Category Archives: sequencing information

What does revising mean?

In working with a middle grades student recently, I mentioned that, based on my experience, many English teachers don’t teach revising of essays.  “Not mine,” said the student proudly, opening his computer and pulling up a page called “Revising” written by his teacher.  “Read it,” he said.  I did.  Here is the gist of it.

  1. Find instances of the verb “said” in all its forms, count them, and replace ¾ of them.
  2. Identify pronouns, count them, and replace half with nouns.
  3. Identify certain “boring” words (from a list given by the teacher) and change 99% of them to  more detailed vocabulary.
  4. Make sure your writing follows your organizer.

One of the problems with these instructions (aside from their usefulness) is what is missing about revising.  Little or none of the advice deals with developing a thesis or main idea, organizing it, developing and sequencing ideas, writing logically, creating tone and voice, writing with varied sentence structures, or writing introductions and conclusions.  Yet these are far more important areas of writing than identifying the verb “to say” or replacing pronouns with nouns.

Students today are poor writers for many reasons.  Lack of practice, poor modeling, and little teacher intervention until the writing is being graded are a few.  But so is poor or little advice on how to revise, and the kind of teacher training which largely ignores research.

I suspect the teacher who composed the above revising instructions, like most teachers, is well-intentioned.  But she is probably not an experienced writer.  If she were, she would know that the verb “said” should not be replaced with words like “reported,” spoke,” “advised,” or “shouted.” Those synonyms draw attention away from what was said to how it was said, diluting the message.  Pronouns should not routinely be replaced with nouns.  At first reference, a noun should be used, but in subsequent referrals in the same paragraph, a pronoun should be used. Yes,  “boring” words should be replaced, especially verbs, with more precise vocabulary.  And yes again, first drafts should follow an organizer.

Two out of four are good advice.  50%.  This is  reason why students today are poor writers.

Red, white, and blue around the holidays

Ever notice that when you are writing a series—usually of three—the shortest item goes first, the middle-sized item goes second, and the longest item goes last?

That’s not a coincidence.  It’s good writing.

Thomas Jefferson knew this when he wrote, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

So did whoever wrote the pledge “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Why does this way of saying a series—shortest item to longest item—work?

It has to do with our brains.  It’s easier to keep in mind a short-named item than it is to keep in mind a longer-named item.  (Prince William v. Prince William Arthur Philip Louis Mountbatten-Windsor) If you say a longer item first in a series, our short-term memory can’t easily process it while taking in other items, even if those other items are shorter.

This principle is sometimes called “light before heavy.”

Another way of thinking about this is to put the item you wish to emphasize last.  When an emcee introduces entertainer Taylor Swift, the emcee might say, “the singer, the composer, the winner of nine Grammy awards, Taylor Swift.”

Still another way of thinking about this is to put what is known before what is new information to the reader or listener.  “The Harvard drop-out, the co-founder of Microsoft, the donator of more than 30 billion dollars in grants to make the world a better place” might be a way to introduce Bill Gates.

We are so used to hearing a series listed from shorter to longer or from known to new or from light to heavy that any other way sounds wrong.  It sounds unbalanced to say “the first President of the United States, the general, the farmer, George Washington.”

By the time we are adults, we have learned what sounds right, but for children this is a new concept and must be taught.