Two typical writing problems for middle schoolers and how a tutor overcomes them

Problem 1:  A seventh grader is writing a narrative about the first day of the new semester.  She starts her story by recounting how her alarm rang.  Then, lying in bed, she worries about two new teachers she would meet that day.  Next, she writes that she goes downstairs, eats breakfast, dresses and takes the bus to school.  Once in school, she grabs her texts from her locker, talks to a friend,  heads to her first class, and meets one of her new teachers.

“Do you need that part about going downstairs, eating, taking the bus, and going to your locker?” I ask her.

“Well, yeah.  How else do I show that I go to school?”

“Could you write about waking up and being nervous to meet your new teacher, and then jump to the part where the teacher meets you, saying ‘Welcome to our math class, Cara.’?”

“No, because how will the readers know who is talking and that it is later that day?”

“Okay.  Could you say, ‘Cara, is it?’ my new teacher said as I walked in the classroom an hour later.”

“You mean I don’t need to say all the in-between stuff?”

“That’s right.”  I suggest she cut and paste her paragraphs about eating, riding the bus and going to her locker to the bottom of the narrative for now while she thinks more about it.

She does, hesitantly.  A little later, she deletes that part.  “I guess I don’t need it after all.”

Problem 2:  But I can’t write, “’Cara, is it?’” my new teacher said as I walked in the classroom an hour later” because it’s only one sentence, and every paragraph needs five sentences.”

“No, it doesn’t.  Look at any book and count the number of sentences in each paragraph.  Lots will have only one sentence, and others will have seven or ten or even a fragment.”

She picked up a book and opened it and counted sentences.  She closed the book.  “But then why do my teachers say I need to write five sentences in each paragraph?”

“That’s to encourage you to write more.”

“You mean there’s no rule?”



She left the one-sentence paragraph on her page, and followed it by another one-sentence paragraph.

* * * *

Sometimes working with a writing tutor means dispelling myths, like the five-sentence paragraph or needing to write a “before” to a story instead of jumping right in.  Sometimes working with a writing tutor means making mistakes repeatedly, like forgetting to use apostrophes or using texting abbreviations, and asking for help.  Sometimes working with a writing tutor means trying stylistic changes, like adding dialog or figurative language.  Sometimes working with a writing tutor means experimenting with vocabulary the student has not written before.

Do you know a student who could use one-on-one writing instruction?  Tell that student’s parent about me.  I tutor writing to students, second grade to high school,  online.  Together students and I plan, organize, write first drafts, and revise, noting why each step in the process is important.  Writing well is like playing the piano well or kicking a soccer ball well.  It takes practice.  And with a knowledgeable coach or tutor, a student improves faster.



Learning cursive—what’s the point?

I learned to print in first grade and to write in cursive in third grade.  I used cursive for all my written school work—spelling tests, homework, and exams—everything.  But  eventually, I used a combination of styles for hand writing—printing for capital and some lower case letters, and cursive for the rest.

Most of my incoming Christmas mail is addressed using printed labels.  But those friends who handwrite my address fit into three categories:

  • They print everything, sometimes in all caps.
  • They use a version of my hybrid style.
  • They write in cursive. (But that method is rare since the advent of  computerized mail sorting machines.  My neighbor, who handwrites in gorgeous cursive, had her outgoing Christmas mail returned as “unreadable” two years ago.  So now she prints on her envelopes.  I guess the Post Office’s machines don’t read cursive.)

Cursive has been eliminated from the curriculum in many elementary schools.  The common core curriculum instead focuses on learning the keypad—fingering optional.   This decision is controversial.

Arguments abound for learning cursive:

  • People need to be able to read old family letters and historical documents.
  • “I learned it, Sonny, and by golly, you will too.”
  • Cursive is an art form used by previous generations, and we should appreciate it.
  • People can handwrite using cursive faster than they can print.

Likewise, arguments abound for abandoning cursive:

  • People today rarely need to read cursive. Printed versions of old documents are online.
  • There isn’t time to learn everything, so less important skills must be abandoned.
  • The curriculum must stress what is important for students’ futures, namely, keyboarding and using computer software like Google docs and Zoom.

Another argument favoring cursive is that serious writers write better when writing in longhand.  (Four times using the word “write” in that sentence—hmm.)  Some excellent writers today write first drafts in longhand, revise in longhand, rewrite in longhand, and only then put their work into a typewriter or computer.  But I suspect many others—a majority—compose on their iPads or laptops without a loss in creativity.

More disturbing to me than the loss of cursive skills is the incursion of text messaging forms into non-text writing.  I teach a high school student who does not use capitals and who abbreviates every other phrase.  I suspect this way of writing will become the norm in years ahead.  And just like resurrecting cursive, there’s little we can do about it.  “What works” will win.  Methods of writing evolve.

Annotating: why, what and how

Why should you annotate?

  • Annotating saves time later on. When you need to study a text, annotating creates a shortcut way to review a text and its graphics.
  • Annotating helps you understand now. When you initially read a text, annotating helps you understand it better.  You mark what’s important.  You connect ideas.  You paraphrase.  You sequence information clearly.
  • Annotating helps you retain information. The more senses you use to learn, the more likely you are to remember.  With annotating you don’t just read a text with your eyes (one sense—sight).  You write, underline, number, color code, and draw arrows with your hands and your eyes (two senses—sight and touch), and if you speak aloud to yourself as you work, you use another sense (listening).
  • Annotating makes the source material and your notes one document. If you write on your text, your notes and the text are forever together.  You can go back and forth as needed to check the original and to add more notes, more depth as you become aware.
  • Annotating makes you aware of your own learning. Sometimes you read on automatic pilot, and after a while, you realize nothing went in.  With annotating, you have to think about the material.  You stay focused.
  • Annotating puts difficult ideas or vocabulary into your own words. By paraphrasing, you learn whether you understand a text or not.

What do you annotate?

  • Main ideas. Often you can find these in the first sentence, in the last sentence of the first paragraph, in the last paragraph, and in titles, headlines and subheadings,
  • Subtopic ideas. These are often the first sentences of the body paragraphs.
  • How a text is organized. Chronological?  Most important to least important?  Sequential?  Something else?
  • Findings for scientific texts.
  • Evidence in persuasive and argumentative texts.
  • Themes, symbols, motifs, main characters, inciting action, problem to be solved and climax in fiction.
  • Ideas which when linked form a summary.
  • Vocabulary that seems important or that you don’t know.
  • Inferences, both obvious and suspected.
  • Figures of speech.
  • Patterns.

How do you annotate?

  • Identify important words or ideas. Usually these are verbs and nounsUnderline them with clearly visible ink or highlight them with a light enough color so they are easy to read.  Limit your underlines to only important information, not details.  If you underline almost everything, the underlines are wasted.  (See these paragraphs as examples.)
  • Use margins for your words. Draw conclusions, define words, ask questions, make inferences.
  • Number ideas. Some labels become buried in the midst of paragraphs. Make them obvious by numbering ideas boldly or drawing arrows from one idea to the next.
  • Draw question marks in margins. Box or bracket confusing information, and then put a question mark in the margin. Ask your teacher to explain that part.
  • Use abbreviations.  Use text message short cuts.  Or develop your own.  For example, I write the words “most important” or “very important” as “VIP” when I take notes.  If I hurry, I don’t cross t’s or dot i’s.  I write “about” as @.

Why to we remember–or not–characters’ names?

A week ago I read—blitzkrieged is more like it—through a popular who-done-it that came with great recommendations.  Today I was trying to remember one of the character’s names—any character’s name—and I couldn’t.

Are the names of Cinderella’s sisters important? No.

A month ago, I read my book group’s monthly selection, another highly recommended novel flying off library shelves.  Now, four weeks later, I can’t remember a single character’s name.

In between, I read Oliver Twist, all 600-plus pages—for the first time.  I remember several names:  Oliver, Mr. Bumble, Fagin, and Nancy.

This made me wonder:  Why do we remember—or not—characters’ names?

To answer this question, let’s start with the idea of forming memories in general.  We form memories by forming connections between neurons in the brain.  These connections are called synapses. As synapses grow stronger, memories become stronger.  Synapses grow stronger the more we are exposed to an event like hearing or reading a person’s name.

Suppose the name of a character is a name you have never heard before.  You are likely to forget that name unless you make a sincere effort to remember it and to connect it to something you already know.  That is because the synapse containing that name in your brain is weak.  But the more you hear or read that name, the stronger the synapse becomes, and the more apt you are to remember the name.

Forgetting new names is normal.

Now suppose that name is the name of someone you already know, such as your mother.  Your brain creates an additional synapse from the new name to your mother’s name.  Not only that, but because you know your mother’s name so well and have strengthened the synapses to that name thousands of times over your lifetime, the name of the new character connects to a strong memory and is easier to remember.

Some names new-to-us don’t have other synapses attached to them.  Without strong synapses to other cues, we forget those names easily.

Many times in books, a name is stated but almost immediately replaced by a pronoun.  So even if a character appears many times, we may read that name not much at all.  If we don’t immediately make a connection to a name we already know, the synapse for this new name may stay weak.

In a who-done-it mystery, myriad characters are introduced who are not followed up on:  the hunter who finds the body, the curious neighbor, the doctor who gives a cause of death,  the red herring characters.  They turn out not to be  important, but we don’t know that as we begin the story.  In books like these, I expect to forget names so I make a list of characters as I go along, knowing that I will not need to remember most of them.

Similarly, in novels by Charles Dickens, many characters turn out to be not important.  But they come at you so fast that you need to make a list or become hopelessly lost.  After a while, you encounter certain characters again and again, and for them the list becomes not important.  But for the others, you still need the list.

Consider ways to help readers remember characters’ names.

So as a writer, what can you do to help your readers remember your characters’ names?

  • Introduce characters slowly, repeat their names, and repeat their character traits as the novel progresses.


  • If a character is needed only for his work, refer to him by his job without naming him: the undertaker, the black pug, the principal.


  • Limit the number of characters. Let some characters perform double duties to cut out the need for more characters.  Let the English teacher be the sympathetic ear rather than introducing a little-used counselor.


  • Write about families with the same family name such as Jane Austen did. In Persuasion, for example, there is Anne Elliot, Sir Walter Elliot, Elizabeth Elliot, Mary Elliot Musgrove and William Elliot, about one-third of the characters.  There is also Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove, their son Charles Musgrove, and their daughters Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove.  Within families, give characters distinct first names.

Create characters from families. The family connection will help readers remember names.

  • Limit names beginning with the same letter or that rhyme or that can be easily confused. Consider not using names like Leslie, Robin and Chris that can be either male or female unless that confusion is part of the plot.


  • Provide habits or clothing references to help readers remember characters: fearful Piggy with his glasses, asthma and auntie, Ralph with the conch shell, Jack with his hyper-aggressiveness, all from Lord of the Flies by William Golding.


  • Create names with meanings that readers can connect to characters. “Snape” in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling sounds like “snake,” and Snape seems like a villain when readers first meet him.  “Hermione” is an unusual name to American ears, but because it begins with “her” and because it is a long name, readers easily remember it as the name of Harry’s  girl friend.

So to answer my original question, “Why do we remember—or not—characters’ names?” the answer is that the more we encounter a name, the more synapses we create in our brains, enabling us to remember that name.



1651 book titles targeted to be banned in 2022

Efforts to ban books in US libraries have reached an all-time high with 1651 books targeted so far in 2022, according to the American Library Association, a group of librarians and library professionals.  In 2021 there were 1597 such titles targeted.  PEN America, an organization advocating for literary freedom, concurs.  What is different in 2022 is the increased organization of the groups wanting to ban books and the targeting of not one book at a time but of whole groups of books.

Targeted books fall into three groups, according to PEN America:

  • 41% contain material related to LGBTQ issues or characters,
  • 40% contain main or important characters who are not white, and
  • 21% address racism.

Most of the efforts to ban books have been led by about fifty groups, many  formed in 2022.  Social media is helping to spread the message and to propagate  groups like Moms for Liberty whose branches are popping up all over the country.  Conservative politicians seeking public office are also demanding that books be banned.

This 1,000-piece puzzle by Re-Marks Puzzle shows 55 covers of books that have been banned at various times in the US .

In addition to books targeted because of their 21st century gender content and racial content, many so-called “classic” biographies and novels have been targeted.  Here are some examples:

  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

One Texas library has even removed the Bible from its shelves.

This display in my neighborhood bookstore shows banned books.

Celebrate Banned Book Week September 18 to 24 by reading a book, banned or otherwise.