A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
A couple of months ago I merrily agreed to write on the topic of “the worst writing advice” – now it comes to it, I find myself nervous. I’m playing with the topic to write a very personal piece.
“You must read lots of books to become a good writer.”
How can this possibly be the “worst writing advice”?
It’s surely the best writing advice?
Well, yes…mostly. Personally, I find it excellent advice – for me. I’ve always been a reader. My writing has been fed by decades of reading good writing by other authors. This is true for most writers and we try to get this message across; we want children to read, we want to pass on the joy and that is right. But I’m making a heartfelt plea for sensitivity about how we frame this advice. Why? Because I’ve seen at first-hand how paralysing this single well-meant sentence can be to children who struggle to read and yet, have stories bursting out of them. I co-write with my daughter, Honor. She is dyslexic and this was the piece of advice that almost threw her off writing. How could she do it? These people she admired all told her she couldn’t – because try as hard as she might (and she did, painfully hard) she couldn’t read “lots of books”. This counsel didn’t just frustrate her (there was so much frustration around reading), it frightened her.
Film scripts, play texts, poetry. the formatting of texts is important.
There was something she could do, and did do, and that was find stories everywhere. She listened to stories in audio and from people who read to her (I am painfully aware of how lucky we were that we could afford audiobooks and the time to read to her, many can’t). She found stories in plays and in poems. She actively watched performances on stage and on TV to see how the stories were structured. She honed her dialogue skills from performance and from properly listening to people around her; her descriptive skills from looking at scene setting and from looking around her (often while the rest of the family were looking down at a book). She took the most she could from every book that she did get through (she has much better recall of what she has read than I do) and there was no book snobbery – short books, illustrated books, fiction or not, comics. It is a harder path but it is a possible path.
Writers are asked for advice every day and, of course, we should give it. And our advice should be positive about the great pleasures of reading and writing. But we should be careful to explain that all we can do is say what works for us and – for the sake of the child in the class thinking “I can’t do that”, we should beware of “shoulds” and “musts” and convey the happy message that there are many ways to tell stories. “Learn as much as you can from other storytellers” might be a less intimidating message for some.
Perdita Cargill co-writes the Waiting for Callback series with Honor Cargill (Simon & Schuster). Casting Queen is out now and Take Two (new cover issue) and It’s A Wrap will be published 31 May 2018.