When I ask students to read their essays aloud for the first time, and to listen for mistakes, they often feel foolish and skip this step. Then I ask them to read the essay aloud to me, and whoa! Mistake after mistake becomes apparent.
When we read with our eyes, we read what we want to be there, not noticing some mistakes which are obvious when we read aloud. I haven’t taught a student yet who hasn’t found mistakes when reading his essay aloud. I instruct the student to read only the words that are there. When they do, they stop when something sounds funny. Usually it’s a grammar mistake.
But there are all kinds of errors that a student can find when reading his work aloud.
- Is something missing—a word, a word ending, a sentence? Is a whole idea missing? If so, add the missing parts now.
- Is a word or an idea duplicated needlessly? Sometimes a student will write the word “the” at the end of a line and then write the word “the” at the beginning of the next line. Cross one of the words out. Or a student repeats phrases from one sentence to the next, such as, “ Let me tell you about my brother. My brother. . .” Those two sentences can be easily combined to eliminate the duplication.
- Are ideas out of order? Whole paragraphs can be numbered to rearrange them. Sentences can be circled and marked with arrows to move somewhere else. Words can be transposed.
- Is a sentence unclear, or even if it is clear, could it be said with fewer words?
- Are ideas incomplete? Complete them in the margins or on the back of the paper.
- Every subtopic sentence should support the main idea of the essay. This is the time to check to see that it does. If a subtopic sentence is off-topic, does it belong in this essay? Students are dismayed to X out a whole paragraph, but sometimes that is necessary to stick to the one main idea.
- Are certain words overused? Such words might be “then,” “just,” “so,” “really,” “like” and “because.” If they are overused, eliminate most of them.
In our next blog we will look at revising verbs, the most important words in writing.
Since most of the improvement in writing comes in revising, it is important for students to leave room in their first drafts for revising. For that reason, I recommend that:
- Students should write on every other line of notebook paper if writing by hand, or they should double space if composing on the computer. That additional space between lines allows room to insert changes and still be able to read the text. For students who are not used to skipping lines, I print tiny X’s in the left margin of every other line to remind the students to skip lines. Most students are not used to writing this way, and they forget. If so, let them finish the line they are on and then skip the next line. Once they have revised, they will understand the need for all this white space.
- Students should write on one side of the paper only. This way, as they start a new page, they can look back at the last few sentences they have written without flipping the paper back and forth. Rereading as they write is important for continuity. It also allows room on the back of the paper for major revisions later on, including adding whole paragraphs. Another plus is that by placing the words just written above and almost touching an empty page of notebook paper, the student does not perceive an empty page, and he finds it easier to pick up the thread.
- Students should leave one inch margins on each side of notebook paper and on the computer. The margins allow for more revision space and for other kinds of analyzing, which I will explain in a later blog.
- Students should write darkly so that the writing can be easily read. If they use pen, they should use dark blue or black ink for easy reading and because colored pencils or inks will be used in the revising process.
- Students should use clear handwriting. If I cannot read a student’s handwriting, I stop the student immediately and ask him to fix the poor handwriting until it is legible. Poor handwriting is usually nothing more than a lazy habit. Insist on good handwriting if the student wants your help. If the student is using a computer, insist on a simple, easy-to-read typeface.
- What about perfectionists? Some students will not tolerate mistakes and will insist on starting over if they forget to skip a line or if an erasure leaves too dark a smudge. I encourage students to get used to messy first drafts because when we revise, the copy will become much more messy. I show new students copies of other students’ work to prove my point. But some students will come to a standstill unless they are allowed to start over. Sometimes I allow a student to cut off the imperfect part, paste the good part to a clean paper, and continue on. Other times, I allow one start-over and that is it. But for a few students, any limit on starting over can leave them in tears. Perhaps a serious talk about perfectionism is in order, showing how perfectionism slows a student and ultimately leads to lower grades. In my experience, many perfectionists are gifted students for whom perfectionism becomes an obsession unless it is checked early.
Next we will talk about composing the first draft.