Problem 1: A seventh grader is writing a narrative about the first day of the new semester. She starts her story by recounting how her alarm rang. Then, lying in bed, she worries about two new teachers she would meet that day. Next, she writes that she goes downstairs, eats breakfast, dresses and takes the bus to school. Once in school, she grabs her texts from her locker, talks to a friend, heads to her first class, and meets one of her new teachers.
“Do you need that part about going downstairs, eating, taking the bus, and going to your locker?” I ask her.
“Well, yeah. How else do I show that I go to school?”
“Could you write about waking up and being nervous to meet your new teacher, and then jump to the part where the teacher meets you, saying ‘Welcome to our math class, Cara.’?”
“No, because how will the readers know who is talking and that it is later that day?”
“Okay. Could you say, ‘Cara, is it?’ my new teacher said as I walked in the classroom an hour later.”
“You mean I don’t need to say all the in-between stuff?”
“That’s right.” I suggest she cut and paste her paragraphs about eating, riding the bus and going to her locker to the bottom of the narrative for now while she thinks more about it.
She does, hesitantly. A little later, she deletes that part. “I guess I don’t need it after all.”
Problem 2: But I can’t write, “’Cara, is it?’” my new teacher said as I walked in the classroom an hour later” because it’s only one sentence, and every paragraph needs five sentences.”
“No, it doesn’t. Look at any book and count the number of sentences in each paragraph. Lots will have only one sentence, and others will have seven or ten or even a fragment.”
She picked up a book and opened it and counted sentences. She closed the book. “But then why do my teachers say I need to write five sentences in each paragraph?”
“That’s to encourage you to write more.”
“You mean there’s no rule?”
She left the one-sentence paragraph on her page, and followed it by another one-sentence paragraph.
* * * *
Sometimes working with a writing tutor means dispelling myths, like the five-sentence paragraph or needing to write a “before” to a story instead of jumping right in. Sometimes working with a writing tutor means making mistakes repeatedly, like forgetting to use apostrophes or using texting abbreviations, and asking for help. Sometimes working with a writing tutor means trying stylistic changes, like adding dialog or figurative language. Sometimes working with a writing tutor means experimenting with vocabulary the student has not written before.
Do you know a student who could use one-on-one writing instruction? Tell that student’s parent about me. I tutor writing to students, second grade to high school, online. Together students and I plan, organize, write first drafts, and revise, noting why each step in the process is important. Writing well is like playing the piano well or kicking a soccer ball well. It takes practice. And with a knowledgeable coach or tutor, a student improves faster.