduction to reading is a good start if he wants to learn how to write. But then again he might just only look for some attention. – Totumus Maximus Nov 8 at 13:55
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    I think this is more of a parenting issue, than a writing issue - but you're here now, so let's see what happens... – Strawberry Nov 8 at 15:25
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    Agree with @Strawberry. The best answer I can come up with is There's a limit to how much spinach you can get an 11 year old to eat…. It's his first draft, he's trying to please someone else, and the endgoal was probably a bit vague – these are issues that honestly hit ALL writers. Things that help all writers include: life experience, writing experience, having a clear goal, finding readers who are interested…. Also the process of inventing a story can feel more like "play" while fixing the story can feel more like "work", but again the issue of editing hits some adult writers too. – wetcircuit Nov 8 at 16:03
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    Writing is fun. Rewriting what an editor doesn't like is much less so. – David Thornley Nov 8 at 22:28

10 Answers 10

What is "the right way"? Why do you consider it better than some other way to write a story? What do you consider "mistakes"?

You can ask your son about why he has made certain stylistic choices or plot choices, but at the end of the day, those are his choices to make. You can criticise aspects of the story that you feel are unoriginal, or have unfortunate implications, or do not work in your opinion for some other reasons. But those are not "mistakes" - those are artistic choices that you disagree with.

Spelling and grammar mistakes are not relevant either - they are secondary to the act of creation. You can point out that a certain word is spelled a certain way, but you shouldn't be focusing on that. Spelling and grammar are skills that your son will learn with time, regardless of whether he develops his writing skill or not. Going over those too much at this stage is focusing on minutiae, and ignoring the more important act of creating a story. In your son's place, I would be very much disappointed if I presented someone a story, and that's all they could see.

Really, I don't think that you should criticise. Just as you wouldn't criticise a child's painting for being "derivative" or for "lacking in expression". Instead, be specific with your praise. Don't say "this is very good". Mention instead what you particularly liked about the story - what you thought was original and interesting, expressive, etc.

And as @TotumusMaximus says, let your son read books in the genres that interest him, so that he may learn by observing the Masters.

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    A really good answer. It's good to note that "being specific with praises" is helpful whenever giving feedback, regardless the age of the author. Also, the child will have plenty of time to grow as a writer, if he likes the craft. Chances are that in a few months he will regard his earlier works as naive. – Liquid Nov 8 at 13:40
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    I'll second this answer; the only thing I would add is that, along with praise, you can ask a question (and I'd limit this to one) about a flaw, as if you are just curious. "How did Michael get into the locked car?" ... "Um, he had a key!" ... "Okay! That's a good story!" -- In truth it may not make sense, but that isn't the point. The point of asking is to gently point out one story flaw, to encourage self-inspection next time for "what makes sense." I say limit it to one because beyond that, it feels like criticism, not curiosity. Let this one go, so there will be a next one. – Amadeus Nov 8 at 14:42
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    To add to this: these are the artistic choices of an 11-year-old, based on how they think. As they grow up, they will almost certainly start making "better" artistic choices (and, as the other answer suggests, be more open to suggestions), but you can't force this on them. The main goal at this point should be to encourage them to just keep writing, not turn them into a top-selling author ASAP. – NotThatGuy Nov 10 at 23:38
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    By analogy, think of your son's first drawings. It's likely they were extremely flawed, but charming and wonderful to see, nonetheless. Another analogy - imagine your son is learning guitar. Does someone learning how to play a barre chord really need to be told that it doesn't sound great? – Max Williams Nov 12 at 16:49

Assuming this isn't a school assignment, subject to a grade, I think your most effective approach right now is just to encourage him in his writing rather than trying to improve it. This is a good time and age to explore his creativity. When he becomes older and starts to have ambitions for his work, he will become more open to suggestions for making it better.

One of the reasons for this advice is that he is likely to have structured writing activities in school. He will be able to learn good writing habits there. Writing on his own at home is a good sign, and should be encouraged as a fun activity rather than a duty. It is all too easy to discourage a young child's creativity, even when that is not your intention.

It's also worth noting that styles and tastes change from generation to generation. It is possible that what appears as flaws to you will be approved and celebrated by his peers. Again, it might be different if this was aimed at publication, or a grade, but in this case I would reserve your critique unless he specifically asks for it.

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    Definitely. As a child I'd have been thoroughly demoralised if my parents first reaction to me showing them something I was proud of was to undermine it with nitpicking. Push for more, encourage the expression and he'll pick up on his own mistakes over time. – Ruadhan2300 Nov 9 at 8:59
  • Echoing @Ruadhan2300. I very nearly quit creating at all because of critiques that I didn't ask for when I was just starting out, and that was from a peer in high school. If it had happened from a parent when I was in elementary school(?), I would have been completely crushed and would have definitely given up on it altogether. – L.S. Cooper Nov 12 at 19:14

Try giving him some books to read about the subject he wrote about. You will soon find out if he is really interested in the stories or if it was just something he used to try and get your attention. Reading about how other authors handle these stories might give him some learning experience. And maybe when he tries to write again he will keep this other stories in mind and compare.

You can't pretty much force him to learn anything. The first step to help him is to keep him interested by letting him read.

Though he looks forward to my praise, which I surely do, he gets bored every time I try to outline his flaws in the story.

  • That's pretty standard 11-year-old-boy behavior. I peeked at their handbook recently and there's a whole section on how to keep your parents from bugging you about stuff you don't want to do. I bet you'd get the same bored look if you were to point out mistakes in his math homework.

  • As a new writer, he might be feeling especially defensive about his story. He might feel that making the corrections you've pointed out will make the story a little less his and a little more yours.

  • At some point in the future, separate from this story, have a discussion about what editors do, i.e. they help writers make what they mean to say clear to readers. Most writers have editors that give them good, honest feedback on all aspects of their work, from plots and themes to spelling and grammar. Assure him that despite that, it's still the author's story, not the editor's.

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    It's pretty standard 11-year-old behavior. Has nothing to do with gender. – Cyn Nov 8 at 22:16
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    @Cyn You probably have a larger data set than I do. – Caleb Nov 9 at 4:55
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    Indeed. As you have mentioned, I noticed this very reaction; he felt like I was to take his own toy from him. 3rd point is actually helpful, I myself did not know what editors are hired for. – Ali_Habeeb Nov 12 at 19:28

Leave the corrections to his teachers, that's what they're for. The best you can do as his parent is encourage creative habits.

Talking from personal experience; around his age I wrote my first short story. It was horrible: no plot, plenty of spelling and grammatical errors, etc. But it ignited my love for writing. I honestly believe it was because neither my parents nor teacher overly criticized the errors that I took the time to read more and to pay more attention in English classes. I would not call myself a great writer, but have some published short stories, and I find it a great hobby.

As others have said, let him know what you like about it and ask specific questions (always show interest in their interests). Bolster his confidence, he'll learn in higher classes what to do right and wrong in this art. That's only his first draft, eventually he'll want to perfect it on his own. This time period is for growth.

Now that you know how you son reacts to criticism, why not just praise him but perhaps occassionaly mention one thing that could have made it a better story? Maybe this criticism will be taken on board for the next story he writes for you?

What you definately don't want to do is to discourage him at this early stage, as to be honest, most of his work is disposable practice. Ask yourself whether you'd be critical of a painting he'd spent time making for you? Probably not.

My own daughter is in a similar position. She absolutely loves the process of writing and producing a piece of work with illustrations for me to read, but like your son, when she'd finished, she's finished!

You have already received very valuable inputs from the community, however, I would like to add my 50 cents to it.

I am a semi-professional writer, web developing and civil engineering being my primary profession. As a high school kid, I used to jot down my fantasies in my journal which probably were full of grammatical errors and semantic abuse. They were perfect to my own eyes though.

Now after a decade, I became a civil engineer (full time) and a web developer (part-time). Two years back, I revisited my old stuff and found my journal book. As I read through my own scribbled sentences I realized how wonderful my plots and stories were and how easily I could correct them. I did just that! I needed no professional editor to do it for me and I got it published in 6 months.

I would say, encourage and advice him but don't be abrupt with your advice or rectifications. There is a probability that you would unknowingly discourage or make him feel that his work is not being appreciated and isn't worth continuing.

His self-confidence will take him to a higher ground when the time is right. There are many matured writers who aren't confident enough of their works and goes around seeking feedbacks which sometimes just kicks back!

NB: Get him involved in writing social site groups. It would help him beyond your comprehension. We have a 12-year-old girl in our facebook group who is releasing her debut fictional novel this month!

  • Writing in helping social groups is worth taken in mind. After all, he will hear from others about their experiences. Thanks for sharing your own with us. – Ali_Habeeb Nov 12 at 19:07

Since he is 11, he probably has not even studied grammar explicitly in school (that's 6th grade). he has probably studied sentence structure and so it would be ok to correct a fragmented sentence but I would not bother trying to correct a comma splice. It is not that helpful to correct something that he is doing wrong if there is very little chance of him knowing it is wrong. And as for character and plot mistakes, that would also be beyond the scope of 5th-grade writing. In order to not burn him out on writing, accept it for what it is: the work of a child. And it sounds like it was a longer story than most 5th-graders would be willing to write. Correct only those issues that he has been properly taught to correct himself.

P.S. grammar is taught throughout middle school starting in second grade and does not stop until high school and sometimes college. based on his age I would assume (this varies by school or teaching method) that he should know:

basic sentence structure: subject vs. predicate
basic tenses: past vs. present
basic word types: noun vs. pronoun vs. adjective
end of sentence punctuation: . vs. ? vs. !

and that is about it. in 6th-grade he would learn:

comma usage
clauses
the spelling of commonly misspelled words
lots of vocabulary
how to properly check a paper for basic grammatical errors

and a more thorough in-depth review of the previously covered subjects.

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    How grammar is taught would vary by country and by language. – Galastel Nov 9 at 20:56

I would imagine his reactions have more to do with being 11 than with any long-term issues. I would focus on giving praise and encouraging more writing; mastery will come with practice, and if he becomes discouraged by negative feedback, he may very well give up. Considering that you are his parent, unless he asks for constructive critique, I would not offer it. Odds are good that he isn't looking for that sort of feedback, but for the usually sort of parental feedback of "Oh, this is great, I especially loved XYZ, I'm so proud of you for finishing this!"

Unrequested critiques can be annoying to anyone, but especially for a child, I would be extremely careful. Does his story need help? Almost certainly. Everything I wrote at that age was a pile of tropey, unenjoyable garbage. But unless he asks for a critique, I would err on the side of assuming that he is just looking for encouragement and support.

The best way to ensure that your son gets better at writing fiction is to ensure he keeps writing. The best way to do that is to make sure he doesn't get discouraged.

Excellent question! I can understand where folks are coming from when they caution against giving too much feedback on the mistakes, but as an English teacher, I also know how important it is to help kids improve their writing. A great plot and great ideas only go so far if they're overshadowed by glaring errors - especially if those errors make the writing indecipherable in certain places.

That said, I'd echo a few things folks have already mentioned. Focus most on positive, specific feedback: I love the way you keep me guessing until the end! or The description of this character/scene is so detailed, I can imagine it perfectly! I'd also echo the sentiment from @Galastel - even if the plot isn't to your liking, I'd only offer constructive feedback on that if there's something that genuinely doesn't make sense.

When it comes to feedback on the actual writing mistakes, my biggest suggestion would be to offer limited feedback, and then more as desired. He'll run into natural obstacles if there are a lot of errors - friends won't get/like the story, teachers will offer feedback, etc. Encouraging and praising the writing in general is probably the healthiest thing you can do to keep him inspired. And I'll definitely echo those who have suggested encouraging reading! I came to be a passable writer simply because I read A LOT.

The other thing to realize is that (at least where I live) kids learn various writing skills in a sort of continuum that progresses from grade to grade, so certain skills, grammatical concepts, sentence complexities, etc. may just be something to work toward. Personally, if you want to give a little constructive feedback, I'd just tackle the issues you feel are the most problematic and/or the ones that impact readability the most. I try to explain from the viewpoint of a reader who really wants to fully enjoy the story - targeting issues that interfere with that: "Wow, this section is SO exciting! I was a little confused here because all of these different sentences run together, but I think I got it... do you think we could figure out how to split them up a little?"

So cool that your kiddo is already writing, and so cool that you're trying to do your best to encourage that! There's no right answer, but hopefully, the variety of great feedback you've received will help a little. :)

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