Category Archives: details in writing

Encouraging students to add details

This past week, I worked with a sixth grader who wrote an essay on the Superbowl.  This student has a vivid imagination, but his essay lacked the sparkle of his personality.  So I asked question after question, eliciting wonderful details, details he had neglected to put in his essay. 

boy writing on a window bench

For example, in his original essay he implied he watched the game on TV with his family.  But when I prodded, he told me he had prepared a party-like atmosphere.  How, I asked him.  He wrote, “Before the game started, I  prepared snacks and drinks, including Cheetos, Doritos, Sprite, Mentos, very cheesy popcorn, Lays chips, Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, Chinese popcorn (for my picky parents), and Black Forest gummy bears (for me).”

Originally, he talked about the Chiefs losing because they accumulated many penalties.  Name some, I suggested.  He wrote, “For example, the Chiefs got an interception, but they committed a foul which means that the interception didn’t count, and the Buccaneers moved up ten yards. Another example is that it was fourth down and five yards to go, and the Buccaneers were going to make a field goal, but a foul by the Chiefs caused the Buccaneers to get a whole new set of downs. Because of the foul, the Buccaneers got a touchdown.”

He and his brother bet on the game, with the loser (his brother) needing to buy the winner (my student) a soft drink.  How did it feel to drink that soft drink, I asked him.  He wrote, “I guzzled it in front of him, sloshing down and slurping that tasty Fanta that he thought he should have won.”

You didn’t mention the final score, I told him.  Oops!  He wrote, “The final score was 31-9 Buccaneers with the Chiefs not scoring a single touchdown.”

I find that this experience is typical of my work as a tutor.  I wheedle out details and encourage students to write them down.  If I don’t ask, the details don’t appear, and the essay stays mediocre.  If I prod, wonderful details spew forth and the essay, like my student, sparkles. 

[Other concepts we worked on during revision:  adding humor, using consistent verb tenses, adding suspense by not telling who won the bet in the introduction, connecting the introduction and conclusion, adding direct quotes, using more specific, descriptive verbs].

Here is the completed essay:

On February 7th, 2021, my brother and I bet on who would win the Super Bowl. The Kansas City Chiefs were playing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  My brother picked the Chiefs.  He always wins and boasts about winning. But I was not deterred by his boasting.  I still picked the Buccaneers. Our bet was on.

Before the game started, I  prepared snacks and drinks, including Cheetos, Doritos, Sprite, Mentos, very cheesy popcorn, Lays chips, Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, Chinese popcorn (for my picky parents), and Blackforest gummy bears (for me). I also grabbed 54 sports stuffed animals and laid them out on a Buccaneers’ blanket to watch the game with my family. My brother said, “Whoever wins has to buy the other person a Fanta.”  We shook on it, and he added, “No turning back.”   I researched to see who would win but after an hour of searching, I gave up because all the Internet said was that the Chiefs would win. The Chiefs had a higher percentage rate of winning compared to the Buccaneers. The Buccaneers chances were very slim with a 20.6% chance of winning the Super Bowl.  I knew that one dollar for a Fanta was going to come out of my pocket.

The Chiefs scored first with a three point field goal. My brother laughed his guts out. During the first quarter the Chiefs scored six points which is ok considering the fact that this is a Super Bowl. On the other hand, the Buccaneers scored two touchdowns during the first quarter so I was laughing my guts out. Since the Chiefs were down by two touchdowns, they got aggressive and started to make penalties. Meanwhile the Buccaneers were getting touchdowns play after play which made the Chiefs even more angry and more penalties.For example, the Chiefs got an interception, but they committed a foul which means that the interception didn’t count, and the Buccaneers moved up ten yards. Another example is that it was fourth down and five yards to go, and the Buccaneers were going to make a field goal, but a foul by the Chiefs caused the Buccaneers to get a whole new set of downs. Because of the foul, the Buccaneers got a touchdown.  The final score was 31-9 Buccaneers with the Chiefs not scoring a single touchdown. 

As the game ended, I  grinned my face off.   My brother grumbled.  “I should have won.”  He bought me a Fanta from the vending machine  grudgingly. I guzzled it in front of him, sloshing down and slurping that tasty Fanta that he thought he should have won.  Afterwards, I realized that predictions from many sources do not guarantee a win. I also realized that I had never felt better after beating my brother. 

 

 

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.

Add details

Students write in generalities rather than with precise detail.  Yet it is detail that enhances writing.

Take, for example, this general sentence:  The dog barked at the cat.  See how it changes when we add details.

Adding numbers:  The dog barked at the single cat.

Adding dates, days, seasons:  Just as the sun was setting, the dog barked at the single cat.

Adding proper nouns, names:  Just as the sun was setting, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding places:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding stories:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at  Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the garbage truck this morning.

Sensory information, figures of speech:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang barked at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the careening garbage truck this morning.

Specific verbs:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang growled at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost crushed by the careening garbage truck this morning.

What are details?

  • numbers, %, time
  • dates, days, seasons, eras
  • proper nouns
  • names
  • places
  • stories
  • direct quotes
  • thoughts
  • facts
  • for examples
  • sensory information
  • description
  • specific verbs
  • figures of speech