Category Archives: writing tips

When you are writing the sentences of an essay, where do you begin?

  1.  with the hook?
  2. with the introduction?
  3. with the thesis or essay topic sentence?
  4. with the supporting topic sentences?
  5. with the conclusion?

The answer is with the thesis /  essay topic sentence.

3rd grader writing an essay.But too many students don’t start there.  They start with a topic—say Harry Potter books—and then focus on writing a hook to get someone to read their essay about Harry Potter books.  When they are writing their hook they have no idea about the precise topic of their essay, just that it has something to do with Harry Potter books.  Wrong approach!

To impress upon my students how primary the thesis is to an essay, I have them write it on their planner before they plan in detail.  Then when they begin to write sentences, I have them skip five or six lines on notebook paper (or on a computer) and write their thesis there, partway down the paper, leaving room to add an introduction later.

The thesis is the anchor of the whole paper.  I have students box that sentence in color for easy referral.

Next, I have the student write the body paragraph topic sentences. This time I ask students to skip ten or more spaces after each body paragraph.  Later they can come back and fill in those spaces with details.

We read over those topic sentences and check out each one against the thesis.  Does the topic sentence support the thesis?  If yes, keep it.  If no, toss it and write another topic sentence which does.

Next, students write the body paragraph sentences with all the details which back up the paragraph’s topic sentence and the thesis.

Now that they know what their essay is about they can go back and write the introduction and the conclusion.

Think of an essay as a wedding ceremony.  What is most important in the ceremony?  Is it the music as the bride walks down the aisle?  Is it the flowers?   Is it the witnesses?  The kiss?  Of course not.  It’s the vows.  The vows are just a few words.  “I take you, Harry, to be my husband.”  “I take you, Meghan, to be my wife.”  Those vows are followed by supporting details like “for better or for worse,” and “in sickness and in health.”

The vows are like the thesis.  “In good times and in bad” and the other details are like the body of the essay.  The music is like the introduction and conclusion.  And the bride’s beautiful dress is the hook.  You can have a wedding without the dress and the music, but you cannot have one without the vows.  The vows are where you begin, just as the thesis is where you begin an essay.

An essay is a planned, organized piece of writing with one overarching idea expressed in a topic sentence / thesis.  Until you know what that thesis is, it makes no sense to write any other sentences because every other sentence must support the thesis.

How to add details and to choose more specific verbs

Lack of detail and weak verbs are the two writing shortcomings I see most often  in student writing.  Here is a game to improve both of them.

Take seven index cards and cut each in half to form smaller, squarer cards.  Write one part of speech on each card (noun, adjective, verb, adverb, conjunction, preposition and pronoun).  Repeat on the remaining cards.  Shuffle and place face down on a table or desk in front of a student. Put a pile of pennies (or BINGO markers or poker chips) near the deck of cards.  The goal of the game is accumulate ten pennies before your opponent does.

Now on a piece of notebook paper, write a simple, blah sentence such as “My dog eats food.”  Ask the student to pick a card.  Suppose she picks “verb.”  Ask the student to cross out the verb “eats” and in its place to write another verb.  If the student writes “likes,” tell her that “likes” is another “blah” verb, so she can take one penny and start her own pile with that.  Explain that a more specific verb would have earned her two pennies.  She might say, “Well, wait a minute,” and she might think of a better verb.  She might say “devours.”  Praise her choice and ask her to take another penny for a total of two.

Now it is your turn.  Pick a card.  Suppose it says “adjective.”  Think out loud so the student can hear you think.  “I could use ‘hot’ to describe the food, or I could think of another word.  My dog devours hot food.  One penny.  Hm.  How about My dog devours meaty food.  Two pennies.”  You take two pennies.

And so you go back and forth until someone earns ten pennies.

For older students, add more words to the cards, such as “infinitive, gerund, and subordinate conjunction.”

The best sentences to use are ones the student has already written.  Take student sentences from submitted work.  If you play this game before the student turns in a final draft of a paragraph or an essay, allow him or her time to improve the sentences.

If you are working with a class, you can write the sentence on the overhead projector or white board and allow students to work in groups to suggest alternate words.  One group competes against another.

When students are familiar with the game, you might come up with a symbol—such as a purple circle around a word—to identify words which could benefit from being more detailed or more specific.  When you return student writing, allow students time to improve the words circled in purple.

What do students learn from this game?

  • How to choose specific verbs.
  • How to add details.
  • How much better their writing sounds when they choose specific verbs and add details.
  • How to identify various parts of speech.
  • That you design cool learning activities.

Anytime you can turn learning into a game, students jump on board.

How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay published

Do you know elementary and middle school students who want to write better?  Do you know ELL or older students who want simple, how-to steps for writing essays?

How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay brings together essay writing ideas from EnglishWritingTeacher.com into a single source.  This book shows kids how to organize their ideas, overcome their fear of a blank page, write a good hook, connect their introduction to their conclusion, use transitions and figurative language, vary sentence types, use good vocabulary and revise, revise, revise.

How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay starts where kids start, thinking up an idea, and takes kids through the whole writing process.  This book offers a baby-step by baby-step process which kids can follow to write any kind of essay.  Plus examples from my real students show how other kids have succeeded using these same approaches to writing.

In particular, How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay takes kids through the revising process, crucial to good writing.  Revising is rewriting—moving ideas around, adding details, replacing weak verbs with powerful verbs, varying sentence openings and lengths, adding figurative language and leaving readers with a smile.  This book tells how.

For twenty years, I have been helping kids write.  How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay collects my practical tips gained from working with hundreds of students. It can be used as a home school text, teaching kids the writing process from beginning to end.  Or it can be used to look up writing problems, like how to replace the verb “to be” with strong, specific verbs.

Directed at elementary and middle grade readers, How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay  works for English Language Learners too because of its short sections (usually a page long) and numerous illustrations.   Parents and teachers will find the book a useful teaching tool.

How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay is available from Amazon for $12.99 as of February 15.

Write using positives to avoid confusion

Read the following sentence.

“But my neighbor refuted the idea that she could not disregard the least amount of dust.”

Did you need to read that more than once to figure out what it means?  The sentence contains several negative words which take more work to decipher than positive words.

student thinking about what to writeSentences like this one are common.  “A stay of execution has been denied.”  (Two negatives)  “That is not an insignificant barrier to success.”  (Two negatives, or three if you think of “barrier” as a negative)  “If seldom eaten, a candy bar is not injurious to our health.” (Three negatives)

As students, we are taught that a double negative equals a positive.  We are aware of “not,” “never,” and “no” as negatives.  But many other words with negative connotations can confuse listeners and readers.  Some are

Ain’t, although, any, avoid, barely, but, deny, doubt, few, hardly,  however, ignore, instead, least, little, neither, nobody, none, nothing, nowhere, rarely, refute, scarcely, seldom, and though.

Thousands of other negatives can be formed by adding the prefixes “dis-,” “‘il-,” “im-,” “in-,” “ir-,” and “un-” to words, as in disregard, illegal, immoderate, inverse, irrefutable and unlikely.

Adding to the confusion, in some languages and in some dialects of English, double negatives are acceptable to add emphasis.  But not in standard English.

So, if you want your readers to understand you at the first read, write using positives, not negatives.

By the way, that first sentence means that my neighbor said he or she could ignore a small amount of dust.

Should you name with different words?

Suppose you are writing about Mae babysitting.  Should you write:

Mae looked at the little boy.  This experienced babysitter wondered when she should put the child to bed.  The tired girl wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should the young woman do that?

Or should you write

Mae looked at the little boy.  She wondered when she should put the child to bed.  She wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should she do that?

Writing experts say to write the second way.  Why?

Normally, when we speak, at the second mention of a person, we substitute a pronoun for the person’s name.  If we use another way to describe or name the person, the reader thinks we are talking about a new person.  That is because we are so used to hearing a pronoun used as a second reference.

What does the first example add that the second doesn’t?  “Experienced babysitter,” “tired girl,” and “young woman.”  Do those descriptors add anything important to the meaning of the paragraph, namely, whether Mae should put the little boy to bed?  Not really.  Do they distract the reader from the real meaning of the paragraph?  Yes.

At second reference, use a pronoun.  At third reference, use a pronoun.  If other people are involved, especially another person of the same gender, use the persons’ names to avoid confusion.  Occasionally repeat the original person’s name to remind the reader who you are writing about, but most of the time, use pronouns for subsequent references.  If you must use a noun, use the most generic noun–girl, woman–at second or third reference.

Sometimes the simplest, least “clever” way is the best.

Should you write on electronic equipment or by hand?

If you have a choice to compose either on a laptop or a tablet, or to hand write, use electronic equipment.  It has many advantages. 

You can erase and rewrite easily. Even if you are lazy, you will erase and make changes more than if you are handwriting.

You can cut and paste easily, moving sentences around to create better flow. On paper you can do that too, drawing arrows or actually cutting your paper with a scissors and taping it together in a different order, but face it, you probably won’t.

You know immediately if a word is misspelled and with one click, you know how to correct it. No paging through a dictionary.

You know immediately if you have a grammar problem although you might not recognize what the problem is. But at least you know something is wrong.  When you write on paper, you don’t know you made a mistake.

You can read what you are writing. If your handwriting is poor, or if you forget to skip lines, reading handwritten drafts is difficult.

With electronic equipment you are more likely to revise because you can see what you are doing and you don’t create a mes

Once you know how to type or keystroke, writing on electronic equipment goes faster than handwriting does.

Your work looks professional. You can be proud not only of the content but of its appearance.

Your writing will improve.

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.