Tag Archives: writing

Making it Through the Murky Middle

bikers_croppedOh, middle problems! You know what I mean: When you are stuck in the middle between two feuding friends. Or half way up the hill you’re pedaling. Or struggling to swallow the mouthful of meatloaf you’re in the middle of choking down.

If you are trying to write a novel, that middle is the place where the cake falls, where the piano slips out of tune, where you put your mittens on and start walking for home.

But don’t give up! Whatever you are in the middle of, there is a way through. It’s all about pacing and adding fun.

A number of years ago, I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I set a goal of 25,000 words (a decent children’s book length goal and more realistic than 50,000 for a working mom). I wrote something entirely out of my usual—a fantasy novel—and instead of not showing it to anyone until every sentence was nearly perfect, I let my daughter read each day’s output, as a serial novel. She begged to know what happened next. She kept me focused on story and writing daily for 30 days. It was liberating.

So for all of you out there writing, it’s mid November. Are you stuck in the murky middle? Here are a few things that may help:

  • Power through. By writing every day or at least three to five days a week, you remain in your story more. You won’t have to waste time rereading to remember where you left off.
  • Raise the stakes. If your interest is flagging, do something outrageous to your main character. Add a car crash! A fire! A ghost! Make your character run away. Lose the one thing she wants. Or get the one thing he wanted—only to find it’s not what he hoped.
  • Revise later. Don’t get caught up in lyrical prose—now is the time to tell a story. If you can get down the bones of a story, you can redo language and scenes in the second and third drafts.
  • Write out of order. Be zany! No one said you had to write the middle after the beginning. Write the end. Maybe you will then see a path from the first chapter to the last.
  • Community matters. Relying on other people—even virtual ones—to egg you on is a fun way to stay committed. Enlisting a reader will keep you going.

Whatever you produce by Nov. 30, just remember that the best thing you are doing is exercising your writing muscle. Writing is work, and the process of putting one word in front of another is just like pedaling up a hill. You have to keep huffing. You can’t stop in the middle and not reach the top or roll back down. Where you are going is up.



I’m always on the lookout for middle-grade novels in which real, non-speculative, accurate science is integral to the story. When I find a new (to me) book that fits the bill, I’m eager to add it to my list and my presentation. I love a book that weaves science facts and concepts into the narrative, or one that uses science as a clever metaphor to echo the emotional content of a scene.

What I don’t love is when I’m pulled into the book with some beautiful science (yes, science is beautiful) and suddenly . . .



. . . a glaring scientific error slaps me in the face. I’m tempted to throw the book across the room. (Unless it’s a library book, of course. We must take good care of library books.) And I sadly cross the title off of my list.

Some people may call me a stickler, but accuracy is important to me. I can’t help it. I spent a lot of years learning how to be a scientist, and mistakes are frowned upon in science. These days, I get paid to edit scientific manuscripts and I’m the one who’s supposed to catch the errors, so I read very carefully. Maybe that’s why I’m such a slow reader.

Is it just me? I surveyed some friends what they thought of errors in what they’re reading and here’s what they said. *Results are not scientific.

  • One typo is OK.
  • More than one or two typos could be an indication of sloppy editing.
  • One or two minor factual errors in fiction might be OK, but might lead the reader to believe the author has not done careful research.
  • Factual errors in nonfiction are more problematic and undermine the authority of the author.

But who am I to complain? You’d think that after multiple passes by me, my editor, and my copyeditor that there wouldn’t be any errors in my book. You’d be wrong. When the book was released, a nine-year-old boy noticed a typo–digit was missing in pi.

I hung my head in shame.

Then I discovered another error. This one was scientific (electrical potential, not current).

*dons dunce cap*


My publisher made the corrections for the second printing. Maybe those first printings will be valuable one day, like the Inverted Jenny stamp, with the upside-down plane.


Maybe not.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself, and on other authors. Everyone makes mistakes, right? There are web pages (like this one and this one) devoted to the errors in the Harry Potter books. Those errors didn’t make readers love the books any less.

And scientists like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Phil Plait have listed numerous scientific errors in the new film, Gravity, but they both loved the movie.

In an ideal world, all books would be error-free. But they aren’t. Maybe we can see scientific errors as learning (or teaching) opportunities. Kids love to find mistakes that authors make. If you give a kid a book that you know has a scientific error in it, that kid will dig in to find it, and may find more errors, or may do some research to find out more about the subject. That can’t be a bad thing.

I’ve decided that if the rest of the book is well-written and engaging, and the majority of the science is accurate, I will hold my nose and add a book with an error to my list.

What about you? What kind of errors will you tolerate? How many typos are too many? How far can a story stray from scientific or historical truth for you to stop reading?


Jacqueline Houtman‘s debut middle-grade novel is called The Reinvention of Edison Thomas. She believes all the errors have been corrected, but you are free to look for more. If you know of middle-grade books that should be added to her list, let her know!

Writing Well vs. Writing Correctly

A while back we got this excellent question in comments and I thought I’d tackle it today. To preface my remarks, I have a degree in education and have worked at both ends of the spectrum with gifted and with learning disabled students. I’ve tackled every grade from kindergarten through college at least once but most of my experience is in public schools with 4th to 6th grade students.  And here’s the comment.
I enjoyed reading your post, and was glad to hear of advantages of going through the revision process and learning from feedback. I think your question of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of students is a valid one. In fact, it is one I am struggling with this year. I teach English language learners who are motivated to learn, but get discouraged when issues with spelling and grammar get in the way. How do you suggest I handle this while encouraging them to keep writing?
When I was a child I hated to write. In part, I was just a highly active and curious kid who hated to sit still, and write about an adventure when I could be out there on my bike actually having one. But I also hated writing because I am a poor speller–not learning disabled, just poor at spelling. And because EVERY paper I ever got back in school was covered in spelling corrections sometimes with surprisingly bullying remarks from teachers about the stupidity of my errors.
I simply assumed because I was a poor speller that I was a bad writer. It wasn’t until I was a junior in high school and had an English teacher, Mr. Skibinski, who was actually committed to the content of his student’s writing and not just the form, that I had any inkling that writing could be satisfying way to communicate ideas. Mr. Skibinski was the first teacher to ever give me a grade for content separate from conventions. Even more importantly, he spent more ink showing where my writing was working than where it wasn’t. I gained years worth of growth as a writer in the few months I spent in his class. And based both on that experience and the many things I’ve learned from being professionally edited over the years I’ve come up with a bunch of suggestions that I think may help your students hang in there long enough to become good writers.
 1. Let’s just admit up front, English is hard. It’s a large and rapidly growing language and because it tends to retain foreign spellings of words, it is not phonetically regular.
2. Nobody gets all the conventional spellings and punctuation right in a first draft. Nobody. Some write more cleanly than others, but even the best writer makes mistakes. In my opinion an error free first draft is an unrealistic expectation for any student at any level. Yes, eventually a final draft should be correct but that takes time and more than one set of eyes on the project.


3. It’s worth remembering too that conventions of spelling, punctuation, grammar and usage are not objectively correct. They are how they are because we’ve agreed on a common interpretation. But conventions of language are changing all the time, so at best we are looking to hit a moving and somewhat subjective target.
4. In the world of publishing, copy editing is different from developmental editing. My editor never dogs me about spelling or punctuation. I try to catch as much as I can on my own but he is only concerned with the shape of the story and not the correctness of it. When we are all done getting the content as perfect as we can make it, we send it to somebody else. In the case of Random House they send it to 3 copy editors. I have a little ode to my copy editors for Second Fiddle over here http://rosanneparry.com/the-death-of-copyediting/#comments
Obviously this isn’t practical in the classroom but I think it’s worth helping your students think of development and copyediting as separate tasks. Perhaps you could make the distinction with color. Green to show where writing needs to grow. (developmental editing) Purple to show where it can be made more correct. (copy editing)
5. Proficiency comes from volume of writing. Spelling Punctuation and Grammar are the enemy of productivity because your student gets so wrapped up in finding the right answer that they lose the flow of the idea. Better your students write 3 messy paragraphs that communicate what they intended to say than 3 perfect sentences that don’t mean anything. Keeping that in mind it might be worthwhile to encourage students to differentiate between private writing and public writing Private writing need only be readable by the writer. Public writing should be polished. The more private writing your students do the more polished their public writing will become.
Again this might not be practical, but what if your students had a daily journal in which the feedback was only positive? It could be a very powerful experience for them. Or what if you just committed to highlighting 3 strengths in every assignment you grade. Please don’t underestimate the power of this. My editor is at his most effective when he shows me my strongest plot elements and my clearest iteration of the character’s voice. This gives me something to build on and grow toward, which tends to lead to stronger and more confident writing on my part.
6. Spelling is arbitrary and it changes. Show your student’s how to use a dictionary efficiently. And


 discourage them from relying on spell checking software. Consider the following sentence. If the t is missing in a key word I have not spelled anything wrong and yet the sentence is very, very very incorrect!


I chased the rabbit out of my garden with a big stick and a lot of yelling.
7. Many writers have a hard time seeing mistakes, but what is not visible may be audible. Give your students time and space to read their work out loud. I read every word of every draft aloud before I send it to my editor. It makes a huge difference in the quality of the prose. (This will be less true for students who are writing in their second language but it’s still a worth while practice for English language learners because it trains the ear in the new language.)
8. Be honest about your own mistakes. Encourage students to look for errors when you write on the board. Make a few on purpose so that they learn by your example how to handle that failure graciously. this will also help them gain an eye for proofreading.
It took me a very long time to think of myself as a writer because I mistook correct writing for good writing. I think with some sensitivity and some practical changes to how we manage writing assignments, we can have even struggling students thinking of themselves as proficient writers. Even better we can move them in the direction of being stronger writers more quickly.
So thanks for your excellent question, and please chime in readers. What have you done to help your students manage their discouragement with spelling, punctuation and grammar?