Category Archives: Transitions

Coherence, the most important element in writing

Writing well requires following certain steps in sequence:

  • Narrowing your topic
  • Organizing your information, including writing an overarching topic sentence or thesis and subtopic sentences or plot lines
  • Writing a first draft
  • Revising, revising, revising
  • Editing

Once your first draft is complete, revising becomes most important.  So many tasks comprise revising—checking for complete sentences, tightening wordiness, analyzing ideas for logic, honing vocabulary, fixing grammar errors, adding figures of speech and style.  Students wonder where to begin.

Begin with coherence, the most important element of writing.  Coherence means making sure all your sentences make sense and flow from one to another.  Coherence means making sure your readers understand what you mean—easily, at first read, without an interpreter.

How do you do that?  Some ways include:

  • Make sure every sentence in the body paragraphs supports the thesis. If you use an anecdote, make sure it is an example of the ideas in the thesis.  If you use a simile or metaphor, make sure it fits with the topic.  If the topic is igneous rock, for example, the simile “as hot as the steam from a steam boat” is off topic, whereas “as hot as a lava lake” is on topic.
  • If you use numbers (three kinds of rocks, five members of my family, one favorite memory), check that you have named all the numbers and no more.
  • Use logical transitions. “Because” means something causes something else.  Make sure you have named a cause and an effect if you use “because.”  “Finally” means the last one in a series or the last point.  If you have only two or three points, you shouldn’t use “finally.” You should use “secondly,” or “next,” or “third.”
  • If you use a pronoun, make sure you have named the noun the pronoun refers back to. And make sure you have named that noun before you use the pronoun (not “When she fell, Mary broke her arm,” but “When Mary fell, she broke her arm.”  If you use “this,” make sure your reader can know in a word or phrase what “this” refers to.  If “this” is vague or complicated, add a noun after “this” (this situation, this erosion, this loss of interest).  If you have two women talking, make sure if you use “she,” the reader knows which one you are referring to.  Otherwise, use her name or title or position.
  • Check that your sentences are complete thoughts–not fragments or run-ons.  Make sure your complex sentences contain no more than two dependent clauses so readers needn’t hold multiple ideas in their minds at once.  Check that your sentences vary in length, with most more than ten and fewer than 20 words.
  • Change your weak, vapid verbs to active, dynamic verbs.  Eliminate the verb “to be” and passive voice verbs.

If what you write lacks coherence, no matter how specific the vocabulary, no matter how beautiful the description, no matter how lofty your aim, your writing will flop.  Your writing must make sense to a reader without you standing at her elbow explaining, “Well, what I mean is. . .”

Savoring great sentences

Good writers try to make their sentence structure invisible so that we readers are 100% engrossed in the meaning of the writing without being distracted by the grammar.  But when I read really good writing, I go back to analyze why it seems so effortless, so perfect.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Sometimes I find incredible sentences.  Here is one of my favorite cumulative sentences, jotted down many years ago, its source now unknown to me.

“He stood at the top of the stairs and watched me, I waiting for him to call me up, he hesitating to come down, his lips nervous with the suggestion of a smile, mine asking whether the smile meant come, or go away.”

Isn’t that a great sentence?  It contains 43 words.  Usually 43-word sentences are hard to follow unless they are a list.  But this simple sentence is easy to follow.  Why?

It starts with an independent clause using all single-syllable words:  a subject (he) and two verbs (stood and watched).  Next are two phrases with parallel ideas about the two people (I and he) expressed in parallel grammar (I waiting, he hesitating).  The last two lines are also parallel ideas expressed in similar ways.  The first starts with “his lips,” and the second starts with the pronoun, “mine,” referring to her lips.

Adding to the clarity of this long sentence are the organic transitions.  The first line introduces the two people, “he” and “me”; the second line uses “I,” “him” and “me”; the third uses “he”; the fourth uses “his”; and the fifth uses “mine.”

Also adding to the sentence’s goodness is the use of “up” and “down” to create a visual image of the situation.  In the independent clause we learn a male is at the top of the stairs; in the next phrase we learn that another person is waiting to be called up by him; in the next line the word “down” is used.

Another organic transition is his “lips” and his “smile”; in the last line the word “smile” is repeated.

And finally, there are the last three words.  “Or go away” comes as a surprise.  Wait!  Did I understand this right? the reader asks, going back and re-evaluating what the sentence might really mean.  You have been bewitched by a master writer.

Are you a sentence saver?  If so, you must be a writer.

Citing evidence, paraphrasing and quoting

When students are expected to cite evidence from readings, beginning in late elementary grades, the problem of when and how to use paraphrasing and direct quotes arises, as well as how to combine the two seamlessly.

Let’s start with a story everyone knows, “The Three Little Pigs.”  Suppose the version of the story being analyzed says,

The wolf walked up to the door of the first little pig.  The wolf saw that the house was made of straw.  Silly little pig, thought the wolf.  I’ll have you for my dinner today.  So the wolf knocked on the door and said, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” 

Now suppose the student has taken the position that the wolf is a polite creature.  The student needs to cite information from the article proving this point.

What I have observed is that most students equate the word “cite” with “use direct quotes.”  To do that, students might quote the whole paragraph as their citation.  (I see this all the time.)  But that is not a good way to cite.

One good way is to cite by paraphrasing without ever using direct quotes.  For example, to prove the wolf is polite, the student could write,

The wolf didn’t run to the door of the little pig living in the house of straw, but as the story says, he walked.  Also, the wolf knocked at the door and asked in a normal tone of voice to be let in.  In other words, the wolf behaved politely.

But suppose the student wants to quote the words, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” because they are so identified with the classic wording of the story.  The student could have written most of the same citation as above, changing it this way.

The wolf didn’t run to the door of the little pig living in the house of straw, but as the story says, he walked.  Also, the wolf knocked at the door and asked in a normal tone of voice to be let in, saying, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” In other words, the wolf behaved politely.

This too is a citation.

However, what I see is that students directly quote two or three sentences or a whole paragraph without connecting the quote to their own grammar.  Both the students’ ideas and the direct quote stand alone in a paragraph with no transition from one to the other, and no attempt to shorten the quote to only a few key words.  If there is a transition from their own words to the direct quote it is stilted or confusing.

Students need much practice paraphrasing without using direct quotes, and paraphrasing plus using direct quotes.  This can be done using single paragraphs from fairy tales, songs, or news stories until students are comfortable with this kind of writing.

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.

“Then” is not a conjunction. And usually “then” is not needed.

“Then” is an adverb and cannot be used as a conjunction, even though many of my students think it can.

Wrong:  I went swimming, then I took a shower.

Right:  I went swimming, and then I took a shower.

One way to show that “then” is not a conjunction is to move it around in the sentence.  “I went swimming, I took a shower then.”  “I went swimming, I then took a shower.”  You can see that these would-be compound sentences are actually run-ons even with the word “then” in the sentence.  They need a coordinating conjunction such as “and” or a subordinate conjunction such as “before.”

Many students use “then” as the first word of a sentence to show a time sequence or a transition from one idea to the next.  Students might need to do this as they write down events in chronological order.  But often they overuse the word “then,” with some students starting almost every sentence with that word.  An easy way to deal with this problem is to let the student write “then” all she wants in her first draft.  During revision, have her circle every “then” and cross out all but one. Let her choose which one stays.

Some grammar books indicate that “then” should be followed by a comma when it starts a sentence, or when it interrupts a thought.  A comma indicates a pause in thinking or in speaking, and since we Americans don’t usually pause after the word “then,” it is rarely necessary.

“Then” is one of many overused words by students, along with “so,” “just,” “like” and “and.”  Usually when students are made aware that they are overusing a word, they self-edit, but sometimes it takes several revisions to prove that they overuse certain words.

Also, “then” and “than” are not synonyms.  “Then,” like “when,” indicated time.  “Than” indicated comparisons.