Category Archives: narrative writing

How to keep students writing this summer

For me, as a writing tutor, one of the hardest aspects of enabling a student to write is finding a topic.  A few students with vivid imaginations could write fantasy narratives each week, but they balk at writing informational or persuasive essays.

Most boys have one inexhaustible writing topic—playing video games—which I nix.  Too many of my students have written such essays with poor, unintelligible results.  And boys don’t like my idea of writing about “why I like video games” or “what I learn from video games.”

The students I tutor—and I assume they are like most other students—know nothing about what is happening in the world.  (Last fall some didn’t know a Presidential election was underway.)  Writing about current events is out unless I spend a big part of the class bringing students up-to-date on world events.

Students don’t read books unless forced by their teachers. Writing about book themes, characters, or settings is possible, but because the number of books my students have read is minuscule, such writing opportunities are meager.  They balk at reading books during the summer.  “It’s vacation!” they wail.

What to do?  Here are my solutions.

For my high school students, I search for well-written newspaper articles.  Recently, for example, The New York Times had one on underinvestment in the computer chip industry, and The Wall Street Journal had one on a forgotten jazz composer.  I create SAT-like questions about each article, including identifying vocabulary meanings.  Then I create a specific narrative, informational or persuasive question about the article for the student to respond to in essay fashion.

Using news stories has many advantages.  It offers a broad range of subject matter for students to read and for me to ask questions about.  It offers up-to-date reading material—students can’t believe they are reading and writing about something in yesterday’s paper.  It requires intense reading but just for 350 to 500 words, far less effort than reading a book.  It allows me to assign an essay every other class or sometimes every class, using class time to discuss the answers to the questions I give a student and to critique the essay.  Homework often is to revise the essay in ways we discuss in class.

The drawback is that I must spend time finding good articles and then writing questions about them.  But this is my job.

For my middle school students and fifth graders, I assign the reading of stories with questions to answer.  www.edconpublishing.com produces 40-plus stories of classic books like David Copperfield and Tom Sawyer, grouped by difficulty level.  Ten pages of reading are followed by ten pages of multiple choice questions.  I assign these, one a week or one every other week.  After a student has read a story, and we have gone over the questions to be sure the student comprehends them, I assign a narrative, informational or persuasive essay.

Using booklets like these has advantages.  They introduce students to great stories.  They force the student to read and to prove they understand what they have read.  They offer students and me a common topic about which to write.  I must come up with essay questions, one for each type essay middle grades students are expected to master.  We critique the essays and revise them based on the most serious errors or shortcomings.

Sometimes for fifth graders I assign books to read such as Judy Bloom’s Fudge series or the first Harry Potter book, and I create essay questions based on those books.  I choose books I have read and know well to cut down on my class preparation time.

These days I interact with students via Zoom.  I find the results are good.  Students share their essays with me via Google drive.

It is possible to keep students reading and writing about what they read during the summer.  Perhaps you have found some other ways?  If so, please share them with me at this blog.  Or if your student needs a tutor, contact 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.

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.

How to end a scene with a page-turner


Have you ever gone to bed with a novel, planning to read for 20 minutes or so, and found yourself still engrossed an hour later?

How do good writers keep readers captivated ?

Good writers use cliff hangers to end a scene. Cliff hangers can be major events like who shot J.R. Ewing.  In the TV show ”Dallas” in the 1980s, viewers wondered all post-season who shot the villainous J.R. They tuned in in record numbers for the season opener in the fall.  The screen writer of that show wrote a huge cliff hanger.  But cliff hangers can also be small.  Who sent Mom a single rose when it wasn’t even her birthday?  And why did they do it?  Turn the page to find out.

Good writers foreshadow coming events to end a scene. When a grinning Rhett Butler watches Scarlett O’Hara ascend the stairs of the Wilkes mansion, Scarlet feels uncomfortable.  Later when Scarlett discovers that Rhett has overheard her baring her soul to Ashley Wilkes, Scarlet is mortified.  Her early discomfort foreshadows her later embarrassment.

Good writers end a scene with a change of action.  Shakespeare did this all the time in his plays.  A love scene is followed by a murder is followed by comic relief.  Police mysteries show a detective reaching a dead end  when the medical examiner phones to say he has discovered something.  We keep reading.

Good writers shift the point of view (POV) to end a scene.  Leo Toystoy starts Anna Karenina from the point of view of cavalier Stephen Oblonsky as he blames his affair with his children’s governess on his silly smile and his vibrant personality. Then the scene shirts to the head of his distraught wife, pregnant with her seventh child, who can see no option but to leave him.

Good writers use monologue or dialog to end a scene, and they write last words or last thoughts that are significant.  One character might admonish another to heed advice.  One character might rue the day he agreed to a blind date as he pushes a doorbell.  We turn the page to find out if he is right.

Good writers use surprise to end a scene. What if the guy ringing the doorbell is met by a huge dog, or a wise-cracking little sister, or his drop-dead beautiful date. . .and her big brother chaperone?

What all of these scene endings have in common is a question.  We, the readers or viewers, want to know something.  And so we keep reading.

Show writers how important first sentences are

The first sentence of a story can lure readers in, like a wiggly worm on a fishing hook.  Or the first sentence can cause readers to pound the snooze button.

How can you show students how important first sentences are?

Here’s one way:

  • Show students a single drawing or photo in which some kind of human or animal action is going on. It could be the first page of a picture book (if so, cover up the words), a sports photo from a magazine, or something you’ve downloaded.  Try to find a picture which is clearly focused on one or two characters and without a lot of distracting background.Some creative sentence options.
  • Ask the students to write the first sentence of a story about the events in the picture. (No, you are not going to write the whole story.  No, I can’t offer any help.)  Let students muddle through how to approach the writing.  If they make a tentative suggestion, wanting your approval, affirm their suggestion, however good or bad you think it is.
  • Next, tell them to write another first sentence for the same picture, but this time they are to start the sentence with a direct quote. It could be someone speaking aloud or someone musing.
  • Next, tell them to write another first sentence for the same picture, this time focusing on descriptive detail. The weather, clothing, posture, the look on someone’s face—any details which seem noteworthy are okay to write about.
  • Now tell them to write still another first sentence, focusing on the emotions of a person or animal in the picture.
  • Now write a sentence focusing on using specific vocabulary, especially specific verbs.

That gives you and the students several sentences to evaluate.

  • Ask the students to read aloud each of their sentences.
  • Ask which one seems the weakest or least alluring. If there are two somewhat bad sentences, that is fine.  Ask the students to identify why those sentences seem not as good as the others.
  • Ask which sentence seems the best. If the students think one, two or three are superior, ask why.
  • Go slowly, offering the students plenty of time to consider and reconsider their choices and reasons. Evaluating takes time.  Accept all responses.
  • Now, ask the students to take the best elements of the good sentences and combine them into one final sentence.
  • Ask them to read that sentence aloud, and to explain why they chose particular elements to include.

Lastly, ask the students what they have learned about writing from this exercise.