Category Archives: writing tips

Add these two mysteries to your reading bucket list

As a tutor, one way I help students is to read the books they are required to read in school.  Then we discuss and write about those books.  The student learns more about the books this way, I can develop writing topics for my students, and I can analyze gems to help me be a better writer.  Win–win–win.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.During the past week to help an eighth grader, I reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  In 2013 the Crime Writers’ Association in Britain named it the best crime novel ever, in part because it “contains one of the most celebrated plot twists in crime writing history.”  A similar group in the US named it number 13.

At the same time, for my own reading pleasure, I reread The Big Sleep  by Raymond Chandler.  In 1999, it was voted 96th of Le Monde‘s “100 Books of the Century.” It was included in Time magazine’s List of the 100 Best Novels” in 2005.

I like both books, but for different reasons.

I reread the Christie book to find out how she was able to hide the identity of the murderer until the last pages while having that character front and center throughout the telling of the story.  She gives subtle clues but on the whole stuns readers with the book’s ending.  Christie said she wrote this book to see if she could succeed at this twist in a plot line.  She did, brilliantly, though her characters, except for her debuting detective, Hercule Poirot, are easily forgotten.

I reread the Chandler book not remembering who the murderer is or even caring.  I read to enjoy the author’s style.  Detective Philip Marlow’s character, especially his sense of humor, is developed deliciously.  The author’s descriptions of settings are meticulous, each seeming to be a metaphor of the characters who inhabit them.  Tiny details like the doctor writing on a pad with attached carbon paper date the story, while other details like “a smile as wide as Wilshire Boulevard” anchor the story in Los Angeles.

Writers can learn from both authors.

From Christie we can learn how to plot a novel, especially a crime mystery.  We can learn to include light-heartedness—in the form of the narrator’s chatty sister, Caroline—in what otherwise is a humorless story.  We can learn that pivotal details must seem organic to the story, not pulled out of a magician’s hat, unlike the explanation for who made a crucial phone call to the doctor on the night of the murder.

From Chandler we can learn how to develop memorable, quirky characters.  We can learn how to write metaphors and similes which reveal character but which are also in keeping with the personality of the person thinking them.  We can learn to use witty, flirting dialog.  We can learn how to make a setting—in this case 1930s LA—almost a character.

Since Chandler’s novels rely on sex in their plots and in their chauvinistic development of women characters, his books might not be suitable for eighth graders.  Christie’s, on the other hand, are suitable for almost all ages.  If you have a bucket list of books to read—for pleasure or to hone your craft—add The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Big Sleep to the top.  You will thank me.

13 writing tips

The father of one of my students asked me if I could provide his son with a short guide his son could keep near his computer and use while writing.  Here it my suggestion.

Create a detailed prewriting organizer before you write.  Use it.

Make sure you follow directions if you are writing a response.  Cite?  Paraphrase?  Summarize?  Analyze?  Two instances?  Three?

Write the thesis sentence first before you write any other sentence if you are writing an essay.

Decide who your main character is and the problem he or she will face before you write your first sentence if you are writing a narrative.

Read your first draft aloud.  Does every sentence make sense?  Do you follow your organizer?  If something is missing, include it.  If something is irrelevant, delete it.

Make sure every body paragraph supports the thesis of your essay.

Make sure every action moves the main character closer to solving his or her problem in your narrative.

Identify weak or overused verbs and replace them with specific verbs.

Identify and vary sentence structures.  Especially include complicated simple sentences and complex sentences.

Show, don’t tell.  If you are concluding, you are telling.

Search for your typical grammar mistakes and fix them.

Add more precise details such as names, numbers, dates, locations, direct quotes, dialog, examples, thoughts, precise descriptions and sensory information.

Do revise.  First drafts are seldom good enough.

Add details

Students write in generalities rather than with precise detail.  Yet it is detail that enhances writing.

Take, for example, this general sentence:  The dog barked at the cat.  See how it changes when we add details.

Adding numbers:  The dog barked at the single cat.

Adding dates, days, seasons:  Just as the sun was setting, the dog barked at the single cat.

Adding proper nouns, names:  Just as the sun was setting, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding places:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding stories:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at  Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the garbage truck this morning.

Sensory information, figures of speech:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang barked at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the careening garbage truck this morning.

Specific verbs:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang growled at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost crushed by the careening garbage truck this morning.

What are details?

  • numbers, %, time
  • dates, days, seasons, eras
  • proper nouns
  • names
  • places
  • stories
  • direct quotes
  • thoughts
  • facts
  • for examples
  • sensory information
  • description
  • specific verbs
  • figures of speech

Where should a student start an essay?

If you are teaching children essay writing, at which point do you tell students to begin their writing?  With the hook?  With the introduction?  With the thesis?  Somewhere else?

Lately when my students start to write essays, I tell them to skip over the introduction completely for now except for its last sentence, the thesis.  That is where I tell them to begin.

Then I tell them to write the topic sentences of the body paragraphs.  After that, I tell them to fill in the body paragraphs with detailed sentences.  Then, after the student knows the contents of the body, I tell students to write their introductions at the top of one page and their conclusions at the bottom of that page, so the students can see them both together.

The first draft of an essay is put together something like this (after the student writes an organizer):

  • The thesis is written at the top of the notebook paper or computer document.
  • Under it is written the first body paragraph topic sentence. About 2/3 of the way down the notebook paper is written the second body paragraph topic sentence.  On the back top is written the third body paragraph topic sentence.  Half way down is written the fourth, if there is a fourth.  If the student is using a computer, these sentences can be written one beneath the other since inserting more material is easy.
  • At this point, I ask the students to check to see if each topic sentence supports the thesis. If not, this is the time to make it work.
  • Next, the students fill in the body paragraphs with details from their prewriting organizer, making sure that each detail supports the paragraph topic sentence.
  • Finally, on a separate notebook paper (or at the top of the essay), students compose the introduction with or without a hook.  Below it, the student composes the conclusion, trying as much as possible, to pick up some thread mentioned in the introduction.  If the student is using a computer, the student can move the conclusion to the end once he or she has compared it to the introduction.

At this point students can type a rough draft if they have worked on notebook paper, assembling the paragraphs in the correct order.  Once the essay is on computer, they can revise.

Students tell me that at school they are told to start writing essays with the hook.  I tell my students to skip right over that.  Why?  What I am looking for is not creativity but logic, the logic of topic sentences which support a thesis and paragraph details which support the topic sentences.  That is the meat of an essay, and that is what I see missing in students’ essays these days.  When that logic is established, the student can work on a creative (or not) introduction and a conclusion which dovetails with that introduction.

 

What does teaching revising mean?

What could teachers do to help students revise?

When the essays are complete, teachers could reproduce a few sample student essays (with the students’ permission) and ask the class to analyze them. Teachers could ask:  Is there a thesis?  Do the topic sentences in the body support that thesis?  Is the thesis repeated in the topic sentences?  Is the thesis well supported in the body or is more information needed?  Does the information in each paragraph support the topic sentence of that paragraph?  If not, what should the writer do with that off-topic information?  Is the information presented logically?  Does the information in the introduction lead into the thesis?  Does the conclusion return to the ideas presented in the introduction?

Teachers could write and show their own response to the  prompt to offer an example of a well written response for the students to model.

Teachers could give students more time to improve their essays after they have analyzed other essays.

Teachers could have students read their essays to a partner for feedback before turning in their essays.

Before grading the essays, narratives, summaries, etc., teachers could return the writing marked with one idea for improvement.   Yes, the teacher would need to read each essay more than once.  But for the initial read, the teacher would need only to identify one glaring error which the student could then fix before receiving a grade.  Or if there is no glaring error, the teacher could suggest one idea for improvement (“How about turning this section into dialog?” Or “How about turning some compound sentences into complicated simple sentences?”)

The time to teach writing is not after the writing is graded but before and during the writing process while there is still time for the student to learn.  This is the time when students are most receptive to ideas which will help them become better writers.

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.

What percent of your sentences should be compound sentences?

I came across an intriguing statistic in a book* for teachers of writing.  A study of 20 well known writers, including Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, showed they used compound sentences no more than nine percent of the time.

Or said another way, these classic American writers wrote simple and complex sentences more than 90 percent of the time.

Ever since, I have told my students to strive for a majority of complicated simple sentences.  An uncomplicated simple sentence is good from time to time, especially after a long, complicated simple sentence or a long complex sentence.  But too many uncomplicated simple sentences make writing seem childish.

What is an uncomplicated simple sentence?  All the sentences in this paragraph are.  What is a complicated simple sentence?  All the other sentences in this blog except for the second sentence are.

Often you can tell an uncomplicated simple sentence by its length.  It’s short, usually fewer than ten words.

*Notes Toward a New Rhetoric:  Six Essays for Teachers by Francis Christensen, 1967.