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

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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.

cover

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.

 

 

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Five Easy Ways

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The first semester as a graduate assistant working on my Masters in English Education at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, I was required to take a course in teaching methods. Because I already had five years of teaching experience, two years in a private school in Pennsylvania and three years in Rome, Georgia, teaching English and German, I was arrogant enough to think I didn’t need to take the course and was somewhat annoyed that I had to do so.

However, during the course of the semester, I found out how much my professor, Dr. Gayle Miller, had to teach me. One of the best activities Dr. Miller had us complete was teaching to the class. Each one of us had to pick something we were interested in and instruct the class. My friend, who later became a colleague at the school where I teach now, taught a lesson on writing apprehension, offering suggestions I still use today. Another interesting topic was finding a word in an English/Chinese dictionary–surprisingly difficult.

Even the few times Dr. Miller was not there, she always had an interesting person to come in and lecture. It was a long time ago, and I can’t remember her name, but one speaker who came to Dr. Miller’s class made a lasting impact on my teaching by introducing the class to five easy ways that can help students improve their writing.

Although I have modified the list somewhat over the years, I still introduce my freshman composition students to The Five Easy Ways, which I have found especially useful when teaching community college students who may not have been strong writers in high school. The beauty of the The Five Easy Ways is students can improve their writing without knowing much grammar.

Don’t get me wrong! I love grammar, but I have a great deal to accomplish in a short time in freshman English, so I have found that The Five Easy Ways jumpstarts revision among students who may have never truly revised a paper. They just don’t know how!

So here are The Five Easy Ways in their latest iteration:

  1. Avoid the use of first and second person pronouns.
  2. Avoid beginning sentences with There and It.
  3. Eliminate overused expressions and vague modifiers, such as like a lot, lots, very, really, good, bad, awesome, etc.
  4. Avoid over-coordination.
  5. Read backwards and aloud.

Okay, maybe I should not have said they were easy. These five ways may make finding sentences that need revision easier, but fixing them is not always easy.

Okay, okay, there is a little grammar here, too. I usually must explain what first and second person pronouns are and also over-coordination, but most students know the grammar; they just don’t know that they know it. After a few minutes of review, the majority of students begin to remember.

Today, let’s look more closely at the first Easy Way. Students are so used to writing about themselves they find it difficult to think from any other perspective, something we want college English students to do; therefore, I don’t allow first person at all in finished drafts. Also, students learn that stating one’s opinion does not require the phrases I think, I believe, or I feel to precede them. Furthermore, eliminating second person forces students to think more about broadening their audience and often leads them to develop a more mature voice. They can also learn to avoid pronoun errors caused by using the second person incorrectly.

Example: After reading my paper, you can see that it is for the best if you start recycling. 

Oh, me. So many things to talk about–where to begin?  Start with eliminating the first and second person pronouns.

Revised: After reading the paper, most people can see that it is for the best if everyone starts recycling.

Still some things to work on, but for a freshman who doesn’t even know where to begin revising, the sentence is already improved by making just a few simple changes.

Okay, okay, okay. Perhaps you, gentle reader, are thinking how I am forsaking The Five Easy Ways even while explaining them, but I am much more conscious of overusing the first person or inappropriately using the second person. Now, I am consciously looking for this overuse when revising. Looking at the draft of this blog, for example, I noticed the overuse of first person pronouns and have worked to eliminate some pronouns while reconsidering others.

I have incorporated The Five Easy Ways into freshman English classes, which now begin with an assignment that is a personal narrative written in third person.  After completing this assignment, students seem to grasp how avoiding first and second person can strengthen their overall sentence structure.

Here is the assignment and an example:

One of the easiest ways to make writing sound more academic is to eliminate first and second person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours, your, your). Although finding the instances of first and second person is a snap, rewriting sentences to get rid of these pronouns can be time-consuming at first. The good thing is once writers begin using third person only, they soon become used to it and will write in third-person more often, making revision easier and easier.

Therefore, in this exercise students will write a one paragraph (five to ten sentences long) narrative. The trick is to write the paragraph totally in third person .  Here are some suggestions for the paragraph, but students are not limited to these topics:

a car accident

                      an event during a family vacation

learning to drive or learning to do something else

winning or losing a game

failing or succeeding at school or work

the first day of elementary school, high school or college

any other topic as long as it is a personal narrative

IMPORTANT NOTE: The paragraph should begin with a topic sentence and be no shorter than five sentences and no longer than ten well-developed sentences. Telling a story in such a short time is difficult so narrow the paragraph down to the climax of the narrative. 

Take a look at the following example to get an idea of what I’m looking for:

Example:

Katie and a Horse Named Butterball

Katie only rode him once, but she will never forget riding Butterball through the Grand Tetons. She was nine and a half, on a trip back from California to Alabama with her parents and siblings when the family stopped at a dude ranch in Wyoming for two nights. The owners found out that Katie and her sister loved horses, so they decided to take the family on a trail ride. Everyone was given a horse that seemed to suit each one, except Katie, small and scared, who was put up on Butterball–the biggest, fattest golden palomino gelding anyone ever saw! Katie’s little legs stuck straight out across the horse’s wide back, and at first, she was terrified. However, when she realized that the horse was a gentle giant, she relaxed enough to look down on her older sister and brother, even her parents. That’s when she began to feel much better. As she walked the trails through the glorious mountains in late summer, she saw sights she had never seen before or since–the Grand Tetons early in the morning, a moose cow and her calf drinking by a lake, wild horses led by a buckskin stallion–all while riding high on a horse named Butterball.

This first assignment does not cure students of overusing or inappropriately using first or second person, but it certainly gives them something to consider when they begin the revision process as college students, and for some, knowing where to begin is the start of a whole new way to look at writing.

Next blog post, I will tackle Easy Way #2.