lessons from kindergarten about how to write better

Once upon a time in the mid-1980s, a guy named Robert Fulghum accidentally found himself with a publishing deal when something he wrote found its way into his kid’s backpack, then another kid’s backpack, and eventually into the hands of the parent of that kid. Said parent happened to be in publishing, and a little while later, a classic book was born.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten spawned sequels, posters, greeting cards, and more than a few parodies. It remains to this day a touchstone piece of popular philosophy.

But it’s not just a good essay with a fun publishing story attached. It’s also great advice for your writing life. From rule to rule, the poem was replete with advice for budding and experienced authors alike. For example…

Share Everything.

This one is absolutely key to finding success as a professional writer. Even if you just write for yourself and your family, it still counts because you’re sharing with them.

Share your work.

However you can. Get as many eyes on those lines as you possibly can.

  • Submit to magazines
  • Write for websites
  • Self-publish short works
  • Seek publication
  • Tell people about it on social media
  • Read your stories at coffeehouses and bars
  • Put your stuff up on YouTube
  • Enter contests and anthologies
  • Write it as graffiti at truck stops

Well, okay, maybe not that last one. Robert B. Parker, author of the famed Spenser series of detective novels, has one word of advice for aspiring writers: “Submit.”

That is, put your work out there to be read, tested, and judged. Otherwise it can never get better. Share everything. It’s rather the point of the whole gig.

Play Fair.

Shortcuts to making money as a writer exist. You can game Google or Amazon a little bit, cash in favors with people, pay for five-star reviews, plagiarize…the list is as long as it is ignominious, but it’s out there.

That said, there are no shortcuts to being a successful writer. The love from your fans and high regard of your peers only comes through doing excellent writing and treating people well. If you cheat, or cause drama, or otherwise put your short-term success over the wellbeing of others, it will come back to bite you.

The publishing industry is small, and people talk. Play fair. Always. Even with people who aren’t playing as fair as you.

Don’t Hit People.

This one could fall under “play fair” but deserves its own category because it’s so tempting and easy in the modern age. It goes a little something like this:

Step One: Somebody leaves a rotten review of your book online. It’s especially frustrating because it’s wrong. Whatever was complained about didn’t even happen. It’s like she was reading a different book than the one you wrote.

Step Two: You notice the “respond” option on the screen.

Step Three: You let that person have it.

It can feel really good, but there is a Step Four. And that’s developing a reputation as a thin-skinned writer who doesn’t work and play well with others.

And this doesn’t just happen with reviews. You’ll find people trash-talking you at conferences. Or other people will be jealous of what you accomplish. No matter where you hear bad things said about you and your writing, don’t hit back. It doesn’t help anything.

Besides…the things that make us want to hit back the hardest are the times that person has a good point. If you’re busy hitting, you won’t be able to listen well enough to improve.

Wash Your Hands before You Eat.

Though this is important advice, for writing, it’s not about manual hygiene. It’s about rituals and the order of things. When you wash your hands before you eat, you can do it one of two ways.

You can rush through the job because it’s simply the thing you do before a meal. Or you can do it for its own sake, with care and attention, because it’s the beginning of the process of eating a meal.

Writing well often involves preliminary steps, post-work work, rhythms, and rituals of many kinds. You can work through these adjunct tasks just to get them done so you can write…or you can treat them as part of your writing.

The more effort, focus, and passion you put into those things, the better the whole of your writing will be. Wash your hands before you eat. Write your warmup before you write. Edit your post before you send it.

These aren’t things you do when you’re not writing. They’re part of writing.

Be Aware of Wonder.

This one is essential because that’s what writing is about at the end of the day, right?

It’s being able to take your sense of wonder, and of awe, and of fear, and of humor, and of love and joy and hate and light and dark and power and helplessness and all those other things that build the lens you use to see the world…and to communicate them in ways that touch other people.

And if you can’t do that, there’s little point in writing at all.

So stay childlike sometimes when you look at the world, even when you’re looking at adult things or writing about grownup topics. View the world through the freshest eyes you can in that moment, and share that view with others.

Stay aware of wonder, because it’s the wonder your readers come to your pages for.

The Simple Truth about Writing Well

Sure, you can go through an MFA program if you want. Or you can spend thousands of dollars and minutes at a workshop like Clarion. They’re good investments for the right person in the right space.

But lots of the fundamental truths about writing are…well…fundamental. You know they’re true already, and may have even voiced them in similar ways while talking about writing to people in your life. That said, it never hurts to hear it again.

Because here’s the thing about writers. We’re smart, generally speaking. And smart people are great at making simple things so complex they somehow seem hard.

The next time writing feels hard to you, go back to the basics. Remember that this is something you were born to do. You picked up some skills and techniques along the way, but at its core writing is a simple and beautiful thing.

Go back to kindergarten. Remember the rules. Remember that you write because you love writing. Then get back to it.

 

For more on how to improve your writing life, read on:

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