Category Archives: English Writing Instruction

Writing well takes study and practice.

What comes first, the idea or the citation?

When you plan a vacation, what do you do first?  Do you decide where to go—to the beach, to a Broadway play, to Graceland—or do you pack your skies?

Likewise, when you are given a topic to write about by your teacher—for example, Who is responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?—what do you do first?  Do you consider which characters might be responsible?  Or do you search for a citation—any citation—and work backward from the citation to a person responsible?

I suspect most ninth grade ELA teachers expect their students to start by thoughtfully considering who might be responsible for Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths.  Could it be impetuous Romeo who cannot wait to have sex with Juliet?  Could it be Juliet’s father, who is forcing Juliet to marry Paris against her will?  Could it be hotheaded Tybalt, who starts a sword fight which leads to Romeo being banished?

I suspect most ninth grade ELA teachers do not want their students to read a given source material, find a good quote, and base their whole essay on that one quote.

But last week, a ninth grader I tutor, instead of considering who might be most responsible for Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths, started organizing his essay by searching the sources his teacher supplied for words which said someone—anyone—is responsible.  Then he based his essay on that information which he cited.

In discussing my student’s approach, I learned my student really thought that to write an essay using citations he should start with a citation (or in his case, three citations) and go backwards in search of a thesis that would incorporate those three citations.  As a result, his thesis was three-pronged and vacuous.  His essay did not contain a central, controlling idea.

What happened here?

  • Did his teacher think a previous teacher taught him how to write using citations? Did she think she didn’t need to teach that all over again?
  • Did his teacher think she didn’t need to sequence the process of writing an essay using citations? Did she think that of course the student would know to start with the idea and then find supporting information?
  • Did my student miss the main idea of using citations, that they back up—support—prove—ideas?
  • Was my student taking the lazy way out—or so he thought—by finding a citation first?

Whatever.  From this experience, I learned that

  • Teaching how to use citations begins with why we use citations—to have outside, often expert sources back up our ideas.
  • Teaching how to write an essay using citations is necessary even if other teachers have already taught the process.
  • Students need to practice using citations over and over until they get it. Writing one essay in eighth grade and another in ninth grade is not enough.
  • Students must have an idea first before looking for experts to back it up.
  • Teachers need to say that starting with a citation and then backtracking to an idea or a thesis will probably lead to a weak, poorly written essay and a low grade.

 

 

How to write narrative essays

Narrative essays are short stories, real or imagined.  Like novels, they follow a pattern of beginning, middle, and end, or in academic terms, inciting event, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

But how do you begin?  This is the question I am asked more than any other by my students.  My answer is the same as for an expository or persuasive essay.  You begin with a written plan.

I have students write the word “beginning” near the top of the page, “middle” about a third of the way down, and “end” a bit up from the bottom (on notebook paper or on a blank page on the computer—it doesn’t matter).

Next to “beginning” I have students write “setting” and draw a sideways V like this:  <.  Extending from the top arm of the <, I ask students to write the place where the story takes place.  Next to the bottom arm of the <, I ask students to write the time of day/season or some other words to indicate when the story is taking place.  For example, these words could be “the first day of middle school,” or “when I broke five ribs.”  I ask students to start by identifying the setting because this is what readers look for when they start to read a narrative.  They want to know if they are reading about the French Revolution or life on Mars one thousand years into the future.  Knowing the setting orients readers.  It should be noted in the first paragraph or two of a narrative.

Continuing under “beginning,” I ask students to identify in a column the characters who will be in the story.  Sometimes this means names and sometimes this means positions or relationships such as “the doctor” or “the hit-and-run driver.”  Next to each character, name the character’s role such as protagonist, antagonist, foil, mentor, sage, trouble-maker or any roles that make sense.  Also list character traits and emotions to emphasize for each important character.

Readers want to identify and get in the head of the most important character, the focal character.  They want to emotionally feel what that character feels.  So decide who that character is.  Usually, it is the protagonist.

Identify the theme you want to show.  In other kinds of essays, the “theme” is called the main idea or the thesis.  In narratives you should be able to state the theme in a sentence such as “Doing something hard in public takes courage” or “Dogs can be exasperating.”  The theme is what you want to emphasize in your narrative.

In a column under “middle,” list the events or incidents that will happen in the story in the sequence in which they will happen.  Usually, this sequence is chronological order.  Any other kind of sequence such as jumping back and forth in time will make your narrative difficult to follow.  I find using bullets is a good way to list, especially if you are using a computer that allows you to cut and paste to reorder information.

You want the “middle” to be long enough so you can identify details to use—maybe 15 lines.  If the “middle” is too short, you haven’t thought your plot through enough.  If it is longer than 15 lines, you need to cut back.  A good finished narrative length is about three pages of text, double spaced, in 12-point type (1000 words).  Many teachers won’t read more unless your writing is exceptional.

Under “end,” write “climax.”  Identify what happens at the climax.  This is where the theme is most evident, where you do that thing in public that is so hard or where that exasperating dog forces you to take action.  At the climax, readers should feel strong emotion.  So should you as you write and reread your climax.

If you have introduced details left unexplained, do that quickly.  Then write your ending.  What is most important is that the ending is satisfying to the reader.  Satisfying is not the same as positive.  Not all endings are happy.  Even when the ending doesn’t turn out as the protagonist hopes, that character still comes away a different person, someone who has grown through the experience.  Make sure your protagonist shows growth and that growth is connected to your theme.

Add your voice to your college application essays

Students applying for college are required to write one or more essays.  This is so the colleges can “know” a student, that is, so the admissions committee can differentiate one student from the thousands of other students who apply.

So, most importantly, a good essay must make a student stand out.  How?

Not by good vocabulary or varied sentence structure or clear organization.  That is a given.  Not by expressing passion for a school or a major.  Most students can do that.  No, something else is required.

That something else is what writers call “voice.”  Voice means that when the admissions committee reads an essay, they can picture the real live person who wrote it, a person with a distinct personality which comes through loud and clear.

To write that kind of essay, students need to reveal themselves being vulnerable or using self-deprecating humor or showing a shortcoming as well as a strength.  Here are a few examples.

  • A student through no work of her own earns straight A’s in math. She listens and understands without studying.  She captains a competitive math team.  But she confesses that as easy as math is for her, reading is hard.  She reads some words backwards and guesses at long words.  She depends on other people to read aloud to her.  She writes this in her essay, not bragging about the math or apologizing about the reading.  What will the committee remember?  Her honesty.

 

  • Another student admits he is a skinny, muscle-challenged nerd. He recalls an instance when he felt put on the spot, needing to compete in an athletic contest against a real jock.  The jock went first, accomplishing the challenge easily.  The nerd followed, the eyes of every classmate on his scrawny body.  Slowly, painstakingly, he competed.  Breathless after a couple of minutes, he paused, hearing kids screaming.  “Go!  Go!  Go!”  For him!  He resumed, narrowly beating the jock and collapsing.  But for one brief, shining moment, he knew the thrill of victory, the thrill of girls cheering his name.  What will the committee remember?  His bravery.  His self-deprecating humor.

 

  • Still another student writes that she was asked to be a camp counselor for the summer. Hardly any salary, but swimming in a lake, hiking on mountain trails, and sitting around campfires cooking s’mores.  She yearned to say yes, but her mother needed her to babysit her siblings while school was out.  “One of the hardest things I ever did was to put the letter to the camp director in the mailbox,” she wrote.  What will the committee remember?  Her compassion.

Students, if you are reluctant to reveal yourself, your essay probably isn’t good enough.  You needn’t bare your soul, but you do need to get uncomfortable to let your voice shine through.

Writing a second grade essay

In elementary school, children need to compose four kinds of passages:

  • Short responses to questions (one or two sentences),
  • Long responses to questions (about five sentences or one paragraph),
  • Narratives (stories of varying lengths), and
  • Essays (single paragraphs to five paragraphs).

The other night I received a call from a father whose second-grade son needed to write an essay on his favorite animal.  The child didn’t know what to do.  I asked the boy on the phone what his favorite animal is.  “Dogs,” he said, not a surprising answer since the boy has grown up with pet dogs.  I asked him why, and he identified several reasons.  I told him he needed to explain his reasons.  He told me that without problem.

I told him that to write the essay he needed to

  • First, write a sentence saying that dogs are his favorite animal.
  • Second, tell why dogs are his favorite animal, one sentence for each reason. Then he needed to add other sentences explaining why.  The best detail is one that begins with “for example,” I told him.
  • Last, end the essay by repeating that dogs are his favorite animal and name the reasons without the details.

Do you understand? I asked.  The boy grumbled in the background, but his father told me that he understood.  We ended the phone conversation.

The next morning, the father texted me the essay below.

 

I don’t know how much direction the classroom teacher gave this boy.  It seemed like this was one of the first times the student was required to write an essay.  Did the teacher take the students through the organizational process?  Did she show organizational boxes for the student to fill in?  Did she model writing an essay or two or three in class?  Did she explain what information belonged in the first sentence or in the middle sentences or in the conclusion?  I suspect she didn’t since the boy—an A+ student—had no idea when I talked to him.  Yet after a five-minute phone call, he wrote a classic essay (for a second grader).

To be fair, I don’t know the circumstances surrounding this assignment.  Was the teacher a substitute?  Was there a fire drill taking up the time that the teacher wanted to use to preview this assignment?  Was the boy pulled out of class when the teacher  explained the assignment to the class?

I am left to wonder what training this boy’s teacher received to teach writing.  Perhaps, like all too many teachers, not enough.

 

Four shapes of stories, according to Kurt Vonnegut

Have you seen the video of Kurt Vonnegut explaining the shape of stories?  It’s short and funny, and I recommend you watch it.  Here is the gist of what he says.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.The most popular story type starts with a happy person.  Think the three little pigs building their homes.  Then the person gets into trouble.  The wolf huffs and puffs and blows two houses down.  At the end of the story, the person gets out of trouble—the big bad wolf dies—and the person is a bit happier than when the story began.  The three pigs live together in a brick house.  The shape of this story is a U with the right side of the U a bit higher than the left side.  (The example is mine.)

Another popular story type starts on an ordinary day.  Something happens to make the person think, wow, this is my lucky day.  Think boy meets girl.  But then something else happens to take the luck away.  Girl rebuffs boy.  The person is unhappier than at the beginning of the story until—serendipity—the person gets luck back.  Girl realizes her mistake and returns to the boy.  The shape of this story is an N.  (The example is mine.)

Still another story starts out with an unhappy person.  Think Cinderella.  But then something happens to make the person gloriously happy—going to the ball, dancing with the prince—until, abruptly, the cause of happiness is taken away—the clocks strikes midnight—and the person’s spirits plummet.  The person stays sad for a while, but then amazingly, something happens—the glass slipper fits—to make the person off-the-charts happy.  The shape of this story is something like an N but with an extended horizontal line leading up to the beginning of the N and another extended horizontal line connecting the downward slope to the final upward slope of the N.  (The example is Vonnegut’s.)

Notice that all three of these popular shapes for stories end with a line moving upward toward happiness.

An unpopular shape for a story is a straight horizontal line.  Think Hamlet, suggests Vonnegut.  A person starts out sad.  Events happen.  The person remains sad.  The person dies.  Not many stories show this pattern, says Vonnegut, because most readers want happy endings and most writers give them what they want—or because writers, like everyone else, don’t recognize true happiness. 

We pretend to know good news, but we cannot be sure, says Vonnegut.  Maybe this is because true happiness is mundane, like sitting under an apple tree with a friend on a sunny day.

It’s a thought-provoking video in the guise of a humorous monolog.  Key words like “Vonnegut” and  “shapes of stories video”, will show you numerous versions of the video, some with translations.