State your main idea explicitly in nonfiction

My friend handed me a book of nonfiction her uncle had written and asked me for my opinion.  I scanned through the first few pages and handed it back.  “He doesn’t say what the book is about.  I have no way to evaluate the book without knowing what his point is.”

adult couple in discussionThe author of this book made a mistake that many young writers make, namely, not stating explicitly what their thesis is.  Without knowing the thesis, readers can’t judge whether a book does what it says it will do because it never says what it will do.  It’s like giving a person a car but not giving any directions.  Where should the car go?  Should the car pick up passengers?  What is the purpose of the trip?

If you are writing a nonfiction book, essay, chapter or news story, you should alert the reader to your purpose.  You can do that several ways.

One way is to write a headline or title which encompasses the main idea.  “Twenty dead in tornado” and “Biden wins Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes” clearly state the main details of the article to follow.

Another way is to state in the first paragraph (or rarely, in the last, if you are leading up to your main point) the thesis of your writing.  A classic example is the following:  “Oppressed people deal with their oppression in three characteristic ways.” –The first sentence from “The Ways of Meeting Oppression” by Martin Luther King, Jr.  The rest of his essay identifies those three ways and explains why one is best.

If you are writing a book, use your introduction to explain to your readers what the purpose of your book is and what they should learn.  “You’re reading this book because you want your business to grow. I’m going to show you a proven system for making all this happen.  –The Snowball System by Mo Bunnell

If your readers need to infer the main idea, they might stop reading.  Too much work.  So make sure you state early on what your point is.

What is a strong verb?

The surest way to improve writing is to write strong verbs.  But what are they?

  • verbs which show specific actions
  • verbs with one unambiguous meaning
  • verbs of Anglo-Saxon origin
  • verbs of one or two syllables
  • verbs stated in the active voice

The surest way to weaken writing is to write weak verbs.  What are they?

  • linking verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”
  • verbs with multiple meanings
  • verbs with general, nonspecific meanings
  • three-, four-, and five-syllable verbs of Latin origin
  • verbs stated in the passive voice

Take the quiz to see if you can spot the strong verb.

1a.  The Senator waited for the election returns.
1b.  The Senator sweated out the election returns.
1c.  The Senator listened for the election returns.

2a.  Grandma looked peaceful sleeping in her rocker.
2b.  Grandma slept in her rocker.
2c.  Grandma giggled while sleeping in her rocker.

3a.  The toddler squealed while opening his gift.
3b.  The toddler was excited while opening his gift.
3c.  The toddler cried out while opening his gift.

4a.  The coffee burned my tongue.
4b.  The coffee scalded my tongue.
4c.  The coffee hurt my tongue.

5a.  I was startled when the cat appeared.
5b.  I was surprised when the cat appeared.
5c.  I leapt when the cat appeared.


1b.  “Sweated out” is more specific.

2c.  “Giggled” is an action.

3c.  “Squealed” is more specific.

4b.  “Scalded is more specific.

5c.  “Leapt” is an active voice verb.


Students lack practice in wide array of writing genres

Last winter, before covid 19 closed schools and eliminated statewide exams, I was tutoring Georgia students for the writing portion of the ELA state exams they faced.

Almost all of the writing portions of the exams required responses to reading.  A student would read a short passage and then be asked to answer a question about the passage.  A more complicated response might require a student to read two passages and combine information from both passages to answer a question.  Both kinds of writing tested reading comprehension.

In preparing for their exams, students might think that the only important writing required of them was responses to questions about reading passages.  “Why did the author call the dog “That Spot” instead of just Spot?  Use details from the passage to support your answer.”  “In what way was the bird in The Secret Garden similar to the horse in Black Beauty?  In what way were the animals different?  Use details from the passages to support your answer.”

The kind of answers required by the exams was short answer responses:  two or three sentences for some responses, or maybe five or six sentences for others.

Some students I tutored had been taught in school to start every answer the same, and to use a fill-in-the-blanks approach to writing.  “One way the bird in The Secret Garden is similar to the horse in Black Beauty is ____.  [Give a detail.]  One way the bird and the horse are different is ____.  [Give a detail.]

Unfortunately, high scores on the exams are so important to school’s and teachers’ reputations that the main focus of the writing program is how to answer these kinds of questions.  Almost no essays.  Almost no book reports.  Almost no responses to current events.  Almost no journal writing.  Almost no poems or letters or research reports.  Almost no science experiment reports.

For most of the students I teach, coming up with their own topics tortures them.  They don’t organize a topic because they haven’t practiced that skill in school.  Revising?  They don’t do it because they don’t know how.  A first draft is good enough.  Editing means correcting spelling errors.  All they know how to do well is answer short response questions.

We are teaching children to be skilled adults.  How many adults are asked to read a two-page passage and answer comprehension questions about it.  “Read this section of the debate between Vice President Pence and Senator Harris.  In what way were their responses similar?  In what way were they different?  Use details from the passage to support your answer.”

Teaching for the test is limiting our students’ ability to write.  It is limiting the genres they practice.  It is limiting the research they do and combine meaningfully in writing.  It is limiting the expression of their own ideas.  It is limiting their thinking.

The curtailing of state exams in spring 2020 was probably good for student writing.  Or rather, it could have been good if students instead practiced other kinds of writing.  Hmm.

What would Jefferson, Lincoln, and Kennedy think?

President Trump “might finish his presidential term without ever speaking a complete sentence—subject, object, predicate,” critiqued conservative columnist  George Will in The Washington Post two days after last week’s presidential debate on September 29.Thomas Jefferson thinking about words to use in Declaration of Independence, with a modern-day child suggesting a word

While Will’s words are an exaggeration, they contain a truth:  President Trump often speaks and writes in disjointed phrases rather than in complete thoughts.  Perhaps this is because his preferred method of writing is tweets—tiny bursts of information which dispense with the rigors of grammar. 

I wonder what past presidents would think of Trump’s fragments?  Cerebral Jefferson—who composed his classic sentences using elegant Eighteenth Century logic?  Plain-spoken Lincoln—who crafted beauty and compassion from one- and two-syllable Anglo-Saxon words?  Poetic Kennedy—who relied on myriad figures of speech to inspire his generation and ours?

What words of Trump will be remembered by posterity?  You’re fired?

You be the judge: good writing or bad writing?

Read the following and decide:  good writing or bad writing?

The magnetic shapes come in vibrant colors like red, orange, yellow, Kelly green and magenta.  They can be connected to form two- or three-dimensional forms.

 Kids can construct cubes, tetrahedrons, hexagonal prisms, hour glasses and hearts.

 This toy is made with 360-degree rotating magnets inside, so each side connects with a perfect fit to the side of another piece.

 With these geometric shapes of squares, triangles and hexagons, kids can develop mathematical and geometric understanding while playing.  Even three-year-olds can do it!

Here’s my take.  See if you agree.

  • The passage talks around a topic (a magnetic toy), but the passage doesn’t state a main, controlling idea. Is the toy new? Is it unlike any other toy?  Does it develop math skills in toddlers better than other toys?  What is the point of the passage?
  • The passage contains details, but they are presented in random order. Is the color more important than the forms the shapes can be made into? Is the magnets’ fit more vital than the toy’s educational value?
  • Without an overall controlling idea, a conclusion can’t emphasize it. The ending is fun, but does it state the point of the passage? What is the point of the passage?

So my take is that this is bad writing.