As an author who’s regularly asked to visit schools for talks and workshops, I have one main question for educators: Who am I talking to?
I find that the candidates for small group workshops tend to be made up of what I like to call the Keen Beans – kids who LOVE writing and simply can’t get enough of it. Most of the Keen Beans are writing their own novels by the time they’re eight.
Large group workshops, however, are a different matter. There’ll be one or two Keen Beans – answering all the questions for me – and 28 kids who simply stare at me as though I have two heads if I start talking about plots or characters or, heaven forbid, paragraphs.
This crew perks up immeasurably, however, when I mention superpowers. In particular, writing superpowers – and the fact that everyone has one.
They get even more excited when I tell them that I’m going to help them find their own writing superpower.
What is a writing superpower?
A writing superpower is a special strength that you bring to your writing. Everyone’s got one, but they’re not always what you might imagine. It’s not necessarily about the way that you use words, though this, of course, is part of it. It’s more about where you get your ideas from and what you do with those ideas. It’s about whether or not you can get to The End of your story, pushing through when it gets hard. Sometimes it’s about the ability to plan your story out, taking it logical step by logical step, and sometimes, for other people, it’s more about huge leaps, pushing an idea as far as it will go.
There are 10 writing superpowers
- X-Ray Vision: These kids are great at describing what they see. They think in pictures, and are often good at drawing as well. Encourage them to imagine a scene in their heads and simply write down what they see.
- Supersonic hearing: This is one of my superpowers, and is a great source of not only story ideas, but natural-sounding dialogue. Lots of writers I know are eavesdroppers, and I encourage kids to look for story ideas in the daily conversations around them. Mum telling stories about the ‘olden days’ might be a story starter, as might two younger kids in the playground talking about how cool it would be to fly to the moon.
- The ability to leap: While it’s important that kids learn to plan a story, those Keen Beans who can start with an idea and a sentence and then follow the story to the end have a superpower. It’s a crazy way to write (I know because I do it) and can go horribly wrong, but if you have a Keen Bean who works this way, encourage them to push their idea as far as they can – as long as they finish the story.
- Endurance: If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about writing in the many years that I’ve been doing it, it’s this: most people are really good starters. But the ones who get really good at writing have a very special superpower – they keep going until they finish the story. Kids who finish are superheroes and should be treated as such.
- Analytical thinking: Kids who are good at maths often think they’re not good at writing, but that problem solving ability they have can be a writing superpower. When I talk about this superpower, I use Ironman as an example. People who are plotters and planners make up a huge proportion of published authors for one simple reason: they finish their novels. When you have a logical blueprint, you never end up with your hero stuck in a hole with no way to get out (as once happened to me).
- Memory: In The Mapmaker Chronicles, my hero Quinn has a photographic memory, which I think is a writing superpower. Kids who have good memories are able to recall not just the things that happened to them, but how they felt about those things. This is indispensable not only for coming up with story ideas, but for using small details to make the stories feel real. I encourage all kids to keep a journal or diary to help develop this superpower.
- The ability to shrink and expand at will: While Ant Man is not often associated with writing, I use him as an example of the value of editing your work. He can shrink himself when he feels like it, or be larger than life. Writers who can do that to their work have a superpower – being able to go through your words and remove the stuff that’s not necessary, or add in details that are, is a rare skill. Kids who understand the importance of editing – and are good at it – are miles ahead.
- Spidey senses: By the time they get to grade four, most kids have heard that they need to use all five senses when they’re writing a story. But it’s a rare kid who actually does it. If you have a kid in your class who describes the salty taste of the air at the beach, or shows you humidity by describing the sweat rolling down a character’s arms and the damp stickiness of his clothes, you have a superhero right there.
- Batman’s voice: this is perhaps the greatest writing superpower of all. One of the questions I’m often asked in high school workshops is this: how do I stop myself from writing like John Green/ Suzanne Collins/ Rainbow Rowell? The only way to do it is to tap into your own writing voice, which is basically the way that you put things together – the words you choose, the sentences you use, the little jokes you put in. The best writers write like they talk – only better.
What does this have to do with Batman? Everyone has their own Batman Impersonation (mine is particularly impressive now that I’ve had to do it at countless workshops). We’re all trying to sound like Christian Bale or Michael Keaton or Adam West – and yet we all still sound different.
Writing is the same. We’re all writing a story, but the thing that makes the story special is our writing voice.
A kid who has developed his or her own writing voice is a superstar.
- Bravery: Writers who write what they think and feel, and are willing to let other people read it, are really, really brave. The best thing about this writing superpower is that it can be developed with time and practice.
My writing superpowers
And, in case you were wondering, when the kids ask me, I tell them I have three writing superpowers:
• I write faster than a speeding bullet
Writing professionally for years has given me the ability to get my thoughts on the page very quickly and to write lots and lots of words in short periods of time.
• I have my own, distinctive Batman voice
I write the way I speak, only better. If people who know you can hear your voice, hear you talking, when they read what you’ve written then you’re on the right track.
• I have supersonic hearing
Why do writing superpowers matter?
Every kid, even the ones who don’t think that writing is for them, can find something on this list that they’re good at – or can become good at (in the case of bravery, for instance).
I encourage kids to identify one writing superpower and use it to give them the confidence to keep writing. Because when you’re confident that you’ve got at least one thing going really well, then it’s much easier to take risks with writing and to try different things.
And, as we all know, the best way to improve writing is to keep writing.
*NB: This post first appeared on Big Ideas In Education, where I was a guest of the lovely Deborah McCallum, who is an author, writer and educator based in Ontario, Canada.