Three of Five: More “Easy” Ways for Students to Improve Their Writing

fashion legs notebook working

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The following is the third in a series of five assignments I give early in my freshman composition classes to help students find relatively easy ways to revise their papers. I find that it helps students, especially many community college students who may not have done a great deal of writing in high school. The “Five Easy Ways” offer students five almost grammar-free issues to look for in their papers. I have found that when students locate these issues and re-write the sentences containing them, then their writing improves, sometimes just a little, but enough for them to begin to better understand the process of revision and editing.

Here is the assignment as given to my online freshman composition students:

Five Easy Ways to Improve Your Writing–Part Three–Eliminating Unnecessary Words and Phrases–

Often people make the mistake of writing the way they speak, which often times causes unnecessary wordiness. Other times writers “throw in” extra words and phrases, perhaps because they think their sentences need to be longer to “sound” more academic when in reality, concise writing has been proved more effective time and time again.

To practice eliminating unnecessary wordiness, complete the following activity:

  • Write an illustration paragraph with the following topic sentence (filling in the blanks, of course): A good ______________ is _____________________, _______________________ and ________________________.
  • Example of an appropriate topic sentence: A good restaurant is clean, with a nice cozy ambiance, has a welcoming staff that treats all guests as special patrons, and of course, serves delicious food with a variety of healthy options, plus a few naughty choices just for fun.
  • Support the topic sentence with at least one specific example of each of the three characteristics (five to eight sentences).
  • Examples of the kind of specific detail that I’m looking for: Never Blue, one of my favorite restaurants in downtown Hendersonville, has a variety of healthy choices on its menu, including homemade hummus and house-cured salmon, but some naughty choices also, like the incredible “Devils on Horseback” (goat cheese-stuffed dates) and the sinful phyllo-wrapped chocolate confection simply called “The Brownie.”
  • Write a final supporting example or a concluding sentence for a paragraph that is 7 to 10 sentences long–no more, no less.
  • Revise the rough draft. Here’s a guide
      • Re-write any clauses that begin with “There” or “It”
      • Eliminate any use of first or second person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours, you, yours, etc)–Re-write, if needed

    Eliminate any use of the following words or phrases–Re-place these words and phrases or re-write, if needed.

      • very
      • really
      • a lot
      • lots
      • due to the fact that
      • extremely
      • that said
      • Well (as a filler word, okay to use it as an adverb)
      • as a matter of fact
      • totally
      • actually
      • See other deadwood words and phrases to avoid by clicking on this link: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/plague.htm
  • Submit the rough draft and the revision ON THE SAME DOCUMENT and submit. Be sure to label the rough draft and the final draft, so I know which one to grade.
  • Remember, I want to see a great deal of descriptive, specific examples, not just generic supporting points.

 

I like giving these shorter paragraph assignments early on in first-semester freshman English because I can give extensive feedback more easily and students get some concrete ways to revise their papers early on.

If you have any suggestions for ways that students who are not used to writing academically can learn to revise and edit their papers more easily, please share!

 

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I also would love it if you would consider submitting to my literary journal designed for writing teachers, Teach. Write. My fourth edition is slated for publication on April 1, 2019. Deadline for submissions is March 1, 2019. See the submission guidelines for more information. Previous editions are free online.

 

 

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The Second of Five “Easy Ways” for Students to Improve Their Writing

man using laptop on table against white background

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It’s been a busy time for me, and I haven’t had much time to work on the blog, but I had a good response from my first posting about five easy ways for students to improve their writing, so I didn’t want any more time to pass before the next installment.

The first of the five easy ways was to eliminate the use of first and second-person pronouns in academic writing. I can hear someone saying right now, “Just like an English teacher, not following her on rules,” but I tell my students that there is a time and place for using the first and second person; however, with so many bad writing habits around, eliminating them altogether for a time often helps people to control their use. The time, I tell them, lowering my reading glasses to peer at them, is in my classroom.

The same is true for the next of the five easy ways: Avoid beginning sentences or clauses with “There” and “It.” When community college students, many of whom are unfamiliar with the process of revision, are encouraged to find words and phrases that should be eliminated or avoided, what tends to happen is that they will often need, or even want, to change much more about the sentence than just the one word. Sometimes they make their overall sentence structure much stronger and clearer by recognizing one or two things that need to be avoided.

Therefore, I ask students to avoid beginning sentences with “There or “It” rather than eliminate them, but elimination is best. In the paragraph assignment described below, I ask students to eliminate the words “there” and “it.” But I begin with a curious request: I ask them to write a paragraph where every single sentence or clause begins with “there” and “it.”  What?

Take a look!

For the next paragraph assignment, I want each student to write a paragraph on one of the following subjects, but here is the trick–every sentence or major clause should begin with either “There” or “It”–that’s right–every sentence or major clause. Doing this should make sense when we do the next assignment

Begin with a topic sentence that contains the main idea, and write five to eight sentences that support that main idea and then write a concluding sentence.  Be sure to use specific sensory language to create a dominant impression as explained in the text and on the video.

In your paragraph describe one of the following

The lake at BRCC

The Patton Parking Lot

A classroom at BRCC or some other room

The Patton Building

The General Studies Building

Since you are online students, you may not be familiar with these places, so choose a room, building or other feature of any school that you attend, your home or the city or town you live in. It should be somewhere near Blue Ridge, though.

Example:

General Studies 115

     It is a plain room that, in the end, is quite remarkable. There are four white cement block walls. There is one blank wall, one wall with a bulletin board and two walls with white boards.  There is a bulletin board in the back that has been there for over five years, its blue background fading. It once had bright red trim, now pepto-bismol pink. It has old flyers from long ago events tacked here and there. There are tables and hard plastic chairs, a few broken ones. There is no sound except the hum of the ancient data projector and the rattle of the ceiling vents. It is a typical old classroom in one of the oldest buildings on campus. It is without life, until the first student, back pack slung over his shoulder, wanders in and takes his seat.

After the students have turned in that paragraph, I assign the following: 

You probably have guessed what I want you to do. I hope so, anyway.

I want you to take the paragraph you wrote for Assignment 2.2 and eliminate all uses of “there” and “it.” Might be harder than you think, but the exercise will hopefully make you more aware of how much we overuse these two words.

NOTE:  Don’t forget your first lesson–No first or second person pronouns either. 

Use my rewrite as an example (I begin with the original paragraph, so you can see the changes that I made). Notice that I took out words, added words and totally rewrote some sentences to better conform to good descriptive writing techniques. You should do the same.

Original Paragraph: 

General Studies 115

     It is a plain room that, in the end, is quite remarkable. There are four white cement block walls. There is one blank wall, one wall with a bulletin board and two walls with white boards.  There is a bulletin board in the back that has been there for over five years, its blue background fading. It once had bright red trim, now pepto-bismol pink. It has old flyers from long ago events tacked here and there. There are tables and hard plastic chairs, a few broken ones. There is no sound except the hum of the ancient data projector and the rattle of the ceiling vents. It is a typical old classroom in one of the oldest buildings on campus. It is without life, until the first student, back pack slung over his shoulder, wanders in and takes his seat.

Revised Paragraph

Student Name

Katie Winkler, Instructor

ENG 111.202

13 January 2018

The Old Classroom

     The plainest of rooms in one of the oldest buildings on campus is, in the end, quite remarkable. Standing in the front, listening to the ancient data projector and ceiling vents hum and rattle, the instructor, a 23-year veteran, faces a bulletin board, mostly blank, with just a few outdated event flyers tacked on its faded blue background, its once bright red trim now Pepto-Bismol pink. Brown tables and hard plastic chairs in conforming rows stand silent, or languish in the corner–broken and of little use. Then, the room, and all its occupants, like old, loyal soldiers, come to attention when the first student, backpack slung over his shoulder, wanders into the room.

Note: The two bold words (its) are being used as possessive pronouns in this paragraph and are therefore allowed. The contraction “It’s” would not be allowed. 

I have only used this assignment for the past two or three semesters, but I have had excellent results. Do students continue to have issues with overusing “There” and “It”? Of course, but, after this lesson, they have two easy things to look for when tackling the required revisions of rough drafts.

The third easy way will be coming your way soon!!!

NOTE: I neglected to mention in the last post that I am indebted to the classic little book on composition The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White for the development of my Five Easy Ways series of lessons. One of the greatest, and most accessible, books on writing, The Elements of Style, practices what it preaches–be concise and clear, my dear.

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Do you teach English composition or have you had a positive writing experience with a gifted composition instructor? If so, please consider submitting a short story, poem, or essay to Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal. Submissions are now being accepted for the Spring/Summer 2019 issue and will close on March 1, 2019. Click  here for submission guidelines.

 

 

A Classic Education Is Utilitarian

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At our college’s tutoring center, a colleague and I struggled this past week to help a nursing student understand how to diagram sentences using traditional, Latin-based sentence diagramming methods. The student, a non-traditional-aged student coming back to work on a third degree, was frustrated on multiple levels because not only was she having difficulty with the concepts, especially having been away from anything close to grammar for several decades, she was also having difficulty understanding why she was being asked to diagram sentences in the first place as she sees no practical purpose for it. She’s not alone.

Even in my own composition classes, I have abandoned formal traditional diagramming of sentences in favor of a more informal approach, reminiscent of a structural linguistic method of diagramming, breaking a sentence up based on the functions of the words, phrases, and clauses with a minimum of grammatical terminology.

It is not, however, that I find traditional sentence diagramming a waste of time, and I support its use in the classroom for two main reasons:

  • Diagramming helps students understand the functions of words separate from the appearance of the word, such as verbals, which look like verbs but do not function as verbs.
  • Diagramming helps develop critical thinking skills, which is one of the primary functions of higher education

Kitty Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, eloquently explains the value of diagramming in her New York Times’ article from 2012, “Taming Sentences,” She writes that diagramming helps us think more clearly about what we are writing, and even if it doesn’t do a thing for our writing, it is at the very least, a puzzle that is good exercise for the brain, honing our critical thinking skills.

As a fascinating example, Florey diagrams a compound/complex sentence from Henry James’s The Golden Bowl:

draft-diagram1-tmagArticle-v2

Of course, I find all of this exciting and interesting, not so our struggling nursing student, who sees diagramming as wasted effort because she sees no application for it. I tried to explain that it was like doing drills for an athlete–the athlete may not do the drill during a race or game or match but, by exercising, will be developing the muscles he or she needs to be competitive. My colleague tried to equate the student’s love of reading to the exercise of diagramming–the student does not NEED to read. What she reads has no immediate application to nursing, but reading exercises the brain, which will help her be a better writer, and a better nurse.

Our student didn’t buy it. But because she is a good student and wants to do well, she listened to our explanations and, I believe, we did help her understand better. She even said that she wanted to come back to the tutoring center to get more help on another day.

We’ll be there.

***

Here are some more articles I hope to share with our student that discuss how important it is for nurses to critically think and write well:

 

 

 

First Edition of Teach. Write. Now Available

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The first edition of Teach. Write. is now available! I still think I am a little bit crazy to try to publish a literary journal, but the idea of celebrating the creative writing of composition teachers is close to my heart because I know how much struggling to be a professional writer has helped me understand my students’ struggles with writing.

Yes, it is risky. Yes, I feel so vulnerable. I know I made mistakes. I am afraid people will be unhappy for whatever reason, but I feel so strongly about the empowering effect of being a writer that I have been driven to complete this project. The quality of the writing submitted, wanting to do the work justice, has also pushed me forward despite the risks.

So here it is!

Click here to read the journal online for free: Fall 2017_Revision2

Click here to order a printed copy of the journal for $5.00: Teach. Write.

Please, let me know what you think (but please be gentle), and if you are interested in submitting to Teach. Write., I will be open for submissions again beginning October 1, for the Spring 2018 edition. Click here for submission guidelines.

Want Great Engineers? Invest in Reading and Writing

writing-skills

My frustration levels are again rising to a boiling point. To hear from education professionals that surveys show one of the top three skills desired by local business and industry is good writing and then, in the same meeting, hear nothing about plans to develop these skills is more than discouraging to me as a composition teacher.

How can I  not get disheartened when I hear plans to spend millions of dollars on buildings and technology for engineering, automotive and mechatronics programs when the computers in my classrooms are outdated and sometimes take 30 minutes to boot up, when our tutoring center, which has doubled the number of mainly English and math students it serves within two years, does not appear to be included in anyone’s expansion plans?

What do employees want according to the report I heard this week? They want students who can read and write complex texts, but now a student can get an AA or AS degree without taking a 200-level literature course–the very courses which require students to read, study and write about the most complex texts of all. What a world…

Just for funsies, here’s an article about how important the “soft skill” of writing is to the profession of engineering:

http://www.automationworld.com/automation-team/writing-essential-skill-engineers