Category Archives: English Writing Instruction

Writing well takes study and practice.

Use a template to write an essay introduction

Starting essays—writing introductions—is one of the hardest writing challenges for many students.  They look at white space on their notebook paper or on their laptop and wonder, “How do I begin?”

What if they had a template that worked?  Here’s one I have developed for students who need to write an essay about some feature of a novel, film or play.

  • First sentence: name the novel, name the author and identify the location of story and when the story takes place.


  • Second, write a two-sentence summary of the story.


  • Third, write a transition sentence to connect the summary to the main idea.


  • Fourth, write the main idea (thesis).

Let’s try it out.  Suppose a fourth-grader is writing about what a silly little brother Fudge is in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.  How would that introduction begin?

  • Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume takes place in New York City in modern times.


  • A big brother, Peter, is bothered by his little brother, Fudge.  Some people who don’t know Fudge think Fudge is cute.


  • But even Fudge’s mother and father get mad at him.


  • In the book, Fudge does some really dangerous things like fall off a rock, lose his shoe on a subway, and eat a turtle.

Now, suppose an eighth grader needs to write about a theme in To Kill a Mockingbird. How might that introduction begin?

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee takes place in Alabama during the 1930s.


  • Two children, Scout and her big brother, Jem, are fascinated by a neighbor, Beau, whom they have never seen.  They think he must be a monster because he never goes outside.


  • But a few times Beau does come out without Scout and Jem knowing it.


  • Beau comes outside to show friendship when he places trinkets in a hole in a tree, when he puts a blanket on Scout, and when he saves Jem’s life.

How about one more.  A high school student needs to write about sonnets in Romeo and Juliet.  How would that introduction go?

  • Romeo and Juliet is a five-act play by William Shakespeare which occurs in Verona, Italy, around the year 1600 or a little earlier.


  • In the play, two star-crossed lovers meet, fall in love at first sight, and marry.  They are forced to separate, and their efforts to reunite fail.


  • Shakespeare tells this love story using puns, words with double meanings, and figures of speech.


  • But some of the play’s most clever lines are in sonnet form, and an example of this is the prologue of the play.

Each of these examples is five lines long, the length many teachers require.  Each names the title and author and summarizes the plot.  The fourth line connects the summary to the main idea which is the last sentence of the introduction.  Yet each essay is different because the summaries, transition sentence and thesis are different.

This template follows a pattern that students can use over and over to begin an essay about a novel, film or play.  This template works in most situations where a novel, play, or fictional film is the starting point of an essay.

For more ideas on how to write, read my book How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay.  Or contact me for tutoring lessons.  I am now scheduling summer and fall classes.

15 tips for writing a good blog

That headline is one example of how to write a good blog.  Make your headline eye-catching and intriguing, so readers will check it out.  Starting with numbers attracts too.  Here are some more tips:

  • Use bullets when you list. Bullets help your readers’ eyes see your organization.  Not all blogs need bullets, but when you list, use them.  They add white space, making your writing more readable.
  • Add white space before and after paragraphs. White space makes writing look more readable.  The same information written in long paragraphs is less attractive than when it is written in short paragraphs.
  • Keep paragraphs short. Three or four sentences max.  Cut a longer paragraph into two or three.
  • Keep sentences short. If you use complex sentences (like this one), limit them to one dependent clause.  The more clauses, the harder to read.
  • Replace long words of Latin origin with one- or two-syllable words of Anglo-Saxon origin. Longer words are often abstract.  Shorter words are usually concrete and easier to understand.
  • Give each idea its own paragraph, even if that paragraph is short.
  • Use art. Photos, graphs, maps and cartoons attract.  They keep the reader engaged as they scroll down.
  • Stick to a format. You want to develop a recognizable style that you use in every blog.
  • Use subheads if you are writing paragraphs.
  • Use a sans serif typeface. Sans serif is quicker to read.
  • Use a big typeface—at least 12 point. It’s easier to read.
  • Avoid italics and ALL CAPS. People perceive italics as harder to read, so they don’t read them.  Words in capital letters seem to shout—not polite.
  • Use a plain light background. A graphic background cuts readability.
  • Keep your blogs short. Readers like to skim blogs.  Make yours skim-able.  Search engines pick up short blogs, too.

Use a cheat sheet to write better

Having a cheat sheet nearby when writing can, like a recipe, help students remember all the “ingredients” of good writing.  Here is a cheat sheet I recommend:

As the parent/teacher, you can reproduce this cheat sheet to be used as a check list each time a student writes.  You can go over the list together and compare the student’s writing to the check list.  Using such a list doesn’t guarantee great writing, but it guarantees improved writing for upper elementary grade, middle grade, and ESL students who are new to writing in English or are not confident about their skills.

Are curse words no longer taboo in writing?

“I don’t give an obscenity.”  “Who the obscenity cares?”  “Go obscene yourself.”

Sentences like these were peppered through the  pages of  For Whom the Bell Tolls, an Ernest Hemingway novel, which I read when I was 18.  Naïve and confused, I wondered, who talks like this?

Well, of course, no one does.  But Hemingway’s publishers in the 1920s and 1930s wouldn’t allow the actual crude words Hemingway wrote to be published.  Their solution was to take out Hemingway’s expletives and replace them with the word “obscenity.”

How published writing has changed in the past 100 years!  Gradually “damn” (“Frankly, Scarlet, I don’t give a damn.”) and shit became acceptable in literature.  Now the word “bullshit” is everywhere, even in The New York Times and other publications of high language standards. Profane language has slipped into writing meant for children, too, such as the graphic novel This One Summer.  Within five frames on pages 246 and 247, “fuckin’,” “fuck,” and “fucking” are used four times in casual speech overheard by a couple in discussion

I grew up in a home where adults did not curse.  (Think Atticus Finch.)  As adults, my husband and I rarely curse, and even then, the words we use are mild.  (Think “oh, damn” or “hell.”)  Some of my children’s generation, now adults, rarely curse, but others use words like “shit” and “fuck” and “asshole” routinely, and in front of their children.  Is this a change in our spoken language, or have people always spoken this way, just not in my family.

Hemingway’s novels, after all this time, are still some of the most banned or challenged classic novels, not only in the US but around the world, according to the American Library Association.  Hemingway, with his almost immortal literary reputation, needn’t worry.  But how about us mortals?  Should we be using obscenities in our writing?  Is using them an aberration reflecting our increasingly uncivil society?  Or have past publishers, by censoring obscenities, provided literature which inaccurately reflected the thinking and speaking  of the people of those eras?

Changes in our spoken language precede changes in our written language.  Listen to the speech of people around you.  Do they use obscenities?  Do others censor them or walk away?  Do speakers edit their language depending on their audience?

If we want our writing to reflect our times, then we need to use the language of our society.  The problem is, today our American society is fragmented more than at any other time since the Civil War.  Which society are we reflecting in our writing?  Teenagers experimenting with adult words?  Men railing against their loss of jobs and power?  Immigrant women with old country values?  Working women competing against men for promotions?  Children repeating the words of their parents?

We also must think of our audience.  For whom are we writing?  Would they bristle at the use of profanity?  Would they be unaware of it?  Are they children?

The dilemma and the choice is ours.


Write first, revise second, third, fourth, and edit last

Revising and editing are distinct actions.

Revising means changing text in significant ways, such as adding or deleting words, sentences, paragraphs or even whole scenes.  Revising means changing weak verbs to stronger, specific verbs.  Revising means changing sentence order or sentence beginnings or combining sentences or separating too many ideas in one sentence.  Revising means making big changes and should be done before editing.

Editing means polishing text in subtle ways, such as changing punctuation, spelling, and choice of synonyms and antonyms.  Editing means deleting most -ly adverbs, many adjectives, and obvious information.  Editing means making small changes, sometimes stylistic changes, and should be done after revising.

Which are revising and which are editing?

revising editing
Deleting backstory from the beginning of text
Using simple Anglo-Saxon vocabulary instead of longer, more complicated words
Replacing abstract nouns with concrete verbs
Deleting vague, qualifying words (e.g. some, never)
Deleting “that” except when needed for clarity
Combining sentences to delete unnecessary words
Adding information for clarity
Using “said” instead of “told,” “related,” “cried,” and other words saying how a person spoke
Replacing forms of the verb “to be” with specific verbs, action verbs if possible
Rewriting sentence beginnings for variety
Replacing most compound sentences or compound predicates with complicated simple sentences
Deleting overused words like “so,” “then,” “just” and “like”
Rewriting conclusions to add meatier ideas
In dialog between two people, not identifying who is speaking for each line of dialog
Writing direct dialog rather than indirect dialog.
Calculating words per sentence to keep within 15 to 20 words on average.
Looking for the kind of grammar mistakes you often make, such as run-ons, and fixing them.
Showing, not telling.

A mistake student writers make is to edit as they write, losing the flow of their thoughts.  It’s better to keep going, even though you know you spelled a word wrong and are tempted to look it up.  Writing is harder than editing which is why writers are tempted to edit as they go.  This is particularly true of perfectionists.

Editing before revising is a waste of time.  Good revising will delete many early edits.  Write first, revise second and third and forth, and edit last.