Three writing tips… from my six-year-old

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This article was originally written for ISTC’s Communicator Journal (Summer 2024).


A couple of weeks ago, my son woke up one morning and announced he wanted to write a book: ‘I’m six years old – so I think it’s about time.’ He proceeded to write his very first (and very short) story that morning about a cheetah called Alex who gets kidnapped by a giant mouse.


While The cheetahs in the savannah won’t win any awards, the way in which he went about it reminded me of how – even as adults – we can make the writing process more enjoyable and effective.


First, there’s the ease with which he put words down on paper. I’ve yet to see my children staring in anguish at a blank page (at least for more than a few seconds). Unbothered about whether the result will be good or bad, they just get on with it. Spelling mistakes may abound and punctuation may be lacking, but the essence of their message comes across. As adults, we can get so caught up in the detail that we forget about the bigger picture: what are we trying to get across?


So if you’re suffering from a case of writer’s block, try letting go of any expectations and that paralysing fear of making mistakes. The first draft doesn’t need to be perfect, or even good – the refining can come later.


Incidentally, if you need a little inspiration on how to be freer when writing, have a read of Gertrude Stein on Punctuation. Commas, she wrote, are ‘servile’, as their purpose of ‘helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it’. When rules have been drummed into us our whole lives, it can be refreshing to throw them out of the window.


That’s not to say that rules around punctuation, grammar and spelling aren’t important. As the co-founder of an editorial agency, I’m the first to exalt their merits – especially because they make a text easier and more enjoyable to read. And in technical writing, where clarity is key, they’re very much needed. But when we want to get a first draft down, it can be useful to forget all about them. Once again, the refining can come later.


Something else that children often excel at is simplicity. Although they’ve never had the rules of plain English hammered into them, they tend to stick to simple words and short sentences. Granted, they do not have to explain complex, technical topics to their readers, so they have a clear advantage. But even when writing technical documents, getting caught up in technical jargon, winding sentences and too many acronyms is often avoidable.


As Einstein put it, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ It takes thought to flesh out concepts in accessible language, as it means unpicking what these ideas really mean. If you’re writing for a lay audience, it can be useful to take a step back and pretend you’re explaining a concept to someone who knows very little about it. This will help guide the readers through your text and make their experience more enjoyable.


My team and I edit and proofread thousands of documents each year, and overly complex writing is by far the most common pitfall we see. Much of our work involves turning jargon into accessible language. There are plenty of free resources on plain English out there, and having an occasional read can serve as a useful reminder – even for seasoned writers – of how to write simply.


We’ve touched on ease and simplicity, but a text can only work as a whole if a strong structure holds it all together. Amazingly, even young children seem to instinctively know which elements make a good narrative. In my experience, they often include a beginning, middle and end; and some drama in the form of a problem that needs to be solved.

In his book on storytelling Into the woods, author John Yorke argues that human beings need to impose order onto the world to make sense of the chaos around us – and this is why narrative comes so naturally to us: ‘For narrative is in almost everything we see and everything we do – we render all experience into story.’


You may be thinking that narrative doesn’t concern you. If you’re writing technical documents, why would you need a storyline? Yet arguably, a narrative can be woven into – and enhance – any document, even one as dry as the above-mentioned savannah. After all, whatever you’re writing about, you’re putting forward a theory, exploring it and reaching a conclusion. Even in a statistic-dense report, there’s usually a story lurking if you look deep enough. If we want people to read it, we’d do well to look behind the numbers and bring this narrative to the fore.


Pablo Picasso famously said: ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’ We can draw a parallel with writing: with practice, we can master grammar, syntax and structure to produce something that reads well. As we’ve seen in recent years, even machines can master these skills. Much more challenging is to write with imagination, freedom, simplicity and playfulness. So next time you’re staring at that blank page, try reconnecting with your six-year-old self. You’ve got a story to tell – just tell it!