Category Archives: revising first drafts

Finding the right word

When you are reading a rough draft, and you come to a word which seems not quite right to you, or you know there must be a better word but you don’t know what it is, what should you do?

Draw a box around any word which offers an opportunity for improvement and keep reading, says John McPhee, author of Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.  Later, go back, and one by one, think about each of those words.  He suggests you use a good dictionary, the kind which will not only offer synonyms but which will explain shades of meaning among those synonyms.

McPhee recommends not heading directly to a thesaurus because generally thesauruses list synonyms but do not identify shades of meaning, and it is that nuance that you are probably looking for.  However, he says that if you like using a thesaurus, do that, but then look up your chosen word or phrase in a dictionary too.  He calls thesauruses “rest stops” on the way to the dictionary.

McPhee also warns against choosing a multisyllabic word when a simple word will do.

McPhee is author of close to three dozen nonfiction books and is a former writer for Time and The New Yorker.  He offers advice in Draft No. 4 based on his experience writing for more than 50 years, including how to interview in a way which makes people open up, and how to structure nonfiction so that the structure helps the writer but is invisible to the reader.

Want to write like Hemingway? There’s an app for that

Do you want to write like Ernest Hemingway, using active voice verbs; short, simple sentences; short, one-syllable words; and few adverbs?  There is a free web app to help you.  Here’s how the app works.

Type a passage which you want to be more Hemingway-like. Swipe and copy it.  Go to Hemingwayapp.com.  Click the “H1,” “H2,” or “H3” button at the top of the app screen to allow you to paste your passage.  Or click the “write” button in the top right corner to compose on the site.


 
Highlighted in yellow will be sentences which are long or complex or which have common errors. The app identifies them, but it’s up to you to figure out how to fix them.

Highlighted in red will be sentences which are dense, that is, too full of information. Again, it’s up to you to figure out how to fix them.

Highlighted in purple will be words for which a shorter synonym is possible. Synonyms will be suggested by the app.

Highlighted in blue will be adverbs—a sign that your verbs aren’t strong enough to stand alone. The app won’t suggest stronger verbs, but it will identify adverbs, most of which should probably go.

Highlighted in green will be passive voice verbs. You need to figure out how to rewrite the sentence to make the verb active.

In the right margin will be a readability score, that is, the reading grade level of your passage.

The Hemingway app will make your writing more Hemingway-like, but that doesn’t mean your writing will be of high literary merit.  Your writing will be streamlined and easier to read, but that is not the same as “good.”

Still, if your revising skills are poor, or if you are pinched for time, this app can offer suggestions on how to make your writing more readable.  The cost to download a desktop version (3.0) is $19.99, available for both PC’s and Mac’s.

 

Lockstep sentences, one after another, bore readers

What is a lockstep sentence?  Usually, it’s a sentence which begins with a subject (a noun or pronoun) and is followed by a predicate (a verb and a direct object, or a verb and a linked noun or adjective).  If there is a prepositional phrase, it comes at the end of the sentence.

Here is such a lockstep sentence pattern.

1  John watched the television news.  2  He saw an interesting discussion.  3  New York’s Congressman Newman debated Delaware’s Congressman Doe.  4  Congressman Newman took the conservative position and Congressman Doe took the liberal position.  5  “That’s a good discussion,” thought John.

Notice the sentence patterns:

1  subject, verb, direct object  (five words)

2  subject, verb, direct object  (five words)

3  subject, verb, direct object     (eight words)

4  subject, verb, direct object, conjunction, subject, verb, direct object  (13 words)

5  subject, verb, predicate noun, verb, subject (six words)

These five sentences follow a lockstep pattern.  They all begin with a subject.  Two have adjectives before the simple subject, but all start with the complete subject.  Each subject is followed by a verb which is followed by a direct object in four cases and a predicate noun in the other case.  The longer sentence is actually two simple sentences following the same pattern, but connected with a conjunction to form a compound sentence.

In this case, the lockstep sentences contain few words, adding to their tedium.

A lockstep sentence pattern needn’t be this particular pattern, but it is a pattern which repeats over and over, sentence after sentence.

For some writers, the pattern is a single subject and a compound predicate.  “I ate dinner and took a walk.  The night was warm but humid.  I stood under a tree and waited for the rain to stop.  Then I went home and drank hot tea.”

For other writers, the pattern is an adverb to start the sentence followed by a subject and a predicate.  “Playfully, my dog licked my ankle.  Then she walked to her mat.  There she scratched herself.  However, she heard thunder in the distance.  Immediately, she returned to my side.”

For some writers, the pattern is a series of complex sentences with the subordinate clause always coming after the independent clause.  “I stopped the car because a blue light flashed ahead.  Soon cars parted as a fire engine passed.  Then an ambulance wailed while I checked my GPS.”

What can a writer do to avoid lockstep patterns?

First, analyze your own writing.  See if you consistently use a pattern.

Next, as your write, be aware of your tendency to use that pattern.  Look over your work, and if you notice that pattern, change the sentences.  If you usually begin with a subject followed by a verb, start some sentences with prepositional phrases, adverbs or gerund phrases.  If you usually begin with an adverb, cross out half of them, and then cross out half the rest.  If you write mostly short sentences, turn some of them into complicated simple sentences or complex sentences with double the words.

Lockstep sentence patterns are like familiar car routes.  We become so comfortable using them that we don’t explore new ways of expressing ourselves.  But we should to keep our writing fresh and our readers engaged.

Peer evaluation of writing

Is it worth taking time to let students evaluate others’ writing?

Recently I asked second graders to write stories based on the picture book, Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle.  Since the book is wordless, the students were forced to write their own versions of the story relying not on the author’s words but rather on the illustrations for guidance.

Later, I selected portions of two students’ stories for comparison.  I typed and printed them side by side, so students could compare how the two students wrote the same parts of the story.

Here are some of the comments students (second through eighth grade) made:

  • I like Student One’s opening because it tells when the story happens.
  • I like Student Two’s opening because it names the girl.
  • I like the word “poked” by Student One because it shows exactly how the penguin acted.
  • I like all the ways Student Two shows what Flora and the penguin did. They skated, danced, jumped, twirled and slid.  You can see it happening.
  • I like the dialog that Student Two uses when Flora asks, “What are you doing?”
  • I like Student One’s word, “outraged.”  That is a strong word.
  • I like Student Two’s word, word “disgusted” because it shows how Flora felt.
  • I like Student One’s writing where it says that Flora feels sorry because it shows that Flora cares.
  • I like when Student Two says “just like a fishing net.” I can see it.
  • I like when Student Two says “they tugged and tugged,” but maybe there are too many “tugs.”
  • I like Student One’s ending because it says Flora and the Penguin are happy.

After their blow-by-blow analyses, I asked my students what they learned from evaluating other students’ writing.  They said:

  • Use details, lots of details.
  • Use dialog or thoughts.
  • Use names.
  • Show emotions of the characters.
  • Verbs are really important to show action.
  • Use good vocabulary words.

One second grader, who rushes through her writing, compared her  plain version with the two shown here and said, “I’m starting over.”

A seventh grader who read the two versions, said, “Second graders?  Really?  I didn’t think I could learn good ideas about how to write from second graders.”

Is peer evaluation of writing a good idea?  You decide.

Dysgraphia needs to be accommodated like other learning disabilities

Dysgraphia is a learning disorder in which a child does not want to write.  In other ways the child is normal, but he flat out doesn’t want to hold a pencil and write.  If he is forced to write, his letter formation, the spacing between letters and words, and the various sizes of letters indicate something’s wrong.

EPSON MFP imageAll children have times when they balk at writing—when they’re tired, for example.  But dysgraphia shows as a day-in, day-out struggle to get a child to write–and not just in a writing lesson but in math and social studies too.  You might think the child is having a temper tantrum, but actually he is balking at a way of learning which makes no sense to him.  Children with dysgraphia spend so much energy thinking about how to hold the pencil, and how to form the letters, and where the spaces go, that whatever they are supposed to learn by writing—whether it is addition facts or how fossils form—is lost.

Something is wrong, and that something is how the brain works.  (More on that in future blogs.)

So what can you, as the parent or teacher of such a child, do to end tears and tantrums?

  • As much as possible, for that student eliminate writing as a way of learning and testing. Some students are asked to write each new spelling or vocabulary word five times.  Don’t assign this kind of work to a child with dysgraphia.  Let the child use flashcards rather than worksheets to learn math facts.
  • Allow the child to do her work out loud. Let the child tell an adult what she knows.  Allow the child to speak her answers directly to you or into an audio recording machine.
EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

  • If the child must write a story or an essay, or answer a question in a sentence or two, give the child time to organize her thoughts. Then let her dictate her response to you.  When it’s time to revise, let the child dictate the revisions.
  • Make learning the use of a keyboard a part of this student’s studies.
  • Allow the student to “write” on an iPad or other electronic device.
  • Try various kinds of writing tools. Sometimes smooth-flowing markers can seem not as bad as pencils or pens. Sometimes thicker or thinner tools can feel better.  The smooth surface of a dry erase board can entice a student.
  • If the child has sensory integration issues, schedule writing after recess or after a back rub.

You might be thinking: But at a certain point, doesn’t the child need to conform?

Maybe that’s the wrong question.  Maybe we should be asking how we can make learning math, languages, science and social studies possible without needing to write.  We do it in other fields.  Do you need to write to learn how to play a piano?  Create a collage?  Act in a play?

Writing is one way to learn, but it is not the only way.  For children with other learning problems, we make accommodations.  Do blind children read with their eyes?  Do deaf children speak with their mouths?

In this time of differentiated learning, children with dysgraphia need to be recognized as living with a brain impairment.  They need to be accommodated so that they can learn in a way which makes sense to them.

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.

Share your writing with students to improve yours and theirs

A couple of months ago I shared the first scene from a story I am writing with two of my students, an eighth grade brother and a sixth grade sister.

Teacher typing on a laptop seated between a young boy and a young girl.

Their feedback was insightful:  how I started off in the middle of a tense situation, how my short sentences made that tense situation even tenser, how they liked the tenderness of the main character, how shocked they were by something that happened just like the main character must have been, and how real the dialog of the children sounded.

I had previously taught them that writers today are encouraged not to provide back story at the beginning of a narrative, but rather to jump right into the action and weave the backstory in here and there.

“Oh, now I see what you mean,” said the brother.  “You have the mother trying to stop the car, and the 18-wheeler zooming up behind her, and the pickup ahead of her zig-zagging and trapping her.”

“Yeah, and only then you learn there are children in the back seat who are yelling because they’re scared,” said the sister.

“But you don’t tell anything about them except their names.”

“Yeah, but you still care about them because they’re kids and they’re scared.”

From this short exchange, I was reminded how useful it is for the writing teacher / tutor / parent to share her own writing with a student.

  • Sharing your writing proves that you know how to write, so your praise and criticism are respected by your students.
  • Sharing your writing makes the lesson more collaborative. The students give feedback, ask questions and suggest areas that could be improved, adopting the role usually reserved for the teacher.  The teacher, meanwhile, learns how to improve her writing.
  • Demonstrating the kind of behavior you hope your students will show, such as listening carefully to what they say, adding more information when they say that an idea is vague, and drawing arrows to move ideas around for better sequencing, will lead to the same good writing behaviors in your students.
  • Taking the students’ suggestions seriously models life-long learning, a lifestyle we hope they will adopt.
  • And perhaps most importantly, showing that you do what you are asking them to do builds their respect for you as their teacher.