Category Archives: writing problems

Three wrong ways to introduce a citation

Suppose you are researching how the novel To Kill a Mockingbird was reviewed when it first was published.  You find the July 13, 1960, review by Herbert Mitgang in The New York Times. In the review you find words worth citing.  How do you introduce the citation?  Let’s look at some examples, returning to the image of the hamburger and bun.

[First, you introduce your source, the top bun of the hamburger:]  The New York Times reviewed To Kill a Mockingbird when the book came out.  [Second, you introduce the citation, the hamburger:]  It says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  [Third, you give your opinion why this citation is significant, the bottom bun of the hamburger:]  The Times writer singles out both the novel’s writer and its message.

Now, let’s leave out the bracketed information:  The New York Times reviewed To Kill a Mockingbird when the book came out.  It says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  The Times writer singles out both the novel’s writer and its message.

What’s wrong?  Several things.  First, did The New York Times review Mockingbird or did a person?  If it was a person, the name of that person should be identified.  Second, can you, the research paper writer, identify the date when the review was published?  If so, including that specific information increases the credibility of your source.  And third, since a pronoun needs to have an antecedent, what is the antecedent to “It,” the first word of the second sentence?  There is none.

Better:  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  Mitgang says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

Suppose we keep the “better” citation with one change:  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  Here it is.  Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

Here what is?  The last noun in the previous sentence is “novel.”  Yet “Here it is” does not refer to the novel.  “Here it is” refers to the review.  “Here it is” is a poor transition from the upper bun of the hamburger to the hamburger itself.

Let’s try again with another change.  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  The quote is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

The word “The” before the word “quote” indicates a particular quotation.  Yet no particular quotation is mentioned in the previous sentence.  “The quote” refers back to nothing.  An improvement would be, “A quote from that review” but even that improvement is not as good as naming the person doing the quoting.

When you are introducing a direct quote,

  • Introduce the quotation with the name of the person or organization responsible for the quote. For example, The US Congress passed an act which says, “. . .”
  • Identify additional details to put the quote in context. Such details could be a date, a place, or the context (a war, an election, a first novel, after the passage of 30 years).
  • Don’t use “It says” unless “it” has been identified and “it” identifies who is responsible for the quote. Even then, your writing is better if you remove the pronoun “it” and use the noun.
  • Don’t use “The quote is” unless you have already identified the quote in some way. Even then, use more specific language, usually naming the source of the quote, for a better transition.

Nine tips I’ve learned from teaching the writing parts of the SAT and ACT

  1. A rewritten phrase or clause with the word “being” in it is almost always wrong. Perplexed student writing
  2. Shorter versions of rewritten grammar are usually the correct answers.  If in doubt, choose the shortest or second shortest answer.
  3. Hard to spot run-on sentences often have a comma in the middle of the sentence followed by a subject pronoun.   The comma needs to be  a period, or a semicolon.  Or you need to put a coordinating conjunction after the comma.
  4. If you have one dash, you need two dashes unless the sentence ends where the second dash would be.
  5. In lists or series, the important words must be the same part of speech such as all nouns, all verbs, all infinitives, or all gerunds.
  6. “It’s” means it is. “Its” means something belongs to it.  Its’ is not a word.
  7. “They’re” means they are. “Their” means something belongs to them.  “There” means over there or that something exists.  All three begin with “the.”  Thier is not a word.
  8. Commas come before coordinating conjunctions, not after unless what follows the conjunction is nonessential information.
  9. Third person singular verbs (the kind you use with “he,” “she,” or “it” as the subject) in the present tense end in an “s.”

15 signs your child could benefit from a writing tutor

Does your child have poor grades in writing?

Does your child hide his writing or “forget” to show you it?

Does your child leave writing homework until the last moment?

Does your child not finish his writing homework?

Does your child’s school writing consist of a word or a phrase, not sentences or paragraphs?

Does your child balk at writing complete sentences?

Does your child’s teacher seldom require long written responses?

Are almost all tests multiple choice answers only?

Does your child show frustration, uncertainty or fear when writing?

Does your child’s teacher check only that the writing is done without offering feedback on the contents and execution?

Are your child’s writing assignments really grammar or editing assignments?

When your child writes, are the ideas illogical or incoherent?

When your child writes, are there many punctuation, grammar or word usage mistakes?

When your child writes, does he use general, vague vocabulary, not specific vocabulary?

When your child writes, do many sentences contain a single subject and a compound predicate?

All of these are signs of a weak writer, a student who is not practicing writing enough to become a proficient writer.  If this is your child, he or she could benefit from one-on-one instruction from a qualified writing tutor.

Why are “how” questions harder than “why” questions?

A sixth grade student I was tutoring this past week commented that he would much rather answer questions that asked “why” than “how.”

“And why is that?” I asked.

“Because you can start a ‘why’ answer with the word ‘because,” but I don’t know how to start a ‘how’ answer,” he said.

I looked through a 2016 New York State sixth grade exam to find out which kinds of questions comply with the Common Core State Standards, and here are some of the questions I found:

  • “Why are the results of the survey important?”
  • “How does Trina’s mood change?”
  • “Why does the relationship between Julianna and her father change?”
  • How does the father’s idea that Juliana needed to start looking at the whole landscape relate to his description of a painting?”

Then I thought of my students’ written answers to these questions, and sure enough, the “why” questions were responded to better than the “how” questions.

Both “why” and “how” questions require students to analyze a text, a harder task than recalling knowledge or proving understanding, according to Bloom’s taxonomy.  So in that sense, they begin at about the same difficulty level.

A “why” question usually requires one reason although two or three reasons might contribute to a more complete answer.  For example, the question, “Why was George W. Bush elected US President in 2000?” can be answered with one idea:  He gained enough electoral college votes to win.  More could be said about the popular vote and the Florida debacle, but it is not required.  The electoral college information suffices.

But the question, “How did George W. Bush win the election in 2000?” requires more information, especially about the Florida recount and the involvement of the US Supreme Court.

Usually “how” questions require a sequence of information—more than one idea—or a comparison of information.  A “why” question requires one idea only.

For example, in the “how” exam questions listed above, to describe how Trina’s mood changes, the student must describe three things:  her mood at the beginning, the event which changes that mood, and her mood at the end.

To describe how a father’s advice that Julianna must look at the whole picture relates to his painting, the student must first describe the fragmented way Julianna is talking about her boyfriend’s eyes, hair and cheek color, and then relate the fragmented way her father talks about painting a cow, a meadow or sunshine, and then relate both conversations to the father’s statement that putting it all together is when the magic happens.

My student’s insight taught me that I need to discuss with my students what kinds of information are required to answer “how” questions.  To prepare them better for their exams, together we need to respond to more “how” questions, first discussing the kinds of information needed to supply a complete answer.  In this case, it is the thinking through of the answer rather than the actual writing which is difficult for students.

 

How to encourage kids to write

The best way to improve your writing is to write more.  Writing is a skill which improves with practice.  But how do you get kids to practice writing?

The blog Daily Writing Tips offers ten ways.  Let me paraphrase a few of them.

Encourage students to read, read, read.  Reading isn’t writing, true.  But if students read widely, they encounter all kinds of writing styles.  Subconsciously they discern what is good writing.

Encourage students to write stories for younger kids. If students are in third grade, have them write for kindergarteners, using themes and words kindergarteners understand.  By doing so, students consider audience, style of writing, how complicated to make the plot, what kinds of characters to include, the setting—all elements of stories.

Encourage students to keep going even if they know there are mistakes.  Professional writers don’t stop to fix every mistake as they write.  No, they know they will go back later and fix mistakes.  Once students are in the “flow” of writing, they should push on.

Encourage students to keep journals and to share those journals.  With partners or in small groups they can share their writing and receive feedback.  Positive feedback is so important to motivate a student to keep writing.

Encourage students to ask for help.  Some parents think students should write alone and confer with a teacher only when the writing is done.  Wrong.  Conferring during the writing process allows students to ask questions about verb tenses, a better way to say something, the meaning of a word, and plot possibilities.  The teacher becomes not the judge but the helper.

And I would add an idea of my own.  Write with students.  Ask them questions as you write, so they can see you welcome their help.  Share your writing when it is done, warts and all.  Model the behavior you hope they will use with you.  Let them help you.