Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Off to a good start

When I teach biography writing workshops, I spend a fair amount of time talking about beginnings.

I know that the first sentence is often hardest.

The students have three pages of interview questions in front of them and sometimes have no idea where to start (writing biographies of a parent, grandparent, etc.).

I give them four choices - and cite examples of each:

1. Start with action.

I suggest that they look at their interviews in the section where there are questions about childhood activities, hobbies, sports, chores, etc. I give them an example of how they could choose one of those activities to start the chapter.

Yesterday, a fifth grade boy chose to start his biography with the answer to the interview question: Who was your best friend and what activities did you do together?

The answer on his interview sheet was: Packy Kennedy; we climbed trees

That student started his biography like this:

Feeling the breeze in his hair, hands sticky with sap, Carl Martin looked down at his best friend, Packy Kennedy.

2. Start with setting.

I give them examples of how they can show the setting - perhaps the season - maybe the geographic location.

One student started her biography this way:

As Jake climbed to the top of the tall pine tree, he could make out the large water tank in the distance. Welcome to Concord was painted in red on the side.

3. A hook that makes the reader curious.

I give them several examples of this, including the opening of my biography of Isadora Duncan (During the summer of 1887 in San Francisco, California, visitors to the seaside were sometimes met by a rather unusual sight.)

One student started his biography:

Jan had a little secret.

4. Get the baby on the paper.

That means just starting like this: John Smith was born on June 2, 1953 in Rome, Georgia.

This is the "last resort" beginning - but it offers a comforting safety net to those students who just can't manage a snappy, creative beginning.

I always notice a look of total relief on the faces of some children when I tell them it's okay to start like that.

And I remind them that maybe they can think of a different way to start later on - but YOU CAN'T FIX WHAT YOU HAVEN'T WRITTEN - so get the baby on the paper.


Sarah Miller said...

"Get the baby on the paper."

I'm SO adding that to my Goodreads quotes.

Anonymous said...

I've been teaching my students about leads for writing Personal Narrative. I'd add in dialogue as another good lead but I'm totally adding "Get that baby on the paper" as one of my lead options. Sometimes kids just can't move forward. That will help get them moving!

Anonymous said...

Ditto to comments above. Love that.