Category Archives: prewriting organizer

Use a modified time line as a prewriting organizer for narratives

Narratives tell stories, either fiction (a detective story, for example) or nonfiction (the life of a butterfly, a biography, or a trip, for example). For students, those stories are clearest if they are written in chronological order. So I recommend a modified time line to plan those stories.

The kinds of time lines used in history classes are detailed with dozens of dates. That is not what I mean by a modified time line. I mean a beginning, middle and end.

  • At the top of a page of notebook paper, I ask students to write the word “beginning.” If the story is fiction, just under the word “beginning” I instruct them to write “setting—place and time, characters, opening scene, and problem to be solved.” The student writes down that information, not in sentences, but just in phrases or snippets that he can go back to later to develop his story.
  • If the story is nonfiction, the student might label the beginning, middle and ending differently. The labels might be “childhood, school years, adulthood” or “before the war, during the war, while president” or “foal, colt, stallion.”
An example of a modified timeline organizer on Babe Ruth's life--childhood, school years, and baseball career.

Click on the graphic to enlarge it.

  • For a fiction story, most of the detail will happen in the middle part. Here the student will add more phrases, snippets, arrows, cartoons or whatever helps him organize the action of his narrative.
  • For nonfiction, the three or more parts might all be about the same size. Or there might be more than three parts, but for beginning writers, I recommend three parts. Three seems doable.
  • A few lines up from the bottom, I ask the student to write the word “End” if the story is fiction. Next to it the student writes “Resolution.” Here the student writes down how his story will end and any ideas that need to be explained.
  • If the story is nonfiction, again there should be a clear ending to the story.

Easy? You bet. Does it work? Yes, if there is enough detail. I don’t let the students begin writing unless there are about ten or more ideas or steps in the beginning and middle parts. For new students, I ask them to explain one or two of these steps to be sure they are thinking the narrative through. When they discuss it with me, I suggest more ideas for them to write down, so that they see the degree of detail I hope they will include in their stories.

Completed Babe Ruth essay using the timeline example.

Babe Ruth essay from the modified timeline organizer example. Click on the essay picture to enlarge it.

Since many students enjoy writing detective stories, the “resolution” becomes how to solve the case. For students traveling in space, the problem is to get home or to the new planet or to save someone. But the problem can be simpler: how did Abraham Lincoln die, or where does the mother bear go in the winter to have new cubs. The ending of the narrative should satisfy both the reader and author.

Comparison essays are another type students are often asked to write. In the next blog, we’ll talk about an easy prewriting organizer for them.

The best prewriting organizers for expository and persuasive essays are mind webs.

I define best using two criteria:

  • the kind of organizers students are likely to use because they are easy, and
  • the kind of organizers that keep the writer focused on one main idea and relevant details.

Many students skip using a prewriting organizer because they think that using one is difficult and a waste of time.   In fact, what they might be rebelling against are the kinds of prewriting organizers that teachers recommend.  Formal outlines are incredibly difficult for students to use, yet some teachers insist on them.  I never use them, and I am a professional writer.   Why would I when there are easier approaches that do the job better?

Nearly every student I have tutored  had a teacher who suggested a unique organizer.  Students move from fourth grade to fifth grade to sixth grade, and each time students need to learn a new type of organizer to please their teachers.  This frustrates students needlessly and doesn’t lead to good essays.

This is a graphic representation of a third grade student's handwritten mind web.

This is a graphic representation of a third grade student’s handwritten mind web (click on the picture to enlarge it).

What I recommend to my students who write expository (informational) and persuasive essays is to use a mind web organizer, sometimes called a spider web.  The student writes the single topic of the essay in the middle of the paper, and then, like spokes of a bicycle wheel, draws two, three or four lines out from the topic.  At the ends of these lines, the student writes the subtopics he will develop.  Then from each of those subtopics, he draws new “spokes,” naming the details he wants to use to explain each subtopic.

Beginning students need to be walked through these steps.  Often I start the web by asking the student questions to find out what the subdivisions will be and to begin finding details.  Then I hand over the unfinished web to the student to finish.  Modeling is an important way to show the student the kind of detail he needs to develop.  In general, beginning writers use too many generalities and too few details.  They need someone to model how to find and write down details.

After the mind web is complete, I ask my students to encircle each mind web subheading and its details in a different color, using colored pencils, markers, or crayons.  Using color is a visual way to connect details that belong together.  Students can see immediately which subheadings have too little development and can add more details before they write.  Lastly, I ask students to number each colored group of ideas in the order in which they want to write about them in the essay.

Here's the finished essay using the "Snow Week" mind web organizer(click the picture to enlarge it).

The colored borders were added to the final essay to show which essay paragraphs match up with the encircled mind web ideas(click on the picture to enlarge it).

Why does as mind web organizer work?

  • With a single idea centering the web, the student is forced to write about one idea only.
  • With two, three, or four subtopics (never more than four or the essay becomes more a laundry list than developed thoughts), the student is forced to break down the topic into a few explaining ideas (expository essays) or reasons (persuasive essays).
  • The looseness and scribble-like quality of the mind web relax the student into thinking, “I can do this.”  Students turn the paper sideways when they run out of room, or draw arrows to indicate information on the back, or tape another paper to the side and extend the web to a second page.  The mind web expands endlessly, encouraging the student to add more details.
  • Because the structure is loose, students can add more details as they think of them, even after they begin their first drafts.  Change is always possible with a mind web.

The result is a detailed prewriting organizer about a single topic.  Sometimes it looks a mess, but the only ones who need to read it are the students and I.  When parents first see the mind webs of their children, shock crosses their faces, but later, when I show them the writing that the mind webs lead to, their surprise turns into smiles.

Mind webs are easy and they work for expository and persuasive essays, two of the main kinds that students need to write. But what kind of organizer works for narratives? We’ll talk about that in the next blog.

Prewriting organizers are essential

Many students think they can skip writing down a prewriting organizer, or that scribbling three or four words is enough planning before they begin their first drafts. But as a teacher, I can tell immediately when students have not thought through their essays before writing.   In those essays,

  • the writing sounds off-the-top-of-the-head;
  • the ordering seems haphazard;
  • the number of details is too few, too general, or lopsided; and
  • the essay strays from one main idea.

Essays are thoughtful presentations of ideas, not dream-like narratives. A stream of consciousness method of writing does not work for essays. Essays must be organized, and that plan of organization must be evident to the reader from the beginning of the essay.

Methods of grading student essays (rubrics) allocate up to 2/5 of the final grade for a combination of developing a single idea and organizing that idea in a clear manner. That’s 40% of the grade.

Think of the prewriting organizer as a recipe to follow to write an essay. Would you mix the ingredients for a new kind of cookies without a list of those ingredients? Would you combine the ingredients in any old order?

Or think of the prewriting organizer as Lego instructions for a new spaceship. Could you ignore the instructions, put together the Lego pieces any which way, and hope to end up with the spaceship on the box’s cover?

What kind of prewriting organizers work best? We’ll talk about next.