Category Archives: adding details

Add these two mysteries to your reading bucket list

As a tutor, one way I help students is to read the books they are required to read in school.  Then we discuss and write about those books.  The student learns more about the books this way, I can develop writing topics for my students, and I can analyze gems to help me be a better writer.  Win–win–win.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.During the past week to help an eighth grader, I reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  In 2013 the Crime Writers’ Association in Britain named it the best crime novel ever, in part because it “contains one of the most celebrated plot twists in crime writing history.”  A similar group in the US named it number 13.

At the same time, for my own reading pleasure, I reread The Big Sleep  by Raymond Chandler.  In 1999, it was voted 96th of Le Monde‘s “100 Books of the Century.” It was included in Time magazine’s List of the 100 Best Novels” in 2005.

I like both books, but for different reasons.

I reread the Christie book to find out how she was able to hide the identity of the murderer until the last pages while having that character front and center throughout the telling of the story.  She gives subtle clues but on the whole stuns readers with the book’s ending.  Christie said she wrote this book to see if she could succeed at this twist in a plot line.  She did, brilliantly, though her characters, except for her debuting detective, Hercule Poirot, are easily forgotten.

I reread the Chandler book not remembering who the murderer is or even caring.  I read to enjoy the author’s style.  Detective Philip Marlow’s character, especially his sense of humor, is developed deliciously.  The author’s descriptions of settings are meticulous, each seeming to be a metaphor of the characters who inhabit them.  Tiny details like the doctor writing on a pad with attached carbon paper date the story, while other details like “a smile as wide as Wilshire Boulevard” anchor the story in Los Angeles.

Writers can learn from both authors.

From Christie we can learn how to plot a novel, especially a crime mystery.  We can learn to include light-heartedness—in the form of the narrator’s chatty sister, Caroline—in what otherwise is a humorless story.  We can learn that pivotal details must seem organic to the story, not pulled out of a magician’s hat, unlike the explanation for who made a crucial phone call to the doctor on the night of the murder.

From Chandler we can learn how to develop memorable, quirky characters.  We can learn how to write metaphors and similes which reveal character but which are also in keeping with the personality of the person thinking them.  We can learn to use witty, flirting dialog.  We can learn how to make a setting—in this case 1930s LA—almost a character.

Since Chandler’s novels rely on sex in their plots and in their chauvinistic development of women characters, his books might not be suitable for eighth graders.  Christie’s, on the other hand, are suitable for almost all ages.  If you have a bucket list of books to read—for pleasure or to hone your craft—add The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Big Sleep to the top.  You will thank me.

13 writing tips

The father of one of my students asked me if I could provide his son with a short guide his son could keep near his computer and use while writing.  Here it my suggestion.

Create a detailed prewriting organizer before you write.  Use it.

Make sure you follow directions if you are writing a response.  Cite?  Paraphrase?  Summarize?  Analyze?  Two instances?  Three?

Write the thesis sentence first before you write any other sentence if you are writing an essay.

Decide who your main character is and the problem he or she will face before you write your first sentence if you are writing a narrative.

Read your first draft aloud.  Does every sentence make sense?  Do you follow your organizer?  If something is missing, include it.  If something is irrelevant, delete it.

Make sure every body paragraph supports the thesis of your essay.

Make sure every action moves the main character closer to solving his or her problem in your narrative.

Identify weak or overused verbs and replace them with specific verbs.

Identify and vary sentence structures.  Especially include complicated simple sentences and complex sentences.

Show, don’t tell.  If you are concluding, you are telling.

Search for your typical grammar mistakes and fix them.

Add more precise details such as names, numbers, dates, locations, direct quotes, dialog, examples, thoughts, precise descriptions and sensory information.

Do revise.  First drafts are seldom good enough.

Where should a student start an essay?

If you are teaching children essay writing, at which point do you tell students to begin their writing?  With the hook?  With the introduction?  With the thesis?  Somewhere else?

Lately when my students start to write essays, I tell them to skip over the introduction completely for now except for its last sentence, the thesis.  That is where I tell them to begin.

Then I tell them to write the topic sentences of the body paragraphs.  After that, I tell them to fill in the body paragraphs with detailed sentences.  Then, after the student knows the contents of the body, I tell students to write their introductions at the top of one page and their conclusions at the bottom of that page, so the students can see them both together.

The first draft of an essay is put together something like this (after the student writes an organizer):

  • The thesis is written at the top of the notebook paper or computer document.
  • Under it is written the first body paragraph topic sentence. About 2/3 of the way down the notebook paper is written the second body paragraph topic sentence.  On the back top is written the third body paragraph topic sentence.  Half way down is written the fourth, if there is a fourth.  If the student is using a computer, these sentences can be written one beneath the other since inserting more material is easy.
  • At this point, I ask the students to check to see if each topic sentence supports the thesis. If not, this is the time to make it work.
  • Next, the students fill in the body paragraphs with details from their prewriting organizer, making sure that each detail supports the paragraph topic sentence.
  • Finally, on a separate notebook paper (or at the top of the essay), students compose the introduction with or without a hook.  Below it, the student composes the conclusion, trying as much as possible, to pick up some thread mentioned in the introduction.  If the student is using a computer, the student can move the conclusion to the end once he or she has compared it to the introduction.

At this point students can type a rough draft if they have worked on notebook paper, assembling the paragraphs in the correct order.  Once the essay is on computer, they can revise.

Students tell me that at school they are told to start writing essays with the hook.  I tell my students to skip right over that.  Why?  What I am looking for is not creativity but logic, the logic of topic sentences which support a thesis and paragraph details which support the topic sentences.  That is the meat of an essay, and that is what I see missing in students’ essays these days.  When that logic is established, the student can work on a creative (or not) introduction and a conclusion which dovetails with that introduction.

 

How to encourage students to write more details

Among the most common writing mistakes students make is the failure to use enough details.  Here is one way to coax more details from students.

First, make sure students know what we mean by details.  Details include

  • Proper nouns
  • Numbers
  • Dates, days, months, years, seasons
  • Direct quotes
  • The thoughts of a person or character
  • Figures of speech
  • Sensory information—sights, sounds, and tastes
  • Facts
  • Examples—maybe the most important detail

Next, rewrite a sentence the student has already written, such as, “I was late for the bus.”  You can use any sentence, but if you use one of the student’s own sentences, the changes you make have more impact.

Now, you add a detail to the sentence, such as, “Yesterday, I was late for the bus.”

Now it is the student’s turn to add a detail to the same sentence.  She writes, “Yesterday, I was late for the school bus.”

Now it is your turn again.  “Yesterday, the first day of school, I was late for the school bus.”

Student’s turn.  “Yesterday, the first day of school, I was five minutes late tardy for the school bus.”

At this point, you might like to choose another sentence and repeat the exercise.

This kind of work can increase vocabulary too.  “My docile cat became aggressive when a stealthy bat flew out from the lofty peak of the municipal building.”

What parents want writing teachers / tutors to teach

When parents ask for writing help for their children, what kind of help do they want?Child writing

  • Grammar?
  • Vocabulary?
  • Sentence structures?
  • Organizing?
  • Transitions?
  • Introductions and hooks?
  • Conclusions?
  • Spelling?
  • Cursive handwriting?
  • Details?
  • Revising?
  • Particular types of writing (paragraphs? essays? book reports? short answer responses? long answer responses? summaries?)
  • Narrative elements (character development? plot? setting? foreshadowing?  point of view? conflict? dialog? voice? suspense?)
  • Verb tenses?
  • Paraphrasing?
  • Clarity?
  • Dialog?
  • Figures of speech?

Most parents have no idea so many elements combine to create good writing.  When they see a list like this, they are taken aback.

That is why it is important for parents and teachers to agree on what students should learn at various ages.  If a parent thinks the student should be perfecting grammar, but the teacher instead focuses on organization of information, the parent will not be happy.  Or if a parent thinks a student should be using a great piece of rhetoric as a model, but the teacher wants the student to develop his own way of expression, again the parent will be dissatisfied.

Only when a parent is aware of all that a student is expected to learn can the parent and teacher have a meaningful conversation about how to improve a student’s writing.

Which details to include?

The other day I returned home, opened the door and was startled to see my robot vacuum cleaner zigzagging across the  floor, its whiskers busily feeling for dust, the little creature ignoring me and going about its  business of vacuuming the floor.

What a perfect detail for a story, I thought.  So trivial, so unexpected, so easily noted and ignored like a microwave beeping.  Yet such a perfect detail to identify an early 21st century middle class tech-friendly household.

This led me to think:  What makes great detail in fiction?

Years ago I read that details naming and describing the setting of a story within the first few paragraphs help readers to orient themselves.  And if a character is involved, describing that character’s looks and emotional state right after the character is introduced also helps orient readers.

Take this example:  A frumpy grey-haired woman is pulled erect while hanging onto an overhead subway strap, eying with disdain a seated teen who ignores her and scrolls through his phone’s screen.

What do we learn about the setting?  The woman is on a crowded subway, so she must be in a city.  We don’t know the time of day or the season yet, but since the subway is crowded, we think it might be rush hour.  What do we learn about the woman?  We know she is well into middle age and is probably coming to or from work.  She is annoyed with the teen who won’t give up his seat.  All that from one sentence.

But suppose we replace the teen with an adult.  The woman “with a stifled smile, watches a fly perch on the head of a man in a crisp suit reading The Wall Street Journal.”  We’ve lost the emotion of annoyance but have introduced the woman’s sense of humor.  We’ve made it clearer that it is rush hour, and probably morning rush hour because the man’s suit is crisp.

Which details are important to the story?  Only the writer knows where this story is going, so only the writer knows which details are “telling,” that is leading readers to certain inferences without the writer naming them.  Most details should give greater depth of understanding to the reader.

But life is full of random, insignificant details, and some of those should be included too, like the fly on a man’s head or like a robotic vacuum cleaner zigzagging across a floor.

How to add details and to choose more specific verbs

Lack of detail and weak verbs are the two writing shortcomings I see most often  in student writing.  Here is a game to improve both of them.

Take seven index cards and cut each in half to form smaller, squarer cards.  Write one part of speech on each card (noun, adjective, verb, adverb, conjunction, preposition and pronoun).  Repeat on the remaining cards.  Shuffle and place face down on a table or desk in front of a student. Put a pile of pennies (or BINGO markers or poker chips) near the deck of cards.  The goal of the game is accumulate ten pennies before your opponent does.

Now on a piece of notebook paper, write a simple, blah sentence such as “My dog eats food.”  Ask the student to pick a card.  Suppose she picks “verb.”  Ask the student to cross out the verb “eats” and in its place to write another verb.  If the student writes “likes,” tell her that “likes” is another “blah” verb, so she can take one penny and start her own pile with that.  Explain that a more specific verb would have earned her two pennies.  She might say, “Well, wait a minute,” and she might think of a better verb.  She might say “devours.”  Praise her choice and ask her to take another penny for a total of two.

Now it is your turn.  Pick a card.  Suppose it says “adjective.”  Think out loud so the student can hear you think.  “I could use ‘hot’ to describe the food, or I could think of another word.  My dog devours hot food.  One penny.  Hm.  How about My dog devours meaty food.  Two pennies.”  You take two pennies.

And so you go back and forth until someone earns ten pennies.

For older students, add more words to the cards, such as “infinitive, gerund, and subordinate conjunction.”

The best sentences to use are ones the student has already written.  Take student sentences from submitted work.  If you play this game before the student turns in a final draft of a paragraph or an essay, allow him or her time to improve the sentences.

If you are working with a class, you can write the sentence on the overhead projector or white board and allow students to work in groups to suggest alternate words.  One group competes against another.

When students are familiar with the game, you might come up with a symbol—such as a purple circle around a word—to identify words which could benefit from being more detailed or more specific.  When you return student writing, allow students time to improve the words circled in purple.

What do students learn from this game?

  • How to choose specific verbs.
  • How to add details.
  • How much better their writing sounds when they choose specific verbs and add details.
  • How to identify various parts of speech.
  • That you design cool learning activities.

Anytime you can turn learning into a game, students jump on board.