Category Archives: first drafts

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.

 

What does teaching revising mean?

What could teachers do to help students revise?

When the essays are complete, teachers could reproduce a few sample student essays (with the students’ permission) and ask the class to analyze them. Teachers could ask:  Is there a thesis?  Do the topic sentences in the body support that thesis?  Is the thesis repeated in the topic sentences?  Is the thesis well supported in the body or is more information needed?  Does the information in each paragraph support the topic sentence of that paragraph?  If not, what should the writer do with that off-topic information?  Is the information presented logically?  Does the information in the introduction lead into the thesis?  Does the conclusion return to the ideas presented in the introduction?

Teachers could write and show their own response to the  prompt to offer an example of a well written response for the students to model.

Teachers could give students more time to improve their essays after they have analyzed other essays.

Teachers could have students read their essays to a partner for feedback before turning in their essays.

Before grading the essays, narratives, summaries, etc., teachers could return the writing marked with one idea for improvement.   Yes, the teacher would need to read each essay more than once.  But for the initial read, the teacher would need only to identify one glaring error which the student could then fix before receiving a grade.  Or if there is no glaring error, the teacher could suggest one idea for improvement (“How about turning this section into dialog?” Or “How about turning some compound sentences into complicated simple sentences?”)

The time to teach writing is not after the writing is graded but before and during the writing process while there is still time for the student to learn.  This is the time when students are most receptive to ideas which will help them become better writers.

Use colored pencils to help students revise drafts

Most of my elementary and middle grade students write first drafts in pencil.  A few type theirs into a computer.  But when we revise–hard copies or electronic ones–we use colored pencils.

copy-showing-use-of-colored-pencils-to-revise-001

This book summary was written and revised by a third grader.

I ask students to circle verbs and verbals with one bright color, such as red.  It’s easy to find verbs when they are encircled in a bright color.  We list them, use tally marks to identify which ones are overused, and then go back to the copy to replace overused verbs or weak verbs.

Next I ask students to choose a different bright color, one that is easily distinguishable from the first color, such a violet, green or blue.  Now the student encircles the first word of each sentence with that color.  Because the color prominently displays the first words, those words are easy to spot.  I ask students to read them aloud, listening for repetition.  When we find the same word used frequently, the student rewrites the sentence beginning to add variety.

For older students, we look at those same sentence opening words and identify their parts of speech to see if the student is overusing one part of speech, such as adverbs, and under-using another part of speech, such as prepositions.  If he is, he makes appropriate changes.

Some children overuse particular words, such as “so,” “just,” “then,” and “and.”  If I notice this, I ask the student to choose another color and to circle the overused word.  The abundance of color helps the student to recognize how frequently he has overused a word.

Revision might mean moving sentences or paragraphs around, or inserting new information missing from the first draft.  That too can be identified with arrows and stars in bright colors.

For poor spellers, I either encircle misspelled words in a particular color or highlight them with a marker.  From those words, I create a spelling study guide.  At the next lesson I quiz the student on the misspelled words.

When students see a first draft spotted with color, cross-outs, X’s, erasures, arrows and inserted words, they know they have revised.  So do parents without reading a word.

How long does it take to revise a first draft?

Revision time depends on many factors, including:

  • The length of the original piece of writing. The longer the first draft is, the more hours you should expect to spend revising.
  • boy on stool writingWhether you revise as you write or keep writing a draft until you reach the end and then revise. If you revise while you write, you might need less time later. But you may reach the end and decide big chunks of already revised material need to be tossed out, making early revisions a waste of time.
  • Whether you organize your work before you write your first sentence. In general, the more time you put into planning and detailing before you write, the less time you need to revise.
  • Your willingness to cut hundreds or thousands of words. Some writers can ruthlessly revise copy while others snip a little here and a little there, again and again. It’s painful to discard your writing, but the quicker you can throw out the bad or the not needed, the faster your revising is likely to go.
  • Your writing skill. The more skilled you are, the longer it might take you to revise since you know great writing is rewriting.
  • Your patience.
  • Your deadline. A deadline of tomorrow destroys distractions and helps you to focus.

Should students illustrate their writing with drawings (like in the Wimpy Kid)?

Many of my students do. And here’s why.

  • Illustrating encourages students to write. The drawings become the carrot that entices the students to write words.
  • Information gleaned from the drawings can later be added as details to the writing during revisions. Some students add few details in their writing but add rich details in their illustrations. A teacher can encourage the student to transfer some of the visual details into words.
  • The internet has changed the language we use to communicate to a much more visual and less textual language.  Students live more and more in a visually designed online world, using icons, videos, tables, photos and cartoons. Why not let their school work reflect their real world?
  • Drawings can be an icebreaker between a teacher and a poor student writer. “Wow, Adam, I love the way you drew the expression on that guy’s face. Your art is really well done! Now let’s see how we can get that feeling into words.”
  • When students read one another’s work, they love the illustrations. Students may be more willing to accept peer criticism of their writing if they receive peer praise for their drawings.

Below is a narrative with illustrations made by a fifth grader.  The illustrations were in his first draft on notebook paper, but we added them to his final draft.  Click on the graphic below to enlarge it.

Illustrated narrative by a 5th Grader.

How to edit an essay

Because my students’ first drafts are so messy, I sometimes ask them to rewrite them during the revising stage. Many students make clean drafts without my encouragement since they have no room left for changes or since they can hardly decipher their changes any more.

I have learned that when students try to edit using a sloppy, revised draft with cross-outs and insertions, they miss errors.  Even though they have skipped lines to leave room for changes, and have left margins so there is room for insertions, sometimes they need to write a clean draft or type and print  a clean draft for editing purposes.

student essay to be edited

This portion of a fifth grade student essay has been revised but is difficult to edit because of all the cross-outs, circles and insertions. A clean draft would help the student to edit well.

Once they have a clean almost-final draft, students edit. They read every word of their essays, looking for errors such as in spelling, capitalization, verb tenses, plurals, parallel structure, subject-verb agreement, pronoun antecedent agreement, possessive nouns, its and it’s; they’re, there, and their; to, two, and too; and punctuation. Students who overuse certain words (and, then, so, and just, for example) hunt for them and either eliminate them or replace them.

One trick I learned long ago when I was a copy editor is to read each sentence out of order, starting with the last sentence and ending with the first sentence. By listening to sentences out of order, mistakes are easier to hear. My students think this technique is silly until they try it, but then they realize its usefulness. Usually I wait until a student is in middle school to suggest this editing technique.

As students edit, I try to read along with them, to suggest grammar and usage problems they might not suspect. At this point I sometimes teach a grammar lesson on the particular problem the student has encountered, especially if this problem is recurring.

When the student finishes editing his final hand-written copy, the student or I type this draft on the computer, leaving any remaining errors as they are. At our next meeting, the student edits for a second time, usually finding a handful of errors he missed during the first edit. (It’s so much easier to find errors when the writing is printed rather than hand-written.) Sometimes the student will make significant changes at this point, but not usually. Since I am aware of what the errors are, I point out errors that the student has not found.

Next we’ll talk about the value of typing and printing a final version of a student’s essay.