Category Archives: writing tips

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.

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.

How to write more gut-wrenching words

If you want a gut-wrenching reaction from your readers, replace words with many syllables.  Instead, use single-syllable words.  And change long  nouns and adjectives into verbs.

girl writing and thinkingUse short, pithy words that have peppered English for centuries rather than words derived from French or Latin to arouse the greatest response.  Words with many syllables tend to be intellectual words, not emotional words.  For emotion, choose blunt words.  But be careful to check for tone and meaning.  Old words can have many meanings and many connotations.

Here are some examples.  Replace each of the boldfaced words with one of the suggestions.  Then ask yourself:  Does the meaning change?  Does the emotion?

1.  As the lion approached, I felt trepidation.  (fear, quaking, shivers, creeps, chills, a cold sweat)  Now take out “felt” and create a new verb from one of the suggestions.  (quaked, shivered, sweated)  Which grabs you?

2.  My insatiable brother ate both drumsticks from the turkey.  (greedy, gobbling, piggish, hoggish, swinish)  Now replace “ate” with a specific verb.  (gobbled, devoured, downed, dispatched, wolfed down)  Notice how replacing the verb gives a stronger visual image than replacing the adjective?

3.  Before the audition, the dancer’s legs fidgeted.  (jerked, itched, twitched)

4.  The corpulent passenger could not fit into the airline seat.  (fat, obese, fleshy, stout, portly, pudgy, plump, chubby)  Now replace “fit” with a more specific verb.  (compress, squish, squeeze, crush)

5.  The color of the girl’s eyes captivated the photographer.  (charmed, ensnared, bewitched)

Long words are not only harder to read, but they lessen the emotional impact.  If you want to appeal to emotions, use short Anglo-Saxon words.

 

What are persuasive techniques used in the SAT essay prompt?

Most students writing the SAT essay find summarizing the persuasive essay prompt to be easier than explaining why the prompt persuades.  But analyzing and explaining the prompt is an important part of your essay response.  It is an area where you can pull ahead if you know how to do it.

There are many reasons why a prompt might be persuasive.  Let’s list some of them here.

____ academic vocabulary:  precise, domain specific words

____ allusions, especially to the Bible or Shakespeare

____ analogies

____ anecdotes

____ attacking, undermining other opinions / counterarguments

____ clarity

____ colloquial language

____ current events references

____ examples, spot-on and easy to understand

____ experts, authorities in agreement with the author

____ facts, lots of facts

____ figures of speech

____ historical references

____ humor

____ inclusive language, including the reader with words like “we” and “us”

____ logical presentation such as using cause/effect, sequential information, chronological information, ranking of info

____ personal experience, education, or work of the author

____ primary source references

____ repetition

____ rhetorical questions

____ sensory language such as vivid images, sounds, smells, textures and tastes

____ statistics

When you analyze why the essay prompt is persuasive, you must identify several of the above techniques which the author uses.  You must give one or more examples of the techniques you identify.  And you must explain why using each technique persuades readers to the author’s point of view.

More of that in future blogs.

Scoring higher on the SAT essay

Let’s look at the SAT essay and how you can score higher on it.

Your response to the prompt (a persuasive essay provided in your testing packet) is an essay.  It is judged based on three criteria:

  • Naming the author and title of the prompt; identifying the thesis of the prompt, and summarizing the main ideas in the prompt plus important details.
  • Identifying what persuasive techniques the author of the prompt uses, pointing out examples of those persuasive techniques in the prompt, and explaining why those persuasive techniques work.
  • Writing your response in standard essay format (an introduction, body, and conclusion) while using excellent, stylish English.

Today let’s look at the first of the three criteria, the summary.

Before you read the essay prompt, I would go straight to the paragraph after the prompt ends.  That paragraph directs you to write an essay, but more importantly, it identifies the thesis of the prompt.  You don’t need to figure out what the thesis is because the test information identifies it.  Underline the thesis and in the margin write “thesis.”

(Yes, you can write in your test booklet.  It will be shredded after the test, so no one but you will see it.  Write any notes that help you.)

Now that you know what the essay prompt is all about, you can read the prompt aware of what you are looking for, that is, the main ideas backing up that thesis.  Underline the main ideas as you read and in the margin next to the ideas write “MI1” or “MI2.”  Why?  You need to be able to find the main ideas quickly later on.  Underlining them and annotating them in the margins makes finding them easier

Usually the prompt is five or six paragraphs, so you might wind up with four or five main ideas, one per body paragraph.  But sometimes an author begins the first main idea in the first paragraph and offers the last main idea in the last paragraph.  So read carefully.

Now that you know what the prompt is all about you can write your summary paragraph.  I would make that summary the first paragraph of your essay.  No need for a separate introduction–and no time.  In your first sentence, write an overall summary of the essay, and in the next few sentences, identify the main ideas.  That’s right.  Write a one sentence summary of the article to start your essay.

Remember, the SAT is a test designed to see if you are ready for college.  In writing the summary of the essay prompt, the test is asking you to prove you can read and understand college level material, and to prove that by summarizing the material.

How can you become proficient at this kind of writing without working with a tutor like me?  Go online to a well-written newspaper and read an op-ed article (an opinion essay on the page opposite the editorial page).  Do this several times a week.  Download one copy and mark it for its thesis and main ideas.  Write a five or six sentence summary.  Choose different authors with different writing styles and topics.

Or from your library, take out a book of essays and do the same thing.  Or find a book of essays from a resale book store or Goodwill which you can mark.  Choose persuasive essays because that is the kind you will be tested on.

 

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.

To hand write notes or to use technology?

As you or your kids prepare to return to school (here in Georgia some schools open the first week of August) , you might be considering the purchase of technology for note taking.  Should you?

Years ago when I was a newspaper reporter, there were two kinds of technology to choose from:  a pen and reporter’s notebook or a tape recorder.  No laptops, tablets and smart phones then.  I opted for the old fashioned pen and paper for several reasons.

  • It was more reliable.  No machinery to malfunction, no tapes that could run out, no batteries that could die.  And my newspaper provided pens and reporters’ notebooks.
  • I thought more during interviews. With no tape recorder, I couldn’t tune out and let the machine do the work.  I needed to pay attention, to understand what the speaker was saying and to prepare follow-up questions.
  • Since I couldn’t write down everything, I needed to prioritize what was important either by summarizing or by quoting well-said ideas—of which there usually weren’t many. I became more of a paraphraser than a direct-quoter.
  • I could locate an idea from an interview quickly by paging through my notes. No need to hunt through long sections of tape for just one idea.
  • I wrote my final copy quickly. I could turn in a story and move on to the next one, while someone else was still transcribing from a machine, making me a valuable employee.

What has this to do with note taking in school today?  Research shows that college students who take notes by hand, paraphrasing and summarizing, do better understanding a lecture than do students who key in every word.  They do so for the same reason I wrote good interviews.  They listen.  They attempt to put ideas into a useful order and into their own words.  They question concepts as they listen even if they don’t raise their hands.  They focus.

On the other hand, technology has improved since my reporting days.  Today it’s possible to word search faster than I could page through my reporter notes.  If you remember to back up, your notes don’t get lost.  In fact, they exist in a cloud somewhere indefinitely, ready for you to access long after you’ve thrown out your composition notebook.

So should you buy note taking devices?  They rang from $200 to $600.  Many are in their infancy.

Here’s a compromise.  What if you hand write legibly, and when class is done or at the end of the day, take photos of your notes using your cell phone?  You always have your phone with you—right?—and so you’ll always have your notes as nearby as a clock on your phone.  If you have a reliable classmate, you can offer to photograph each other’s notes, and compare what you each thought important.

But can you hand write fast enough to keep up with your teacher?  For students no longer learning cursive, this can be a problem.  Maybe instead of investing hundreds in technology, invest $5 in a cursive handwriting notebook, and practice. Usually some combination of printing and cursive suffices for fast and readable handwriting.

For information about  note taking technology available, see an article by David Pierce in the July 16, 2018, edition of The Wall Street Journal, “Handwriting Finds Ways To Fit Into Digital Life.”