Saturday, April 2, 2011

3 Writing Lessons I Learned from an Elementary School Field Trip

dinosaurI was a chaperone all day Thursday for the 4th grade field trip to Raleigh, North Carolina, our state capital.

It was a long day, but a lot of fun.  The kids in my group were great. And I did learn a little along the way (and not just about state government.)

Lesson 1: Remember that our culture isn’t static.  Even small references to “modern” society can date our book. 

At one point in the trip, I was the traffic cop at the girls’ restroom—letting several in when several came out.  Or, at least, that was the general idea.  But no one was coming out of the restroom at all and soon I heard sounds of great consternation coming from within: “Mrs. Craig!  Mrs. Craig!”

I ran in, thinking the worst.  The girls were standing there with soap dripping from their hands.  “The sinks are all broken!” they cried out.

Well, no, they weren’t.  But the plumbing in this particular building was from the 1960s.  These were faucets you had to turn.  And there was a hot faucet and a cold faucet.  These girls—now y’all, this shocks me too—were expecting to hold their hands under the faucet and have the water automatically turn on.  If the faucet wasn’t a Delta style or a lever style or didn’t automatically turn on, then they didn’t know how to work them. 

This is the generation we’re writing for, too.  And their kids. Because our books will live forever in digital format.

Lesson 2: Be willing to change our game plan to make the reader’s experience better.

We were touring our state’s Museum of Natural Science.  I had 6 kids in my group and 4 floors of the museum to tour in about 1 hour.  Everyone else had started on the bottom floor to work their way up, so I started at the top to work our way down.

We’d seen the butterfly room, the arthropod zoo, the dinosaur exhibit, the mountains-to-the-sea exhibit, and were just heading to the escalator to see the 1st floor exhibit last.  Another adult came up, “Did your group see the reptiles on the 3rd floor?  There are staffers there who are letting the kids touch the snakes.”

Well, of course we went back upstairs. The children just loved those snakes.  Between petting the snakes and washing our hands afterward, we never did tour the first floor.  But the snakes were the highlight of the trip for the children, as they told their parents, later. 

There might be a point in our book where an idea comes to us on improving our book for our readers. These ideas usually come to me in the third quarter of my first draft.  Sometimes this results in a drastic plot restructuring. It can be a lot of work to change the game plan, but ultimately, it’s worth it for the readers.

Lesson 3:  Remember our audience.

It was the very end of a long day of touring.  We’d been to 2 museums, the capitol building, and were finally in the legislative building. 

The children were exhausted and the tour guide was being very detailed about the legislative building design and cost. (The building was a sort of 1960s style Art Deco Revival.) She was using big words that I likely wouldn’t even write, since I have a folksy voice in my books.  The children, literally, were falling asleep—nodding off as she droned on.

She wasn’t engaging the children.  She wasn’t making the experience interesting or fun for them.  So…she lost them. 

When we’re writing a book, it’s fine to use academic language—if we’re writing for academics or writing a textbook.  But a more conversational, engaging style works better for many books.  We want our readers to enjoy themselves enough to keep reading, after all.

I learned a whole lot of other stuff, too.  If you give a 9 year old girl a digital camera, she’ll take a picture of just about everything in a museum. :)

Have you made any discoveries about writing lately? 


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