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Talking Texts, a review by Vicki Spandel

Talking Texts: A Teacher’s Guide to Book Clubs Across the Curriculum, written by Lesley Roessing. 2019. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Genre: Teacher resource

Length: 98 pages, excluding Appendix

Levels: For teachers at all grade levels, elementary through college

Features: Step by step guidelines, numerous charts and samples to guide teacher preparation, book recommendations, Appendix with handy reproducible forms, and a must-read Foreword by Lester Laminack

Overview

Did you ever long to guide your students toward a deep understanding of literature, all the while helping them to love what they’re reading—indeed, to love reading itself? This book can show you the way.

It’s short enough to devour in an evening, concise yet information-rich, and easy to follow from introduction to conclusion. It will show you in ten readable chapters how to set up and manage book clubs in your classroom—even if you’ve tried it unsuccessfully before, even if you think it’s too difficult for you, even if the very idea frightens you. You can do it. If you do (or make that When you do), then you and your students will discover together how richly rewarding the discussions incited by book clubs can be. You may never want to teach any other way.

Talking Texts begins at the beginning: What are book clubs anyway? And why should we include them in our classrooms?

The whole first chapter is designed to make you a convert, and unless you’re unmoved by the possibility of making students (even reluctant readers) truly passionate about reading, it’s hard to imagine Roessing’s arguments not speaking to the teacher within you. If you’re a member of a book club yourself, you already know how much fun it is to discuss books with friends, to hear diverse opinions, to uncover truths you hadn’t thought of, to have someone help you understand all those little details you didn’t quite get when sitting alone in your living room, and to share the sheer joy of finding someone else who loves a book as much as you do. Students enjoy these same experiences. Book clubs turn reading into an adventure.

Let me add that I deeply wish literature had been taught just this way in the classes I remember from high school and college. As students, we had almost no opportunity to talk with one another. Teachers were in charge, they knew the right answers—and more to the point, knew (by some divine intervention beyond our ken) what questions were most interesting or important. If we disagreed, we usually did so silently.

With a book club approach, everything about that long-ago scenario changes:

  • Book clubs are student-driven.
  • Students choose (from teachers’ numerous, diverse recommendations) their own reading material.
  • Students come up with their own discussion questions.
  • There are no right or wrong answers to any question.
  • Reflection is integral at every phase of learning.
  • Students not only become deeply engaged in what they read, but they learn how to interact in supportive and productive ways with one another—in short, they learn life skills transferable not only to college, but to virtually any modern work environment.

I know. It sounds like a lot to make happen. But fear not. Lesley Roessing’s incredibly clear, well organized little book will guide you, step by step. You’ll acquire strategies for—

  • Setting up book clubs in your classroom—with plenty of opportunity to do it your own way
  • Teaching students the social skills they need to make group work successful (For as you know well, small-group work isn’t something you can leave to chance)
  • Choosing books that speak to students and open their eyes to new kinds of reading
  • Managing the incorporation of book clubs into any classroom—even if you’re already doing reading workshop
  • Teaching students to be reflective readers and book club members
  • Assessing students formatively by reading their reflections and observing book clubs in action
  • Implementing book clubs across the curriculum

You may be thinking, It won’t work for me because I teach second grade . . . I teach science . . .  I teach graduate students who read textbooks. Thanks to Roessing’s incredible vision and flexibility, she shows us how to make book clubs work in virtually any classroom situation, no matter the grade level, subject matter, or type of books (or other readings) that support the curriculum.

If I had to summarize this book in a few words (As the cliché goes, what I’d say on an elevator ride), I’d say it’s clear, thorough, and most impressive of all, clearly based on the author’s extensive experience working with students, making literature in all its guises accessible to young readers, and making book clubs work in an impressive array of contexts. This is more than a book on “talking texts.” It’s a book on teaching reading using an extraordinary strategy that students love. Ultimately, this is a book on teaching well period.

Following are five noteworthy thematic threads woven throughout the text.

Theme #1: Students need to choose their own books.

Choice is central to student learning. For years, I have advocated students’ right to select their own writing topics. It is the best way to inspire writing with voice. Why should reading be different? Would you join a book club if you had no say whatsoever in what the group would read? I know I wouldn’t. Choice guarantees personal investment and sustained interest.

Lesley clarifies that teachers take responsibility for providing a wide variety of texts from which students can make choices. These can be fiction or nonfiction, books or articles—anything really. This means, of course, that teachers who plan to incorporate book clubs into their classrooms must be avid readers themselves so they have a well from which to draw—and must think about what sort of books will seize and hold their students’ attention. After previewing (through short descriptions) a range of reading materials, teachers invite students to identify those that interest them most. Students have a chance to hold the books (or other materials) in their hands, read book jackets or first pages, and get a feeling for each possible selection.

Students’ choices help define how the various book clubs (typically, individual groups of four or five students) are set up. After listening to teachers’ introductions and examining books firsthand, students list their top three, give a succinct, specific reason for Choice #1, and turn in their lists to the teacher, who then assigns groups based on students’ choices and the teacher’s evaluation of those choices—e.g., “I’ve never read a book in verse and I’d like to try it” is a better reason than “My friend Emily chose this book so I want to read it too.” In most cases, students wind up reading what interests them—and working with others who share that interest.  

Theme #2: Variety matters!

Students in any given class will have diverse interests and usually exhibit a wide range of reading abilities and preferences. Offering a variety of texts increases the chances of having at least one selection that will speak to every student and also heightens the odds of introducing students to readings they may love, even if they would never have thought to explore them on their own. Variety can be based on author, reading level, genre, or a host of other factors.

Format is one important consideration. Prose, verse, and even picture books (often helpful for ELL students) are all possibilities. In addition, Lesley points out that many popular books that debuted in prose format, such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and Walter Dean Myers’s Monster, are now available in graphic novel format, a strong preference for many students.

Format can vary group to group. If a class is exploring a particular topic, say the Holocaust, “one club could be reading a prose novel, one reading a graphic novel, and a third reading a novel written in free verse” (9). Still another group could be reading a nonfiction account or even a series of journalistic articles. Teachers are invited to use their imaginations in thinking how many different ways there might be to tackle a given subject, and what might intrigue particular  book clubs most.

Theme #3: Students with diverse interests, at widely varied reading abilities, can still make this work!

Clearly, having a wide range of readings from which to choose is an important first step in meeting the needs of any diverse group. But there are other things to think about. Some students read more slowly than others. How will they keep up with the ongoing demands of a book club? For one thing, as Roessing points out, “Slow readers are not necessarily weak readers; they may be simply more careful or more reflective readers” (8). True. And clubs that finish their discussions ahead of other groups can spend more time on independent reading or reflecting. In addition, though, remember that with book clubs . . .

 . . . students call the shots! They decide how much to read at a time and even what questions to address when their book club meets. If you’re serious about teaching thinking skills, you could hardly think of a strategy more effective than having students come up with their own questions, rather than simply answering your questions. Our questions, after all, define what we think is important, and posing good ones can be challenging.

The best discussion questions cannot be answered with a simple fact (date or name) or with a yes or no. They—

  • Have no correct answer
  • Require some expansion or explanation
  • Allow for several possible answers, points of view, or perspectives
  • Make responders think
  • Push responders to review, reread, or analyze a text, seeking support for an interpretation or point of view (20)

Finally—and this is critical—book club members assist and encourage one another. Members know they can come to a meeting with questions about things they did not understand. They can count on peers to help them make sense of confusing passages or challenging text. Think how comforting this is for a student who is shy or who struggles with reading. It’s much less threatening to raise a question within a small group of three or four trusted peers than in front of a whole class. Students who feel they can raise questions without being ignored or rejected get far more out of their reading—and actually begin to enjoy discussing what they read.

Theme #4: Collaborative skills are essential.

If you’re thinking that collaborative skills are essential to this whole enterprise, you’re dead right. They’re the foundation. Without the right social skills, book club members may go off-topic, come to meetings unprepared, or allow one person to dominate a discussion while others remain silent, wishing fervently that the class period would end.

When book clubs work, by contrast, chatter is constant, civilized, text-related, productive, and enlightening. Students learn from one another and cheer each other on. Everyone participates. But this doesn’t just happen. It has to be taught.

Lesley teaches collaborative skills in a number of ways. She begins by modeling what she expects, using a “fishbowl” presentation. She and two other people (e.g., a librarian, teacher, aide, or even another student) engage in a very real discussion of a text they have all read, practicing collaborative strategies while other students observe. The fishbowl presenters take turns commenting or raising questions about the text, remembering to always make eye contact with the person speaking, piggy back on responses to extend the discussion, offer supportive comments, and disagree (when necessary) in an appropriate, courteous manner that fosters new discussion instead of shutting things down. Students are asked to notice how group members interact, comment on what they’ve observed—and to critique their own groups later, recording how they’re doing and what can improve. In this way, groups practice and consciously improve their social skills throughout the life of the book clubs.

Theme #5: Book club and reading workshop can work hand in hand—beautifully!

In Talking Texts, Roessing does a masterful job of showing how book clubs and reading workshop can work hand in hand. This is important because if you’re already doing reading workshop, you may be thinking, Oh, no—here comes yet another thing to work in.

Actually, it doesn’t go like that. Think complementary support. Imagine book clubs as a way to make reading workshop even stronger and more interesting for students—especially since they become active participants for a majority of the time. The flow works something like this (and you can adapt or revise to suit your classroom and curriculum):

The reading workshop opens with a read-aloud by the teacher, something that connects to what students are currently studying, via topic, author, style, or some literary feature (language, setting, characterization) the teacher wants to emphasize. The teacher uses read-aloud time to strengthen vocabulary, teach oral reading strategies, and share his/her own passion for reading. (5 minutes)

That read-aloud is followed by a brief focus lesson on something like setting, character development, mood, leads or conclusions, use of words, dialogue, or anything that turns a book (or other text) into something readers love. Again, the teacher will connect the lesson to students’ own reading. (5-10 minutes)

Next, book clubs meet (20-25 minutes) addressing the focus lesson in their discussion, along with the questions various members have written down in advance and bring with them to the meeting. This is the book club members’ chance to not only explore the text at hand, but show off their collaborative skills by making sure every person present participates. (When is the last time you had a whole-class discussion in which every student had an opportunity to speak—and was received with encouragement?)

The class ends with time for reflection, planning for the next book club meeting, and an opportunity to share with other book clubs if time permits. (Whatever time remains)

Roessing addresses each of these steps so thoroughly and clearly that you won’t find yourself wondering what to say to students, how to prepare, or how to transition from one step to the next. Every discussion is beautifully organized so that you can literally see yourself in your own classroom, managing book clubs with your students. Maybe you’ll get a response like this one from a double entry journal written by a student studying “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer. Keep in mind that the question was also posed by a student (39):

Q: Next time Mudville has a game, do you think Casey will be as cocky and let strikes go by?

A: There really is no hint in the poem about his future behavior, but he seems to like to control the crowd (“Casey raised his hand”) and he is proud (“Pride in Casey’s bearing”), so I think he will hit the first one and try to make it a HR.

[I think so, too.]

The Grand Finale!

Readers wrap up their book club experience with a collaborative presentation designed to both inform and entice others who have not read the book. Through this presentation, they demonstrate their knowledge of the text, but also seek inventive and personal ways of showing what moved them about a particular piece of writing.

Lesley offers many creative approaches, including skits based on the book, “I Am” poems written from the point of view of various characters, and my personal favorite, the book bag presentation. This strategy calls for the student to fill a bag with items significant to the book’s plot or theme, or to a particular character, then remove them from the bag one by one as the audience eagerly looks on, discussing the significance of each.

At the time I was reading Lesley’s book, I had just finished The Water Dancer, a remarkable work of fiction by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I wondered, What if I were a student in a book club? I couldn’t help pondering what I would put in my book bag to describe the central character Hiram Walker, son of an enslaved mother and plantation owner:

  • A coin given to Hiram by his father,
  • A book Hiram might have read as a child (thanks to his father’s insistence that he be educated, albeit in a strangely intense and restrictive fashion),
  • An earthen jar, reminder of his mother’s water dancing skills,
  • A figure of a race horse, to symbolize Mayhard, Hiram’s drowned brother, who loved betting on the races,
  • A replica of forged identity papers, representing skills that made Hiram invaluable to the Underground Railroad,
  • A vial of water symbolizing Hiram’s magical powers,
  • A tobacco leaf to represent Lockless, the plantation where Hiram is forced to “task,” and of course,
  • A replica of his mother’s beautiful shell necklace—which gains significant symbolism at the end of the book. 

It’s not important, of course, to know what items I might have chosen to present a particular book to an audience. The point is, when a teacher like Lesley Roessing presents ideas as compelling as those found in Talking Texts, it’s hard not to join in, if only in your imagination.

Additional Features

Student samples. The book includes many student samples (like the one shared about “Casey at the Bat”), ideas for creative assessment and grading, sample charts, reproducible forms for journaling, reflections, book reviews, presentation assessment rubrics, and much more.

Books that reflect students’ life experiences. Roessing devotes one full chapter to discussing types of book clubs, including those based on genre, format, theme, author, and more. She invites educators, when choosing books as potential candidates for selection, to thoughtfully consider the makeup of their classrooms. It’s important, Roessing emphasizes, that students find themselves represented in the literature they read, keeping in mind that many are experiencing trauma relating to such things as loss, peer relationships, adversity and bullying, abuse, mental illness, gender identification, self-discovery, and countless other personal concerns.

Mirrors, maps, and windows. “When reading books that contain these issues,” Lesley reminds us, “readers have conversations beyond the books, and the books are employed as mirrors in which readers may see themselves represented and therefore valued; as maps by which readers learn ways to successfully, and unsuccessfully navigate life; or as windows through which readers can gain understanding of and empathy for those they may view as different from themselves” (68).

The power of conversation . . .

In his beautifully written Foreword, the ever-articulate Lester Laminack draws an analogy that truly helps us appreciate the power of book clubs (xii):

The power of talk bubbling up naturally among adults who have seen the same movie is something that most of us have experienced for ourselves. The talk nudges us to consider other perspectives, to place our tentative theories and attitudes on hold long enough to listen to the thoughts of another. The more respect we have for others in these conversations, the more likely we are to pause, reflect, and reconsider our own initial thinking . . . It is because of these conversations that we bring more to our next experience with a movie. And, as a result of these experiences, our conversations about the next movie are deeper, more insightful, and more robust.

Q and A

Lesley graciously agreed to answer a few additional questions that may further expand your insight about the value of book clubs.

Q: What do students like best about book clubs?

A: Students have told me that the three things they like best about book clubs are

  • Hearing the different perspectives on a discussion point. In a small group reading a book they chose, all members are more willing to share their ideas even if they disagree.
  • Having the support of their peers. While readers may be hesitant to admit in class that they didn’t understand something they read or that they have questions, they feel comfortable getting help from their book club members.
  • Being in charge of the discussions and discussing what they found interesting instead of answering the teacher’s questions.

Q: If it feels to a teacher that book clubs are not working in his/her classroom, what, in your experience, usually accounts for this?

A: If book clubs are not working in a classroom, it’s usually for one of three reasons:

  • Students have not learned and practiced the social skills necessary for successful small-group collaboration.
  • Students were assigned the reading instead of having some choice in text, even though the choice might be limited.
  • Students are not prepared for book club meetings and discussions. Some readers may need time in class to read for the next meeting, so I suggestion holding book club meetings every other day or twice a week and scheduling reading workshop days for independent reading of the book club text in between meetings. I have also found it essential for students to prepare some type of reader response notes to bring to the meeting, whether on response forms, such as those included in Talking Texts, notes in a reader’s notebook, or annotations in the text or on sticky notes. It is also important for each student to bring one discussion question for the club to discuss.
Q: You must need to read 24 hours a day to explore all the books  needed to provide students  with options! How do you choose which books to explore and how do you find time to do
it? How can a teacher get started with this?

I do read quite a lot of books, but I have also found some good blogs and also reviews on Goodreads to give me ideas. When I taught 8th grade, I first started book clubs with the books for which I had multiple copies, books that former teachers had used as whole-class reading—but that would not be not conducive to theme or topic book clubs. In some schools, librarians order 4-5 copies of books, and those can be used for book clubs. If there are multiple teachers in a grade level, they could each read different books and then collaborate and order together.

More about Lesley Roessing

Lesley taught middle school English-language arts and humanities for twenty years before becoming the founding director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and senior lecturer in the College of Education at Armstrong State University (now Georgia Southern University). At the university, she taught courses in literacy to pre-service and in-service teachers.

Her other professional books include—

  • The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension
  • Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed—the Sentences They Saved
  • No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons and Activities to Promote Peer Respect (reviewed previously on Gurus)
  • Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core

Lesley has facilitated book clubs in her own high school and middle grade classes and in her undergraduate and graduate classrooms. In addition, she has introduced book club strategies and lessons to K-16 educators through workshops, in-services, and conference presentations. You can contact Lesley at lesleyroessing@gmail.com

9 Revision Tips–for Writing In or Out of the Classroom

by Vicki Spandel

Introduction

For most of my life, I’ve written educational materials and journalistic stories. Then one day I took a break to look out my office window and there, staring up at me, was the most beautiful cat I’d ever seen. Incredibly heavy long-haired coat, green eyes, and a stare that wouldn’t let you go.

Where had he (or she) come from? This was winter, a time when most people who live in my mountainous part of Oregon head to Arizona as fast as their four-wheel drive vehicles can take them. Had someone left this gorgeous creature behind? Before I could get close, the cat vanished as if never there, leaving nothing behind but the image in my head. There had to be a story here. On a whim, I sat down at my keyboard and began writing the tale of a cat with an irresistible urge to explore.

At first, my story writing adventure was mostly for kicks, a kind of writing therapy, but I had so much fun inventing that I couldn’t stop. Before I knew what was happening (and with significant encouragement from a friend—more on this later), I had a book titled No Ordinary Cat.

My little story (which I originally thought would run about five pages) evolved into a children’s chapter book, primarily aimed at young readers, though I’m hoping it will gain fans among adults who love cats as much as I do. It also grew to twenty chapters.

Of course, books aren’t finished when you write the last line. They take revision—a lot of it. In fact, I worked on this little book off and on for nearly two years. And during that time, I learned that if you don’t love revision—and I mean truly love it, all the messiness of adding and chopping and reworking repeatedly—you shouldn’t even think about writing a book. I do love it, though, and this book became my passion. So much so that I’m thinking of doing a sequel. 

As I worked on my cat book, I learned other things too, some of which echo writing wisdom that applies to any writing. Storytelling, however—as I would discover—has its own little nuances.

Here are some thoughts you may find helpful as a writer or teacher of writing.

My 9 Tips

Tip 1: Don’t lock in your message—let it “bubble up” as you write.

Ever see a movie that just doesn’t seem to go anywhere? Watching it is torture. The plot wanders aimlessly, and all you can think is, Will this ever end?

I certainly didn’t want anyone feeling like that about my book. I could avoid this, I thought, by having a clear main idea, a message, a point to make. I was sort of right. The part I didn’t get right was feeling I had to pinpoint my main idea with laser precision before I’d even typed my lead. What I learned as I wrote was that my message was redefining itself with every added chapter and character and new situation. This, I learned, is part of the joy of writing fiction. And it is very different from writing a report, summary, how-to book, or any other nonfiction.

When I started this book, my core theme was that cats are essentially wild animals, even when domesticated, and guided by that wildness, are driven to explore despite any danger that poses for them. That’s still an integral part of the story, but it’s no longer the main theme.

The central idea in my final draft is that friendship has healing powers. It is not only life changing, it can be life saving. That’s a big leap, and it took quite a lot of revision (plus a whole raft of new characters) to get there.

Try this in a conference if you have a student whose writing (fiction or nonfiction) seems to meander. Ask them to define in one sentence what the main message of the piece is. If they can do that, revision will be far easier, and will truly make the writing better as opposed to just changing it for the sake of change.

Don’t forget, though, to also ask, Do you find your main idea or message changing as you write? Are you finding you have more to say than you thought—including things you didn’t anticipate? It may not occur to young writers that this can happen, given how hard we’ve hammered home that “Have a main idea” message. It hadn’t occurred to me, but once I got comfortable with it, stopped fighting it and allowed it to happen, I realized how much better writing can be when you let your message evolve, expand, and speak for itself.

Tip 2: Let your characters help you figure out the plot.

The hardest part of writing fiction, I’d always thought, was figuring out the plot. Did I lay it out in a flow chart titled “Plot”? List the main events? What??!!

The solution—now so obvious—just hadn’t come to me: namely, that in much the way our lives are extensions of ourselves, plot is an extension of a book’s characters. Think of Ahab fixated on that whale, Gatsby with his green light, Holden with the little kids, Winnie loving honey and Piglet, Charlotte loving Wilbur.

I started with a general idea—a cat who longed for adventure and set out to explore a wilderness he wasn’t prepared to survive. That’s a start, all right, but it’s hard to make a whole book out of it. My biggest problem? I couldn’t envision how the book would end. I needed that little cat to show me.

As my characters evolved, Rufus, the main character, showed himself to be driven, almost obsessed, by curiosity. Recognizing and respecting that, I let him follow his instincts in every situation. He would wish himself (wisely or not) away from home and out into a wilderness he knew nothing about, he would let himself be lured down a path that would inevitably lead to danger, he would make friends with strangers. What occurred as a result of these decisions on his part became my plot. But I never felt I was making the decisions for him. They came out of who he was—or who he was gradually becoming.

You’ll hear fiction writers say their characters “talk” to them. This is real. It happens. You don’t hear voices exactly. It’s not some Joan of Arc thing. It’s more like hearing friends talk in your head, advising you to hey, go ahead and take that trip, buy that house you know you love, stop working so hard, cut your hair, do more yoga.

Characters, as you develop them, become just as vivid and real as those friends who surf your mind waves. You can’t write dialogue that doesn’t sound like them or dump them into situations they simply would never be caught in. Try it and they object, loud and clear.

Getting to know your characters makes writing more fun and less predictable. You can ask them, Would you take a risk to get what you want? Would you risk your life? What do you care about most? What if you can’t get it? Who or what stands in your way? What are you going to do about that? Their answers lead to an ending that works because it feels right. It fits them, and it’s what might actually happen—with a few twists and turns of fate thrown in, of course.

Try putting your characters at the center of things, and let the plot swirl around their wishes, fears, hopes, and decisions—good or bad. If you’re surprised at how things shake out, you’re probably doing something right.

Tip 3: Do your research.

Research isn’t just for nonfiction reports or books. It’s for all writing.

You cannot write with confidence about anything you don’t know well, and this is just as true for fiction as nonfiction. For my book, I researched not only cats, both domestic and feral, but other creatures as well. For example, in one scene, a cat is being hunted by a golden eagle.

Golden eagles are revered by many Native Americans for their courage and hunting prowess. This much I knew—so I chose the golden for that very reason. They’re formidable, and if you happen to be one of the animals they hunt, they’re terrifying. That’s what I wanted, the thrill that only comes with that level of risk. I wanted to push my cat character to the absolute limit of what she could do—but I wasn’t ready to write the scene by any means.

I didn’t know for sure what golden eagles weighed, what they ate, where they built their nests, how fast they could fly, how strong they were, how much they could carry, or a hundred other things. The book doesn’t include all these details, naturally. It’s a story, not a report. But the point is, knowing is what matters. You cannot write a scene in which a golden eagle attacks another animal without knowing how that might play out, who would most likely win, and how or why. It won’t be authentic. Readers won’t trust it. And that trust is something you cannot afford to lose.

Even when students are writing stories about things they believe they know well—their pets, their home town, school, family, video games, a favorite sport—encourage them to do at least a little research. If they uncover even one bit of new information they can weave into the story, I can almost guarantee it will be stronger.

 Tip 4: Read everything aloud—more than once.

You’ve undoubtedly heard this sage advice many times. But—do you actually do it when you write? Do your students? Reading aloud helps you know whether—

  • Your writing simply fills space or seizes readers by the lapels
  • Your dialogue sounds natural or stiff and forced
  • Your text is easy to read without a lot of rehearsal
  • Your words are likely to evoke images, memories, or strong emotional responses
  • Sentences vary or create a monotonous rhythm that puts readers to sleep
  • Your lead is so strong it might make someone buy your book
  • Your ending is a big fat let-down—or enough to make readers wish for a sequel

I read at least a portion of my book aloud every day as I was working on it. When you read aloud, you can’t skip over sections. You can’t ignore the bumpy parts. You discover missing or repeated words, passages that simply add nothing, dialogue that sounds like a badly written Soap. Reading aloud keeps you honest. But I learned another trick, too.

This may sound a bit strange, but it works. I “auditioned” various people to read aloud to me, and yes, I could hear their voices in my head—quite clearly, in fact. By the way, I got this idea from my colleague and co-author (Teaching Nonfiction Revision) Sneed Collard, who nearly always works with a writing group. Group members take turns reading one another’s work aloud so the writer can listen to his or her words in someone else’s voice. I’d love to hear my writing in just that way, but unfortunately, I don’t have a writing group right now, so I had to improvise.

Award winning author and photographer Sneed Collard, who has written countless fiction and nonfiction books for young readers of all ages.

At first, I imagined two friends read alternating chapters: Jeff Hicks (former Gurus co-author) and Darle Fearl (one of the best writing teachers ever). I’ve heard them both read aloud numerous times. They read with expression, and know how to hold an audience’s attention. They can switch on a dime from light and humorous to somber or melancholy. They know how to pause occasionally, creating a silence as powerful as any words. Over time, I discovered which chapters fit Jeff or Darle best, so I always had the voice I wanted for every scene, and their “readings” influenced my revision enormously, particularly with respect to voice, sentence rhythm, and dialogue. Ultimately, though, I wanted to hear the whole thing in a single voice other than my own.

I had some famous voices in mind—Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, Peter Coyote, Sean Connery, and Tom Hanks. These are distinctive voices, but I mainly chose them because they’re voices I’ve heard countless times, so I figured conjuring them up in my head might not be too difficult—and I was right.

In order to make a choice, I “listened” to their voices on the first two paragraphs, and probably would have kept this imaginary try-out going for a while just because it was so much fun, but when I got to Tom Hanks, I knew I couldn’t do better. Tom can be tender and loving, serious, aggressive, bewildered, overwhelmed, mischievous, humble, sarcastic, comedic—or whatever the situation calls for. He has, in short, just the kind of flexibility good oral readers need. And because I’ve seen and heard him in many films, I had no trouble imagining how it might sound if he read No Ordinary Cat aloud.

Reality check: As you might suspect, I could not afford to hire Tom Hanks to actually create an audio version of my book. If only! But imagining how this might sound was not only entertaining, it was helpful in revising, especially when it came to dialogue.

I have to think that kids would also have fun doing this—choosing a voice to “read” their work aloud, if only in their imaginations. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this can take the place of doing your own reading and having someone from a writing group read your work aloud to you. Not at all. Students need to do both those things. But I am saying that it’s an enjoyable alternative and one that adds a new dimension to how you hear your own work. Consider how much fun students might have discussing which voice they had chosen and why.

Yes, you still need that writing group–even with Tom’s voice in your head.

Tip 5: Leave it alone (for more than a day).

Every time I felt I was “finished” revising (and I was always happy with what I’d written), I’d leave the manuscript for a few days, then return to find a hundred things that cried out for change. How had I missed them?

This isn’t unusual. It happens, I think, to anyone who works on a single document for an extended period. You just can’t get to what you really want to say with one round of revision, any more than a sculptor can transform marble into a work of art with one stroke of the chisel.

A book lives in your head the whole time you work on it, and my husband quickly figured out that when I was staring out the window, I was “writing.” Thoughts and words and phrases cycled through my head endlessly. Nevertheless, I needed that time away from the keyboard to process things so I could make better choices when I dove in again. Writing doesn’t happen quickly. Nor should it. 

One reason revision is so difficult to teach in school is that we just don’t have the time required. It’s impossible to write well without revising—more than once. But how is that supposed to work in the real world? Students have deadlines. Teachers want to see their students’ work on a regular basis so they can track progress and head off problems. They also want students to write on multiple subjects. All of this is understandable, and all of it gets in the way of making time for revision.

It’s unfortunate that students never know how satisfying it is to stick with a piece of writing for a while, to return to it, reflect on it, and revise it many times until it turns into something you love. It’s not just the piece of writing that changes when this happens. It’s the writer. Not only do you discover more ways to revise and more little things you can do to bring out meaning, but you simply get faster, more flexible and adept, more daring—and more capable of solving writing problems. And solving problems is really what revision’s about.

Any piece of writing can improve markedly if the writer leaves a draft for two, three, or even more days before returning to revise with new eyes. Let students do this regularly. But consider trying this, too: Have students identify one piece to work on periodically through the course of a semester or even a whole year. Those who take time to do this will be amazed by how much the writing changes and by how much more in control they feel as revisers.

Tip 6: Create a special, separate file for problem passages.

Sometimes it’s really hard to know exactly how you want to say something. You revise—maybe removing some words and adding others—then revise again. Problem is, now you no longer have your original to look at. And in spite of all your brilliant changes, maybe that was the best version! Grrrrrrrrr!

In the computer age, it’s simple to revise, but because changes automatically disappear, often difficult to make comparisons. Here’s another handy trick I learned from my co-author Sneed Collard–one that was invaluable in writing this most recent book.

When I cannot quite make up my mind about a passage, I copy the whole thing to a new blank page, then write one or two new possible revisions right beneath it. I give this new file a name and save it. That way, I can wait a day or two, come back, analyze and compare all options with a clear head. Everything’s right there in front of me, nothing’s lost. Here’s one short example.

In an early chapter of No Ordinary Cat, the main character, Rufus, approaches a pair of newly nested geese, who resent his intrusion. Rufus, who’s lived in a house all his life, has no idea what geese even are, so cannot recognize the danger he’s in. Here are several introductions to this scene. Being able to look at them all together made it easier to choose the one I liked. See which version you like best:

Rufus smelled the geese, but the scent was new to him, so he was more intrigued than afraid. The geese also smelled Rufus, and the dreaded stench of cat—instantly identifiable—had them bracing for a fight.

Rufus smelled the geese, but the scent was new to him, so he was more intrigued than afraid. For the geese, there was no mistaking the dreaded stench of cat. They braced for a fight.

Rufus smelled the geese, but the scent was new to him, so he was more intrigued than afraid. As he crept closer, the geese found themselves awash in the dreaded stench of cat—and they braced for a fight.

Don’t take the old expression “silly goose” too literally. These guys are scrappers.

Tip 7: Remember that little things, like repetition, make a big difference.

Do you have some favorite words? Yes, you do—even if you’re unaware of it. We all do. I just love the word just, and it just slips into my writing way too often. This habit is just a whole lot harder to break than you might think.

When you write something two or three pages long, it’s relatively simple to avoid repetition because repeated words are so easy to spot. But what happens when you write a book?

It’s all but impossible to recall every repetition once you’ve written more than, say, ten pages. Wait a minute, though. Is repetition in a long document really such a big problem? Maybe the reader won’t even notice.

Maybe not. A little word like just might slip by undetected. But strong verbs like launch, slink, or zoom tend to stick in readers’ minds. When they pop up too often, it’s as if the writer ran out of things to say or hadn’t even troubled to reread or revise. If the writer doesn’t care, why should the reader?

Luckily, word processing offers an invaluable aid called “Navigation” that allows you to check how many times a particular word, part of a word, or phrase appears in a document. I used this daily. Sometimes, I admit, I was shocked to see how often I had used a word like, say, leap. Some of those repetitions had to go.

Now leap is a word with numerous synonyms: bound, jump, dive, spring, hurdle, vault, surge, and so on. The thing is, you cannot just grab one of these handy dandy synonyms and write on. They seem to all mean the same thing, but they don’t. Not really.

A mouse, for example, can jump but cannot really bound. That would be an unusually large mouse with extraordinary legs. A wave can surge onto the shore, but not hurdle. An eagle dives all the time when hunting, but doesn’t bound or spring or vault—unless it’s caged and its legs are tethered. Word choice demands that you visualize what you’re writing, making sure that you say precisely what you mean—not kind of what you sort of mean. This is especially critical in fiction because stories require so much description, characterization, action, and sensory detail. By the way, you can’t always get by merely exchanging one word for another. Often, I would wind up rewriting a sentence so I didn’t need the repeated word or a synonym. Or I’d cut that sentence altogether.

Vaulting waves? Pouncing waves? Hurdling waves? How about . . . surging waves?

Minimizing repetition takes more than just looking at individual words, though. You also need to look for patterns. I routinely looked through each paragraph to see if I’d started and ended sentences in a variety of ways.

Look down my recent paragraphs from the post you’re reading and you’ll see these beginnings–all different:

  • Do you have . . .
  • When you write . . .
  • Maybe not . . .
  • Luckily . . .
  • Now leap is a word . . .
  • A mouse, for example . . .
  • Minimizing repetition . . .

You probably didn’t notice these differences as you were reading. But if all my paragraphs had started the same way, you would most definitely have noticed—and you might have thought, “What gives? Is she asleep?” Repetition is only one example in writing where something small can irritate readers.

Something I learned from writing many action scenes is that as writers, we all have favorite structures, just as we have favorite words. I tend to like participles—not consciously (“Ooh, here comes a participle!”). It’s just how my writing mind works:

  • Watching the hawk’s every move, she shimmied up the tree.

To my ear, that’s better than this:

  • She watched the hawk’s every move as she shimmied up the tree.

Admittedly, there’s not a lot of difference. But the second option makes the cat sound relaxed, as if taking her time, even though she’s supposedly shimmying. It also makes it sound as if this watching and shimmying is in the past. The first sentence makes the cat seem more alert—as she needs to be in this scene. It’s also happening right now, so the reader is thrust into the action. So far so good. The problem arises when I use too many participles together:

  • Watching the hawk’s every move, she shimmed up the tree. Eyeing her prey, the hawk moved in.

Overdoing anything kills impact. So have students look for repeated structures. This activity also helps them become aware of the many ways sentences can begin. You can also have students choose one sentence to write in multiple ways. A sort of stretching activity for the mind.

And you, or your students, might list the first words of each paragraph within a page or two, asking, Are the beginnings different in both wording and structure? If not, you’ve got one small thing to revise that will have an enormous effect on voice and fluency. Speaking of which . . .

Tip 8: Trust the 6 traits.

People have often asked me, Do YOU use the 6 traits when you write or revise? Well, wouldn’t it be odd if I didn’t? But here’s the thing: Everyone does. You can’t help it because the traits are nothing more than the qualities that make writing work—clear ideas, easy-to-follow yet occasionally surprising organization, voice, and more.

However, I probably don’t use them in the way you imagine.

I know of teachers who’ve had students memorize rubrics. That’s a total waste of time. I don’t know them by heart and I helped write them. I don’t keep a rubric by my elbow as I revise, either—nor should you.

The point of the traits is not—never has been—rubrics. The point of the traits is . . . concepts. Once students understand, really get, what it means to have clear ideas, compelling voice, word choice that stirs readers, or fluency that enhances the whole reading experience, they have no further need for rubrics. To be of any value, the traits need to reside in your head—expressed in your own words.

Moreover, I don’t consciously go through these traits one by one as I revise. How tedious would that be? But I do watch and listen for things like this as I revise:

  • Am I boring or confusing my readers? Or showing them something they weren’t expecting? Are they still with me—or falling asleep? (Ideas)
  • Do I have enough detail, the right detail—and no mind-crushing overload of sensory details? (Ideas)
  • Did I start where the story begins? Or write two pages of gobbledygook before getting to the heart of the matter? (Organization)
  • Am I rushing readers through this story? Trudging along? Moving at a good pace so something important happens in every scene? (Organization)
  • Are readers asking, “How the heck did we get here?” or “Whatever happened to so-and-so?” or am I picking up loose ends and making needed connections? (Organization)
  • Does the conclusion pack some punch? Is it too predictable? Did this story really end two pages ago? (Organization)
  • Does the voice sound like me? Is it honest? And is it the voice I want? (Voice)
  • Do my words ring true? Do they come as close to the image or impression or message in my head as I can possibly come? (Word choice)
  • Is this easy to read aloud—and do I love the sound of it? (Sentence fluency)
This book is putting me right to sleep . . . I think it’s the repetition . . .

I don’t have a checklist or chart of any kind because these concepts are just part of how I think as a writer. They’re probably part of your thinking, too. But again, you need to think of them in your own words, your own voice. That’s how you want things to work for students. A checklist is never part of you—and you want revision to be part of you.

Think of it this way. If you were picking out a car (or shoes or a dog or anything), you’d have certain things you’d look for, right? You know what they are. You don’t carry a rubric with you to the car dealership because—well, why would you? You don’t suddenly forget that style or technology or price or performance or color matter to you. The 6 traits are just like that. They’re all about what matters.

Hm, puppy traits . . . let’s see . . . cute as the dickens, friendly to a fault, cuddly and affectionate, looks me in the eye, clearly plain as day wants to come HOME with me!

Tip 9: Remember—it’s never finished.

How do you know when you’re done revising? Good question! And the answer is more complicated than “It sounds good” or “My writing group likes it” or “I revised it once—and that’s enough!”

For me, the feeling is akin to trying on new shoes and finally finding ones that feel great. It’s a relief. I know these are the shoes that will make my feet happy. They look terrific, they feel comfortable, I’m not going to return them, and I’ll still like them next month when I take that long hike.

Happy feet, happy hiker.

At the same time, there is no perfect shoe, and no perfect piece of writing. Every time I return to a piece of writing—any piece—I find something I’d like to change. Writers have, I think, a built-in editorial instinct that just operates this way. Heck, I revise books I’m reading, too—in my head. I don’t write on them. But still. It’s just what writers do. They can’t help it.

“No, no, no . . . let me just tweak this a wee bit . . . “

While working on my book, I’d go through my manuscript twice a day, usually making more revisions on the second pass. Finally, one day, I found myself not changing much at all. I was shortening an occasional sentence, changing a word here or there—and then, often as not, changing it back. But really, if I’m being honest, these changes were not improvements. They were making the document different but not necessarily better. Not more dramatic, more readable, more compelling. Change for the sake of change is not revision. It’s tinkering. When revision devolves into tinkering, it is time to stop.

That doesn’t mean the document is “finished.” There’s always something. Always. But unless I want to spend my whole life working on one piece of writing (and I don’t), I need to move on. I rationalize it this way (and it’s a good way, I think):

Whatever lessons I learn from future readings I can apply to writing I do down the road.

Adopt this philosophy. Think ahead—to all that writing waiting to be done in your future. Have your students do the same. Meanwhile, to define a reasonable point at which to stop, pay attention to the kinds of revisions you are doing. As long as you are—

  • Rethinking ideas,
  • Building in a surprise,
  • Including details you didn’t think of before,
  • Making connections clear,
  • Creating a new character,
  • Revamping or adding dialogue,
  • Hacking off parts you don’t need or like,
  • Coming up with better words, phrases, or even whole paragraphs,
  • Reordering sections,
  • Writing a whole new beginning,
  • Writing a whole new ending,
  • Writing from a different perspective,
  • Restructuring sentences,
  • Changing the voice or tone, or
  • Condensing . . .

You are doing significant and important revision. Keep on keeping on. But once you find yourself—

  • Agonizing over individual words for too long,
  • Rewriting sentences with no appreciable change in meaning, sound, tone, or rhythm,
  • Tinkering endlessly with punctuation (Dash? Ellipses? Comma?),
  • Or worst of all,
  • Making changes you wind up reversing the very next day,

you are probably tweaking, not revising. Stop. Hit reset. Time to write something new.

Before I go, let me extend not only my thanks but a long and enthusiastic virtual round of applause to my writing coach, developmental editor, and publication coordinator, Steve Peha (author of the award-winning Be a Better Writer). Without Steve’s unwavering encouragement and expert advice, my book might have remained in neutral for years to come. And I would never have enjoyed the learning experience and great fun I’ve had reworking it. Thank you, Steve! (Hope you’re up for a sequel!)

Steve Peha: Writer, developmental editor and writing coach, award winning author, and founder of Teaching That Makes Sense.

Stay in touch for more details on No Ordinary Cat, tentatively scheduled for release in spring of 2020. I’ll preview it then in all its glory, with illustrations by the incredibly talented Jeni Kelleher. Meanwhile, thank you for stopping by—and Happy Fall.

Assessing Writing Well

by Vicki Spandel

Introduction

Assessing writing is one of the most difficult things we do, mostly because it’s so personal—on both sides. It’s hard to determine what’s true or important about a given piece of writing. And it’s extremely difficult to give good writing advice that makes a difference without hurting feelings. With so much at stake, it’s critical to get it right. How on earth do we do that? Following are a few thoughts.

Remember that writing is a gift. Writers write for one main reason—to be read. No matter what assessment approach you take, remember this: Your students are waiting for your response. They’re hoping you’ll find something to like. Something. Anything. Even the struggling writers hope. And if you don’t, what’s their motivation to write more?

In my years of working with teachers, I must have been asked this question a thousand times: How do you get kids to want to write? The answer is simple, and it’s right in front of us—or more accurately, right within us. Be a good audience. Sound too easy? There’s nothing easy about it. To be a good audience you need to be open-minded, perceptive, enthusiastic, engaged, and so eager to read the next piece it’s like you’re standing with outstretched arms to receive it. This is something you cannot fake. If you look on each piece of writing as a gift, you’re already doing the most important thing any writing teacher can do. And if you’re not, almost nothing else you do will help.

Admit that “the truth” is a myth. In a classroom, unfortunately, students are usually writing for a one-person audience. They get one shot to make or break it. Sadly, students don’t always realize that no matter how well-read and experienced a teacher may be, no single response can never be representative of how a broader audience might react. This is why author and teacher Peter Elbow reminds us that the “truth” about any piece of writing is very big, and lies in the combined multiple responses of a whole community of writers.

Any subjective assessment must be taken with, as Mark Twain might have said, a few tons of salt. Let students know that although your assessment of their writing will always be as fair and honest as you can make it, other readers might respond differently.

I am from . . .

Every professional writer out there knows this well. Most have had their work rejected repeatedly before finally getting something published, then proving the critics wrong as the public devours every word. To see some hilarious rejection notes, look up “17 Famous Authors and Their Rejections” published by Mental Floss: http://mentalfloss.com/article/91169/16-famous-authors-and-their-rejections.

This is my favorite from that collection: “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”

Like all writers, students need responses from more than one person. Widen the audience when you can. Have students share writing within peer groups. Partner with another class. Find pen pals. Do school-wide drama or poetry readings. And encourage students to write for community outlets, such as a school or town newspaper.

Tell students what you want. Clarity is essential. Whatever your assessment approach—points, scores, grades, comments—explain it in words students can understand. Let them know what you’re looking for, and what changes the game for you. Read aloud from your favorite authors often, daily if possible, and talk about why they move you. Do you like humor? Total honesty? Vivid imagery? Mystery? Striking verbs? Off-beat characters? Realistic dialogue? Poetic language? Unexpected details? Good research? An ending you can’t anticipate? Whatever your preferences, back them up with examples.

I’ve always loved six-trait writing because written criteria make it crystal clear what a reviewer is looking for. Without that clarity, students are guessing what you want. That’s not fair. You don’t need to use the six traits to make your wishes transparent, though; share your own criteria, whatever they may be. And just because you put them in writing, that’s no sign they’re final. You have the option—indeed, the obligation—to revise them as you learn more about what you value. Values evolve for everyone who reads because reading expands and refines our preferences. Reading is how we teach ourselves to write.

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the “I’ll know it when I see it” trap. Everyone feels that way, and this old platitude provides a convenient excuse for not examining our beliefs, never daring to make them visible. Make no mistake: Defining what makes writing work is very hard, and very personal. What moves me may not touch your soul at all. That doesn’t let either one of us off the hook. “What constitutes good writing?” is a question that has no final or “correct” answer, and that’s why we need to keep asking it forever.

Honor the sacred rule of assessment. Finally, we have to remember the number one rule of good assessment—any assessment anywhere: Is it helpful to the person being assessed? If the answer is no (which it often is), we have to find another way. Good writing assessment always, without exception, gives the writer information or strategies she can use the very next time she writes. Perhaps forever. Isn’t that a lot to ask? Not really. That’s actually the minimum we should expect.

8 Things That Make a Difference

Following are eight things I’ve learned through the years about assessing writing well at the classroom level, whether you’re putting scores or grades on papers, writing comments, holding conferences, or all of these things together.

  1. Don’t feel compelled to comment on everything.

It’s overwhelming and exhausting. You don’t want to write that much, and no one wants to read it—least of all the writer. Especially given how unlikely it is that ALL your comments will be positive.

Start by getting grounded. Read the piece once to get it in your head, no pen or pencil in hand—yet. What’s the main message? What’s the mood? What touches you? What feels unfinished? What’s most striking? What’s missing? Ask yourself what the writer needs to keep on doing or might do differently. Then go through the piece again, commenting on those stand-out parts, always focusing first on what’s working well—and then perhaps offering a suggestion for something to try. Coach a writer the way you’d coach a marathon runner at the halfway mark.

  • Focus more on the writer than on the writing.

Whether a given piece of writing winds up as perfect as you can make it is actually of no consequence whatsoever. This is hard for some of us to come to grips with. We’re so eager to show off what good proofreaders we are and how NOTHING escapes our sharp editorial eyes. We respond to writing as if we were preparing a piece for publication. Unless (and this is rare) the writer shares your enthusiasm for that effort, it’s a horrible waste of precious teacher time and energy. So—don’t get roped into being an editor for your students.

Will you see a lot of things you would do differently? Or better? Almost certainly. Should you point them all out? No. If you do, trust me, you will be writing notes to yourself. Instead, ask yourself, What is this writer, this student, this person doing that I want to encourage? What would be the one thing he or she could try that would make the biggest difference down the road?

  • Put conventions in their place.

Too often I’ve seen the stumbling block conventions can create for a teacher/reviewer who simply cannot look beyond them. Details lie flattened under misspelled words. Voice and word choice are lost in the weed patch of faulty punctuation. Fluency is choked by grammatical errors. Don’t let conventional errors distract you.

Respond to the message first. Read the piece aloud as if it were picture perfect and ask yourself what you hear, what you picture, what you learn or feel. Occasionally if possible, ask a friend to read a conventionally challenging piece aloud to you; that way, you won’t even see the conventions, and that makes it easier to concentrate on what the writer is saying and how passionately she is expressing her thoughts.

Grade conventions separately if possible—or make that factor one slice of a bigger writing pie. Is this easy to do? Not at all. But if you try, you can teach yourself to look beyond conventions to the message and voice beneath. Think what that will mean to the student who writes with stunning voice that has never, ever been heard because her spelling and punctuation are all anyone has ever noticed.

A few years ago, I came across this piece written by a student who dreaded summer vacation because it meant she would have to leave her beloved teacher and the school room where she felt safe. She wrote (in penmanship far harder to read than this clear print) “it is theend sumrisomisthir butiwrtuvrfrgit [teacher’s name]” Translation: “It is the end. Summer is almost here. But I won’t ever forget _______ .”

Eventually, you DO need to teach conventions. If you don’t, who will? The thing is, though, correcting is not teaching. It feels like teaching, but in reality it’s the opposite. It turns student thinking off. Number one, you’re being a critic. And what do you do when someone criticizes your efforts? Right. Second, by making corrections, you’re taking responsibility for tracking down all the errors—so who’s learning to edit? It’s a rare student, that once-in-a-lifetime driven student, who learns anything at all from corrected copy. The best way to learn conventions is by being an editor. Here’s one way to make that happen . . .

  • Teach conventions—every day—by making students editors.

Instead of correcting errors, teach conventions by turning students into editors. Where to begin? In the most logical place of all: with the problems they’re currently having. Lift the copy for practice editing right from students’ own work. Sometimes, more than one student is having trouble matching subjects and verbs, knowing when to use who or whom, figuring out how to set up a quotation—or whatever. Perfect. That’s the very issue you want to focus on.

Pluck a representative problem sentence from any student’s piece, and reproduce it on your white board or electronic board for everyone to edit. Here’s a dangling modifier straight from a student’s piece, but it could just as well have come from adult writing—which I love pointing out to students:

  • Driving down the road, icicles were hanging from every rooftop.

Next step: Ask everyone in the class to read the sentence carefully, think about what it literally says and what the writer means to say, then edit it. This takes only a couple minutes. Let them check with a partner to see if their editorial changes match. Ask a few volunteers to share their corrections and write them out so others can compare their own changes. Work with them, but hold off a bit on sharing your version.

After editing: Explore the problem. Conventions are often a matter of logic, though students usually don’t think of them this way. In teaching conventions, though, this is one of the most important messages you can get across: Conventions are NOT arbitrary rules designed to trip up unwary writers. Conventions make reading easier. Period. That’s their job. itse asyt oma kethis poi ntb y n otusing thm

Ask students who, in our sample sentence, is driving down the road? The way the sentence is written, it’s the icicles. That makes no sense—and certainly is not what the writer means. Notice how easy editing becomes once we employ a little logic:

  • Driving down the road, we saw icicles hanging from every rooftop.

At this point, share your editing too—and in most cases, it will match closely what your students have done. Of course, one sentence does not provide a lot of editing practice, so try to find two, three, or more you can use within one editing lesson. By the way, in my experience students love this approach to teaching editing and do not feel at all threatened by having their writing singled out for practice. On the contrary, they feel as if they’re making a contribution to improving everyone’s editing skills, which they are.

  • Be positive, be enthusiastic, and be specific!

Be positive. Start with what’s working. Can’t find anything? Read again. Look deeper. It’s important to get beyond the cliché response: Thank you for sharing. Maybe this student is tackling a new topic for the first time, writing more than ever before, finally using paragraphs, remembering to include a title, experimenting with periods or other punctuation, including at least one detail, however small, daring to try a verb other than is, are, was, were. There’s something. Find it and you give that writer something to build on instead of another reason to hate writing.

Be enthusiastic. I have often heard teachers say, “Oh, I’ve read this a thousand times. There’s nothing new here.” It’s hard to teach for years without coming to that mindset. You have seen them all, read them all, haven’t you? The special friend, the biggest surprise, the day someone will never forget. But remember: This young writer hasn’t written this a thousand times. He isn’t tired of his message. Help him to see what he’s doing well today and maybe he’ll keep at it long enough to write something you’ll truly love. Instead of being the person who’s heard it all before, maybe you can be something much harder to find: the person who listens for a new riff in that old song everybody recognizes.

Be specific. You don’t want generalities from your students. They’re just as disappointed when they get them from you. Comments like “Good job!” feel good for a second or two (especially when accompanied by a high grade), but they don’t provide the writer with any ideas about how to improve or challenge herself. A writer needs to know two things: What, specifically, was so good about that word, sentence, passage, scene, observation, description, bit of dialogue? And second, what moved, shocked, surprised, horrified, delighted, entertained, or stopped you in your tracks?

Think of a comment you’d make to a professional writer whose novel or nonfiction or poetry was hard to put down. You’d want to go beyond, “Great job!” Your students will appreciate writer-to-writer responses, too:

  • You came up with such precise words for how cats move—“slipping through the grass.” I get such a vivid picture from that.
  • Your title is perfect I kept thinking about it the whole time I was reading.
  • This is my favorite detail/image/scene/bit of dialogue in the whole piece.
  • You made me laugh out loud.
  • This conjured up memories for me. You know how to keep readers reading.
  • I can tell what an important event this was for you.
  • Your opening scene really sets the mood.
  • I enjoyed this passage so much I read it several times.
  • I love the way you play with rhythm, shifting from long sentences to short.
  • Your dialogue is truly authentic—I feel as if I know these characters.
  • You tried something interesting, focusing just on smells instead of trying to include every last sensory detail. Very effective.
  • I never knew dinosaurs could be brainy! I love the way you try to teach readers something they might not know.
  • You made me look at this issue a whole new way. Your argument is compelling.
  • Thank you for going beyond words like nice and special to describe your friend.
  • Saving this example for last was brilliant—it’s the strongest one.
  • Your transitions work beautifully—I find myself floating from paragraph to paragraph effortlessly. Reading this is a pleasure.
  • What a surprise this ending was! I loved it.
  • You managed to convey a wealth of detail without ever being repetitive. I can tell this was written by someone who knows the subject inside and out.
  • The way you weave quotations into your text is so smooth it’s as if you’re bringing these experts right into the conversation.
  • What an intriguing topic you chose, the evolution of horses. How did you come up with it?
  • This scene on the river is so vivid I feel as if I’m rafting with you, hanging on for dear life.
  • Your voice is unique—and very strong.
  • Be careful what you say.

I’ve often talked in workshops about a high school teacher who wrote on one of my essays “Your most irritating habit is your relentless misuse of the semicolon. Please revise!” It struck me then as now that he must have thought I had numerous irritating habits since this semicolon thing was the most irritating. And “relentless”? I’m not sure I was relentless about anything at that point in my life, and even now I can only get just so excited about semicolons.

My point, though, has nothing to do with that cantankerous teacher in particular. The point is, comments linger. Don’t write ANYTHING on a student’s paper that you don’t want that person thinking about decades from now. If you have something kind and encouraging to say, of course, go for it. But just so you know, it’s usually the ugly comments that are long-lived. I know this because I have asked teachers in nearly every one of my seminars to recall the most positive and negative comments they ever received on their writing. The majority could not recall a single positive comment. Not one. (“Good job” has no shelf life whatsoever.) But negative? Hands would shoot into the air, with people calling over each other to share dark memories that still brought tears to their eyes ten, twenty, even thirty years after the fact. Here are just a few arrows to the heart, excerpted from Creating Writers, 6th edition—

Keeping it positive . . .
  • I can’t believe what I see here. There is nothing of worth except that the documentation is perfect. It is only the documentation that boosts this paper to a D-.
  • I looking at this paper again, I believe it is even worse than I originally thought.
  • Reading this has depressed me more than I can say.
  • You simply don’t know how to write.
  • This is basically verbal vomit.
  • No one would read this who was not paid to read it.
  • You missed the point completely. F.
  • Do the world a favor. Don’t write.
  • I do not believe you wrote this. This is not your work.

And here’s one I feel right to the core, even though it wasn’t written on my paper:

  • Your writing reminds me of a porcupine—many points leading in meaningless directions.

Comments like these hurt. They make people hate writing and turn to math for consolation. Nothing wrong with math. But we need writers. Who knows? Maybe there’s a Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, or C.S. Lewis in your class. You could be the one to discover the “first words” of a future best-selling writer.

“Something to work on.” If we have to tread so carefully, though, can we still make suggestions for improvement? Of course. We just need to teach ourselves how to present advice in a tactful, caring, respectful way. It helps if we think of flaws/faults/problems (use any term you like) as “something to work on.” It also helps if, instead of accusing the writer of deliberately making our lives difficult (“You did this . . .” “Your writing sounds like that . . .”), we focus on the impact it’s having on us as readers:

  • I found myself confused at this point. Can you put this another way to help clarify things for me?
  • As I was reading this, I wondered how it might work if you . . .
  • Here’s something you might want to try . . .
  • I’m wondering how this story would work if you wrote from a different perspective—in another person’s voice, that is. Or you could alternate voices. I can share an example of this in a conference.
  • This ending seemed abrupt to me. I was just zooming along when I came to a sudden stop. I wonder what would happen if you hinted at what’s coming next.
  • I had a sense you felt rushed when writing this. Is that true? Would it help if you had more time?
  • My guess is if you read this aloud you may hear some points where two sentences run together/you repeat yourself/you started multiple sentences the same way/ or . . . Try that and then let’s look at it again together.
  • It always helps me to read my work aloud. If you haven’t done that yet, give it a try and see if there’s anything to add or change.
  • It feels as if you are writing on two topics—which is hard to do! I’ve done it myself so I know. Let’s go through this together and see if you can zero in on one topic or the other.
  • Your voice was so strong in the previous paragraph, but I hear it fading here. Do you agree? Why do you think that might be happening?
  • This sounds a lot like a point you made on page 1. I’m wondering if you need this paragraph as well. What do you think?
  • I’m wondering if this topic is working for you. Would you be more comfortable switching to a new topic?
  • You’re working hard to get this image just right, I can tell. Let’s brainstorm some words that describe angry dogs—sometimes having a word cache to draw from helps.
  • I see you have one source listed here and that’s great! Do you need help finding more?
  • Have you considered doing an interview as part of your research?
  • I notice you don’t have a title yet—and it’s often the last thing I write. Want to brainstorm some possibilities?
  • What if you and I perform this dialogue together? Hearing words spoken aloud can help you decide if your characters are saying just what you want them to say.
  • Semicolons can really be confusing! If it’s OK with you, I’d like to use this sample sentence so we can all work on them in our next editing session.
  • Make students partners in the assessment process.

Hold on. Students as assessors? What does this have to do with good writing assessment? Everything. Having a chance to assess someone else’s writing helps students understand how every single thing a writer does affects the reader. Writers hold the reins. Every detail, image, verb, sentence beginning, lead, ending, transition—and semicolon—has impact on the reader. But you only learn this as that most careful and attentive of readers, the golden eagle of readers: an assessor.

Say to a student “You need more detail here,” and expect your comment to wind up in the mental box marked “Things it would only bore me to think about right now.” But give a student a detail-free paper to assess and watch the lights go on. Once students understand how assessment works, and how much influence they (as writers) actually have over readers, grades and scores no longer feel as accidental and unpredictable as roulette. They feel like honest responses to a writer’s effort.

Plus, there’s a bonus. When students become skilled at spotting strengths or problems in someone else’s writing, they learn to look and listen for the very same things in their own work. Especially if they take time to read what they’ve written aloud. And just like that, you’ve built a foundation for revision. No red pen needed.

For numerous examples you can assess as a class just look up “student writing samples” online. Or check out one of my books, Creating Writers or Creating Young Writers, to see samples I’ve chosen to illustrate particular strengths or problems.

  • Keep writers’ options open.

Just because it’s time to hand it in doesn’t mean a piece is necessarily ready for assessment. Give writers an option. If you feel their writing still needs a lot of work, you might write this: “I think there’s more you can do with this piece before I assess it. If you agree, let’s come up with a new due date.”

Students won’t always take you up on this—but now the choice is theirs.

______________________________________________

Final thoughts . . .

When most people think about assessment, they think testing, grading, or judgment. That’s their tunnel vision talking. Assessment isn’t really about judgment. It is, or should be, a helpful conversation that incorporates honest, useful, immediately applicable feedback designed to strengthen performance. If your blood sugar is high, it isn’t helpful to get a C+ in glucose management. It’s helpful to learn about the hidden appeal of kale and broccoli and the dangers of doughnuts.

Good writing assessment is easier to achieve when we keep reminding ourselves of its purpose: to give students the desire, courage, and strategies they need to handle one of life’s greatest challenges—writing.   

This blog post is lovingly dedicated to the finest teacher I ever had, Margery Stricker Durham. She taught me not only to write with care but to teach with care. She did that with one very simple strategy. Every time we turned in a piece of writing, she wrote back. Not essays, mind you, but genuine notes. More than just a word or two. She noticed small things—opening lines, endings, attention to accurate details, easy to read copy, carefully chosen words, thoughtful observations. Now and then she wrote the words I most longed to hear, better than any grade: “I really enjoyed reading this.” There is no better gift for any writer to receive. Thank you, Margery. There’s no way to repay what you gave me, but then, that’s often the way with teachers.

How to Be a Good Creature, a review by Vicki Spandel

 

How to Be a Good Creature, A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery. 2018. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Nonfiction memoir—but really, this book transcends genre

Levels: A book for anyone, of any age, who loves nature, animals, and life

How to Be a Good CreatureI have loved many books, but none will ever replace this one in my heart. Now and again, a book speaks to you on such a deep level that you feel an immediate bond with the author, feel changed for having read it, and know you will return to it again and again. How to Be a Good Creature is a book to treasure, one to give to those you love. Initially, in fact, I did buy it as a gift. As an avid reader, though, I couldn’t resist one small peek (You know how it is), and after only a couple pages I couldn’t put it down. I knew right then I’d have to not only keep that copy forever, but buy several more—for this is a book that begs to be shared.

Though the book is classified as a memoir, it’s so much more. It’s a philosophical tour de force, an homage to nature. At its heart it’s the story of how the inimitable Sy Montgomery came to be a genius naturalist and writer. Her compelling, uninhibited, and wildly entertaining interactions with the world’s creatures make us think in new ways about parenthood, friendship, love, loss and grief, and above all, how we treat other beings, human or not. The book runs a modest 177 pages, yet within that small package manages to be all we expect of any great book. Following are just a handful of the things I loved most.

The Voice of Honesty

Memoir is of course driven by memories of people and events that shape a life. Most of the “people” in this book are animals, but they are more vivid and influential than almost any human characters I can recall. The events are close-up personal encounters with—among others—spiders, emus, tree kangaroos, frighteningly intelligent octopuses, big hearted dogs, and an unforgettable pig who turns out to be a virtual shaman.

Sy’s story begins when she’s about three-and already we can see how startlingly different she is from her peers. She’s an only child who has no wish whatsoever to be otherwise. Her earliest memories include imagining herself a pony (later a dog), preferring goldfish to human friends, dressing a stuffed baby caiman in doll’s clothes, surviving an accidental hair-raising (for her parents) encounter with 3,000-pound hippos, and enduring the sad but virtually inevitable death of her pet turtle Ms. Yellow Eyes.

A turning point for Sy comes with the arrival of Molly, a “tough, feisty little” Scottish terrier, who shares Sy’s independent spirit, and is driven by a deep curiosity Sy finds infectious. From Molly, Sy learns that there is “a vivid, green, breathing world out there, bustling with the busy lives of birds and insects, turtles and fish, rabbits and deer.” At age five, foreshadowing the adventurer she will become, Sy is obsessed with exploring that world, and longs to see things through Molly’s all-knowing eyes (and nose). Unfortunately, her parents find this more than a little distressing. While Sy’s mother frantically sews frilly dresses she hopes will turn her young scientist into a princess, Sy blithely and determinedly rejects dolls and petticoats, avoids “wiggly” and pesky human friends who scare the birds and bees away, and explores every crack and crevice of nature into which she can fit her face, feet, or fingers.

Sy puts it this way: “The real world, the world I already loved, was just out of my ordinary human sensory range. For now. But one day, I knew, we’d escape and go there, to the wild places, where Molly would at last share with me her animal powers.”

As Sy matures, the emotional and psychological gap between her and her parents widens into a chasm—and Montgomery writes about this with an openness that is heart wrenching,  stunning, and somehow endearing. “To my parents, I was a different species,” she admits in the chapter on her four-legged companion Christopher Hogwood. They had wanted her to train for the Army, and to marry someone more like themselves. She didn’t oblige—and they didn’t relent. Instead, she married someone as individual as herself, and as different from her parents as anyone might imagine. And seizing every opportunity Nature could provide, she pursued her dream of visiting the “wild places,” making friends with an expansive array of animal species, and learning lessons she would generously share with the world.

The unflinching honesty underlying this book infuses every line with a voice I find irresistible—knowledgeable, heartfelt, compassionate, and profoundly reverent. It’s conversational to be sure, but this is a conversation with someone whose unique insights awaken feelings from the deepest and best parts of us. As Anne Lamott once put it, we’re grateful for some writing the way we’re grateful for the sea. Soul grateful.

Favorite Chapters: “Tess” & “Christopher Hogwood”

Montgomery relates her adventures with such intimacy that it’s all but impossible not to be drawn into her world—and to identify. Like Sy, I loved small turtles as a child, and like her, kept losing them to domestic disasters. Poor Timmy (my first pet turtle) slipped into the heat vent, unseen, and we didn’t recover him for quite some time. When I was in middle school, one of my own best friends was in fact a border collie, so “Chapter 6: Tess” rocked me to the core, nudging memories I hadn’t visited in a while. Anyone who’s ever loved a dog will, I suspect, be swept away by Sy’s stories of Tess, Sally, and Thurber, crazy intelligent dogs who can anticipate human wants even before they’re spoken.

Yet it’s “Chapter 3: Christopher Hogwood”—the story of a little pig who came home in a shoebox and then grew to an astonishing 750 pounds—that keeps calling to me.

The Good Good Pig2In part, I suppose, this is because I already knew Christopher. Though I never had the honor of meeting him personally, I have been a stalwart member of his fan club for years. I carried Sy’s book The Good Good Pig for thousands of miles, reading from it to teachers in writing workshops everywhere—and always giving the copy I’d brought to someone in attendance. I think The Good Good Pig was my favorite of Montgomery’s remarkable books (though Birdology and The Soul of an Octopus competed feverishly for my heart) until this current little gem came out.

Soul of an OctopusHappy as I was to hear more about Christopher, though, here’s what really struck me: In this third chapter, Sy makes clear that she doesn’t just find animals interesting. She doesn’t just observe or study them. Her feelings soar far beyond empathy. To be sure, she rescues animals in need (a lifelong enterprise), and Christopher Hogwood is one beneficiary of her boundless sensitivity. But these animals are more than pets or companions. They are her friends—in every sense of that word, and with all that friendship implies. Somehow, her capacity to understand them, and to get inside their minds and hearts, creates a species-to-species rapport that bypasses all limitations. Love at this level is transformative, both for Sy and for us as readers. Countless humans (you may be one) have bonded with dogs, cats, or horses. But do you know many who’ve experienced true friendship with, say, a tarantula? Or an octopus?

BirdologyThe differences between Sy and Christopher—he’s a quadruped, she’s a biped, he has hooves and she doesn’t—will not “trouble” their relationship, she tells us (the way smaller differences have bungled her relationships with humans). How could they? She recognizes in Christopher a genuine spiritual capacity to love and to teach others about love. He’s a pig, yes, but that’s only physical. He’s also the “great big Buddha master.” In what is surely one of my favorite lines from the book, Sy declares, “ . . . Christopher helped create for me a real family—a family made not from genes, not from blood, but from love.”

 

Fabulous Facts

Don’t you love books that teach you things you didn’t even realize you were dying to know? Sy Montgomery has traveled to places—the jungles of Sundarbans where man-eating tigers dwell, the Outback of Australia, the cloud forests of New Guinea, the Amazon, the savannahs of Africa—most of us will never experience firsthand. Her exhaustive, very personal research enables her to collect unexpected, striking details that imprint themselves forever in our minds.

Chapter 4, “Clarabelle,” showcases the “Queen of the Jungle.” She is not, as you might suspect, a tiger or lion. Clarabelle is a Goliath birdeater, the largest tarantula on earth, and she makes her home in French Guiana, part of northern South America. Think you know about tarantulas? Check this out: “A female can weigh a quarter pound. Her head might grow as big around as an apricot, her leg span stretch long enough to cover your face.” There’s a detail we can feel.    charlottes-web2

I admit my attitude toward spiders is not as open-minded as Sy’s. She rescues spiders from the corners of her home and releases them into the wild. Despite having read Charlotte’s Web countless times, I am not that noble. But I am deeply appreciative for all I learned from this chapter—and this remarkable book as a whole. In a later chapter, for example, we discover that octopuses enjoy taking apart and reassembling Mr. Potato Head. I would imagine that yes, they are considerably faster at it than humans.

Sy Montgomery knows how to feed the information addict in all of us. And I dare say, if you ever get the opportunity to hold a live tarantula on the palm of your hand, she might just leave you with the courage to try it.

A Book You MUST Read Aloud

If you’re a teacher, you’re likely always on the hunt for good read-aloud nonfiction. Look no further. Expect your students to be not just intrigued, but downright enchanted by passages like this one from the chapter on tree kangaroos: “These two animals carried within them the wild heart that beats inside all creatures—the wildness we honor in our breath and our blood, that wildness that keeps us on this spinning planet.” You have to love language to write like that.

I read “Chapter 5: The Christmas Weasel” aloud to my husband, while he was patiently trying to read another book of his own. As I read, I could see him from the corner of my eye, gradually lowering his book and surrendering to Sy Montgomery’s story telling prowess.

It didn’t hurt that we’d recently had a weasel adventure of our own. A very small but intrepid weasel moved under our deck last summer and proceeded to clear the yard and surrounding woods (plus three wood piles) of all mice, squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits—in record time. Most were far larger than he was. His speed and appetite were astounding. When he emerged one morning from under the deck, only six feet away, looking me right in the eye, I hoped he wasn’t wondering just how hard it would be to take down someone my size. Sy Montgomery describes her winter weasel, an ermine, as having “a look so bold and fearless that it knocked the breath from my lungs.” That’s the look, all right.

Nonfiction doesn’t have to be dull, methodical, and plodding, as students too often think. In fact, nonfiction can be filled with mind blowing details and harrowing encounters—weasel versus chicken (or weasel versus human), for instance. Real life beats the encyclopedia every time.

Quotable Lines, Mind Snaring Leads, Language to Love

For years, I have quoted Sy Montgomery’s work in my books and workshops. How could I resist? She is among the most gifted nonfiction writers of all time—and has a sense of humor to boot. Her books grace the front shelf of my desk, and as noted earlier, have traveled cross-country with me. One of the most effective ways we teach writing is to share with students what great authors do.

How to Be a Good Creature is literally exploding with quotable lines you might use to teach students about leads and endings, precision in word choice, use of simile or metaphor, and a dozen other hallmarks of the craft. Here’s a favorite quotable moment, from “Chapter 9: Octavia.” Sy tells us that among those species of octopus scientists have studied, most prefer solitude:

“Even mating is a fraught affair,” she explains, “apt to turn into the kind of dinner date when one octopus eats the other.” That’s metaphorical brilliance.

When we teach students to write nonfiction, we don’t always encourage them to write something quotable or memorable. We should, though. Good research inevitably leads to exciting information, the kind great writers use to snag—and hold—our attention.

The Gift of a Great Book

In this season of giving, I am infinitely grateful to Sy Montgomery for giving us such a wonder of a book. Maybe someone on your seasonal gift list loves books, animals, nature, or philosophical musings on life. Or give this book to yourself—especially if you’re a teacher of writing. It offers endless lessons about condensing information, interweaving narrative and nonfiction gracefully, making statistics palatable and memorable, and above all, writing from the heart about things that have touched you deeply.

This truly is a book about being better. About being open, receptive, aware, and in harmony with the Earth and all its creatures—including the most humble—for they are our teachers. What better, more timely message could we possibly hope for?

How to Be a Good Creature

The perfect gift

Teaching Nonfiction Revision

By Vicki Spandel

In the years I’ve worked with teachers, the question that comes up most often is, “How do you teach revision?” As a new school year begins, it seems like a good time to revisit this fundamental question that gets to the very heart of how we teach writing. Good writing teachers recognize that unless we teach revision, we’re only teaching quick drafting. Not the same thing at all. (Quick drafting, by the way, is what most writing assessments call for—but that’s a discussion for another time.)

What Is Revision Anyway?

Teaching revision well requires us to define what it means to revise. As my friend Sneed Collard and I discovered in writing our book Teaching Nonfiction Revision, almost every writer out there has his or her own personal definition of the process. Taken together, these definitions boil down to refining original ideas or seeing things with increasing clarity. Most of us would agree that revision involves reshaping, rewording, and reworking first thoughts. But at the foundation of all this is something even more fundamental: taking control of your writing. Why is this important? Because it’s a whole paradigm shift. Instead of teaching revision as a chore—necessary, mind you, but a chore all the same—we can show students that revision = power. You get to revise. You’re entitled. It’s a privilege granted only to the original writer of a piece. A privilege that goes with owning your writing.

Revising Is Caring

Why do people revise their writing? Simple. They care about their readers and want them to understand and enjoy what they’re reading. Equally important, they care about their message. They want it to be heard and remembered. How do we ensure students will care deeply about what they write?

Choice. Choice. Choice. Beginning with the most important choice of all . . .

Choosing Your Own Topic

The most important choice a writer makes is what to write about. It’s no secret—or at least it shouldn’t be—that students do their best writing when the message comes from the heart. This is nothing more than common sense, isn’t it? Writers are investigators, exploring the world for ideas, for evidence, for details. It simply isn’t as exciting or inspiring to investigate a topic someone hands to you as it is to come up with your own questions to answer. Details explode and voice shines when students decide for themselves what their message will be. But—does choice have an impact on revision? Absolutely!

At one point in my writing career I helped write a textbook on economics. With apologies to any economists who might read this, it was not my favorite topic. I struggled to make concepts clear and to use words like balanced budget, commodity, collateral, devaluation, and diversification correctly. But was I inspired to make that text fun to read? Un-put-downable? Um, no. Clarity and accuracy were my goals; readability was far down the list. Voice? Out of reach when I couldn’t be myself. I like to think that those who read the book were able to make sense of it, but I imagine they found putting it down not only possible, but a big fat relief. Why would they have fun reading what I had no fun writing?

Fast forward five years. My mom—whose health and mental faculties had been in decline for quite some time—finally needed round-the-clock nursing care. We took her to a facility that was about as nice as such facilities get but still felt like jail to me. I helped her pack. She thought we were going to Las Vegas, and carefully chose each item she would wear on this grand venture. As I folded her things, I kept turning away so she wouldn’t see my tears. When we entered the “home,” as such places are euphemistically called, it struck me how Vegas-like it was with bright flashing lights and non-stop noise. I was jolted back to reality when she asked me, “Why on earth did you pick this hotel?” Even as I felt my heart crack, I had to stifle a laugh, and I later wrote about this episode, thinking how many people have lived a similar nightmare and how much I wanted, for them and for myself, to capture the complex truth of it. It took me several weeks to get the insoluble mix of darkness and comic relief right. I was paid well for my brief stint in the world of economics. But it was that bizarre world of nursing homes into which I poured my heart, and the response of teachers to whom I read the piece aloud meant more to me than any fee.

If you’ve ever reworked a garden, patched up an over-hugged stuffed toy or favorite pair of jeans, remodeled a house, brought a neglected pet back to health, or fixed up an old car, then you know what it means to revise what you love. Let’s give our students a chance to do just that. Help them in finding topics that work for them, but let the choice be theirs.

Student-Controlled Conferences

Donald Graves often said that nothing important happens in the conference until the student speaks. I agree. But we have to keep in mind that this is only true when the student is in charge of her writing. If the purpose of the conference is for the “expert” to critique the writing or lay out what needs to happen next, then the student’s voice is about as meaningful as that vacuous voice in a robo call.

A conference offers us an exceptional opportunity to help students feel the power of being in charge. We can start by inviting students to come to the conference with questions of their own that will guide the discussion. We can let them choose whether to read their writing aloud, read just a portion of it, ask us to read while they listen, or skip the read-aloud bit and simply chat about process. In addition, we can acknowledge their ownership by asking such things as—

  • What’s your topic and how did you choose it?
  • How’s the writing going? Are you finding it easy—or a bit of a rocky road? Do you know why?
  • Do you find yourself thinking about the piece even when you’re not writing?
  • What are you hoping people feel or picture when they read this?
  • Have you felt stuck at any point? What do you do when that happens?
  • What are you loving about this piece? Is anything bugging you?
  • Is it turning out the way you thought it would when you started—or are you finding some surprises?
  • Are you revising as you go? Or do you feel like getting a whole draft done before you make any changes?
  • Are you reading your writing aloud to yourself? How do you think it sounds?
  • What’s your next step in working on this piece?

The point of the conference isn’t for me, or any teacher, to identify problems and then come up with solutions. And if we think this way about conferences, we won’t hold many because it’s extremely stressful and exhausting to play the oracle all the time.

A good conference should be a conversation between two writers. It gives students a chance to ask pressing questions, to share how writing process is going for them and where they’re encountering speed bumps, and to clarify what they hope to accomplish. Students who need specific help will ask for it—if we model how to do this.

Modeling the Need for Help

Owning your writing doesn’t mean you can never ask for help. On the contrary. It means you get to decide what sort of help you need. This doesn’t always come naturally to students because they’re so used to thinking of themselves as “the person whose work is being assessed.” This, if you think about it, is a precarious position. Should you really ask for help from someone who’s judging how well you’re doing? Won’t that just reveal that you don’t know what you’re doing?

Well, guess what. No writer does—all the time. But students usually don’t know this.

Many teachers are shy about modeling because they’re afraid their work isn’t good enough. Ironically, this is the very fear that inhibits their students, and it’s a great comfort to students to know that we are sometimes unsure about our writing too. In truth, writing that needs work is the perfect thing to share because it offers a chance to model what students need to see: a writer who is looking for answers and needs help finding them. It gives students a chance to be problem solvers—which is excellent revision practice for them. This kind of modeling is easy to do, and fun for both the teacher-writer and the student coaches.

My suggestion is not to write in front of students when you want to focus on a specific question or problem. It simply takes too long. You won’t have enough time for discussion.

Start with a draft you’ve already written—double spaced so you have room for additions or notes. It doesn’t have to be long or finished. A rough paragraph will do nicely. You need to project it so students can read it as you share it aloud. Ideally, use a piece you haven’t revised much yet, preferably one you haven’t looked at for a few days. That way, you will also see it with new eyes. Before you share it, read it to yourself so you can come up with at least one specific question to ask your students. Here’s a piece from a story I’m writing about cats, and it’s one I would use for this purpose. In this scene, a highly intelligent, crafty cat is leaving home, but senses she is threatened by a circling eagle:

Keeping the big oak between herself and the raptor, she scaled the trunk with ease, emerging on a low branch that barely overhung the fence. Her belly skimming the bark, she crept down the length of the bough, pausing just where the overhead leaves began to thin, her body still camouflaged beneath their canopy.

The question I have for students is this: Is crept the right word here? This is a bigger question than you might think, and can lead to a whole lesson on word choice. I would have students brainstorm some alternatives: e.g., slinked, sidled, sneaked, skulked, slithered, crawled. Then I might ask them to confer with partners or in small groups to choose a favorite or come up with some other possibilities. I’d also share with them some strategies I’d use as a writer in finding the right word for this moment—starting with closing my eyes to picture the cat and almost feel her move. In addition, I’d talk about using an online thesaurus. Or a resource like the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. My favorite of all time is The Synonym Finder by J. I Rodale, wildly expensive to buy new, but available used for less than ten dollars—far better than a thesaurus. I can also do an online search for “words describing how cats move.” This kind of search is something students don’t always think to do, and it can be very helpful.

It’s important when collecting synonyms to ask students what sort of image comes to mind with various options. For example, what does a slinking cat look like? What does a word like slinking suggest about an animal? How about skulking? This word has connotations of lurking and prowling that might be more appropriate for a cat on the hunt than one being hunted. But students may not know this without a little research. What about a slithering cat? Too snake-like? Can a sneaking cat be heroic—as this particular cat needs to be? As you can see, a simple choice about one word can launch a 15-minute discussion about how language influences imagery, mood, and even meaning. It can be eye-opening to students to discover how one decision affects so many things about writing. More important, as you search together for a word that works, you’re helping students understand how writers think—and revise. You’re making revision visible.

Of course, over time, you’ll want to discuss many things in addition to word choice. The possibilities are infinite, especially if you write yourself and always have a text to share. Here are some sample “need-help” questions I might raise with regard to different passages. As you read these, think of revision lessons you could build around your own writing:

  • I tried condensing this. Did I go far enough, or is it still too wordy?
  • Did you notice how I inserted a question after several statements? Do you like that kind of shift?
  • Did I provide enough detail about the capture of the rattlesnake? Can you picture what happened—like a movie in your head? Or do you still have questions?
  • What does my title make you think the piece will be about? After I read the whole piece to you, I’d like to know if you think the title works.
  • I’ll ask you to please pay particular attention to the ending. I want to know if it’s too abrupt or if it feels about right.
  • I wrote a very short passage describing the nurse tending my mother. After listening, give me some words that show what you think the nurse is like.

Modeling Choice with On-the-Go Writing

Writing on the go—writing in front of students, that is—works wonderfully well if you’re focusing on something short, such as a title or lead. It’s great fun to write several versions, of a lead, let’s say, and ask students to not only choose a favorite but also discuss the very different directions in which alternate leads could take the writer—and reader.

Recently I did a book review for a book I’d expected to love, but didn’t. In fact, I became quite frustrated and even enraged while reading (very rare for me) because the writer constantly allowed himself to get so bogged down in detail that I felt we were wading through a veritable swamp of data, factual muck threatening to drag us under. “Get to the point!” I wanted to shout. Actually, I am pretty sure I did shout this, more than once. I should add that the book received accolades from numerous credible sources, and was highly recommended to me by well-educated friends who are voracious readers and whose judgment I trust. Or did. Just kidding.

I don’t want to mention the title or author, for obvious reasons. But think of all the usual gushy clichés—award-winning, internationally acclaimed, highly revered. You’ll find every one on the front cover. Award winner or not, this book didn’t work for me, and I can only say the editor must have been taking a giant snooze. Probably fell asleep reading the manuscript.

Let’s say I hadn’t written my review yet and wanted students to help me with the lead. I’d write several in front of them—like these:

  • How many details can you process in an hour? If your answer is under 1,000, this isn’t your book.
  • I used to love detail. Then I read this book.
  • Research makes for good writing—as long as you don’t feel compelled to share every last fact you dig up.
  • Danger! Don’t read this book in bed!
  • Did you ever read a book that made you downright angry?

I would ask students to tell me which lead they preferred and why. I might also invite them to write some alternatives of their own, and we’d read a few aloud and discuss them. As a follow-up, I would ask students to write three leads for a piece of their own writing, then share these in a writing group and invite responses from peers. Students learn a great deal about the value of reader response from this simple activity. They also learn that revision isn’t always an after-writing activity. You can give things a trial run as you go. Let’s look at some other ways to do this.

Having Fun with Revision—or “Playing” with the Writing

Revision is a series of choices. The thing is, though, you can’t always make them spontaneously. Sometimes you need to think things over, giving your mind a chance to reflect and process. When I can’t decide on a particular word, for example, I write all the alternatives into my text. Using the previous example with the cat, here’s how my sentence would look:

Her belly skimming the bark, she crept/slipped/stole/slinked/sidled down the length of the bough, pausing just where the overhead leaves began to thin, her body still camouflaged beneath their canopy.

This approach ensures I won’t forget the words I want to consider. Later, when I review my story, I can read each one aloud to see which one calls up the image of the cat that lives in my mind. If the “right” word doesn’t jump out at me, I’ll keep looking, or get out of this sticky wicket by writing the sentence another way. I love sharing strategies like this with young writers because it lets them see revision in action.

Sneed and I both use a tactic I love for revising longer pieces. Thank heaven for computers, which make this simple. It would have been drudgery in days gone by. If you aren’t sure whether you love a section—say a paragraph—or would like to revise it, make a copy of just that paragraph into a new file. Or make a couple copies. That way, you can tinker with revision, changing one or both of your copies, without losing the original (which you might decide to keep). Nifty, eh?

One more idea. You’ve probably heard the expression “Murder your darlings.” I know Stephen King said this, but I’m not sure he was the first. It’s excellent advice, and like a lot of excellent advice, difficult to follow. We all include favorite words, phrases, or passages in our writing that we’re later reluctant to delete or change. A niggling voice in our heads says, “This ought to go, and you know it,” but we just can’t do it. This happens to me all the time—and to every other writer I know. I just draw a line through the text, but leave it in place for the time being:

Her belly skimming the bark, she crept/slipped/stole/slinked/sidled down the length of the bough, pausing just where the overhead leaves began to thin, her body still camouflaged beneath their canopy. Her claws flexed and released in sync with the raptor’s rhythm.

When I come back to this passage, I can read it aloud both ways. I nearly always cave in to the wisdom of that nagging voice in my head, but I don’t like to surrender too quickly.

Saying No to Advice

I like to think my advice on writing is pretty good. So when Sneed and I were working on our book together, and routinely reviewing each other’s work, it was sometimes hard for me when I’d make what I thought was a brilliant suggestion and Sneed would respond, “Thanks, but I think I’ll keep it the way it is.” Say what?

Actually, this is a fine lesson in how give-and-take should go when the writer is in control of his writing. I could come up with a zillion revision possibilities, but ultimately, it had to be up to Sneed to decide how he would express his own thoughts. That’s what ownership is all about.

Your students need to do this, too. They may not feel bold enough, though, unless you model it. And this one’s a little tricky, make no mistake. The key lies in striking a balance: open-minded on the one hand, confident on the other. When you ask for your students’ advice, listen carefully (Sneed always did this, or so he told me), be openly appreciative, but let students know you reserve the right to do any of three things: 1) heed their advice as given, 2) agree in part but come up with a compromise, or 3) keep the status quo. Why is it so important for students to consider advice, reflect, and then make up their own minds? Because if someone else is choreographing all the changes, the writer is not the one doing the revision. She might be the one moving the pencil or hitting the keyboard, but she is not the one doing the thinking. In the end, students only learn to revise by thinking through what works and making their own choices.

Taking Your Time

Revision is reflective, thoughtful, relaxed, unhurried, deep. It simply will not be rushed. I’ve been working on my cat story for just over a year, and I revise it twice a week, sometimes more. I’m just not totally happy with it yet. And not sure when I’ll get there. I’ll know when it’s done.

Yes, when I worked for Willamette Week Newspaper, I had to revise more quickly. I had deadlines. And a demanding editor. I made the most of late nights and early mornings, squeezing in every minute I could to get the details, the flow, and the voice just right. Given a choice, I’d have loved one or two more days on most of my stories.

If we’re serious about teaching writing, we need to provide in-class time for revision. What better opportunity is there? In class, students have access to a dictionary, thesaurus, and with luck, a computer. They have partners or peer groups with whom to share writing. They have you. No, it isn’t perfect. Classrooms can be noisy. And you don’t have the luxury of three-hour writing periods (which is about the amount of time I like to spend each day). But for many students, writing at home during the evening or over the weekend isn’t perfect either. And they won’t have you to remind them what revision can look like.

Provide as much time as you can, and keep deadlines flexible. Encourage students to write several short pieces versus just one or two long pieces during a grading period. That allows for more than one revision per piece—which may sound overwhelming to students, but feels completely natural once it becomes a habit. Suggest ways to make the most of revision-at-home time. At home, students can—

  • Look for a place they feel comfortable (kitchen table, basement, quiet room, even outdoors)
  • Play music if it helps them relax (I never revise without it—I like Celtic, but I think anything that’s not distracting to the writer works)
  • Set a schedule (When I sit down to write, I commit to two or three hours minimum, but urge students to set a goal of 15 or 20 minutes, then gradually add more time)
  • Keep a dictionary, book of synonyms, or other resources handy
  • Read aloud (I read everything I write aloud)
  • Remind themselves that they are in control—all revision choices are theirs

Knowing When to Revise—and When to Quit Revising

Telling someone when to revise is like telling them when to comb their hair. How would I know? It’s your hair! You look in the mirror and you smile and shrug like the Fonz or you reach for the comb—right? You look at your writing, and listen to your writing, and you know. How? Because maybe, like mussed hair (or these days, overly neat hair), it doesn’t please you. Not yet. Something’s off.

This question of when to revise reminds us why writers need to own their writing. No one but you can know when your writing sounds right to your ear. Your students have to make that judgment call too. Will they miss some things we think they should catch? Undoubtedly. That’s not important. It really isn’t. What matters is the writer’s growing capacity to assess her own work. To say, I like the sound of this. I like the voice. I like the points I made and the words I chose to make them. If the writer cannot do this, it makes no difference how adept we are at assessing her work because she cannot work independently. And in writing—and revising—independence is everything.

Knowing when to stop is always hard, no matter how experienced a writer you may be. Proficient writers tend to love revision, and may work a piece to death given the chance. There’s always a little something—a word here, a deletion there, an addition to this scene, one more sensory detail, a bit of tweaking on that chapter lead, a clarification, a joke you just have to make, a comma where a dash used to be. It never stops.

A deadline comes in handy for putting a halt to this kind of nonsense. But barring that, this is my rule of thumb: I leave the piece for three days and then read it aloud. If I can’t find anything important to change (something more than changing gleam to glisten), if I like the sound of it, if I enjoy reading it, if it sounds natural and like me, I call it good. You can come up with your own criteria and so can your students. “Knowing when to stop revising,” by the way, makes for a great classroom discussion.

A Final Word: Revising with Primary Students

A lot of people don’t believe in teaching revision to primary students, but we can be totally comfortable with it if we don’t associate the “need for revision” with criticism. We don’t want our youngest writers to feel they need to revise because they did something wrong—or they’re just not very good writers. We do, however, want them to know that they can revise if they want to. If they feel a need to add or change something to suit themselves. They’re the owners of their writing, and writers have power. Help them think of revision as the writer’s right—like the right to hang a new picture in your own room.

We’d be less afraid of teaching revision to primary students, I think, if we refused to be revision snobs. We’re conditioned to think that revision is by nature big and sweeping, all-encompassing. You have to slash whole paragraphs, add pages of dialogue, create new scenes, jazz up the action, cut that boring final chapter in half. It can look like that, yes, but at primary level, take it easy. Hang up your Samurai sword. For our youngest writers, revision might be adding one descriptive word. Or one sentence. Changing big to huge. Tinkering with a title. If we acknowledge these small but important transformations, students will see revision for what it is: opportunity.

We honor their revision efforts by saying things like this:

  • When you told me the butterfly was blue, I could see it more clearly! Great revision!
  • The word flying is much more vivid than going! You sure know how to revise.
  • I love your new title. Writers don’t always think to do that kind of revision. Good for you.

 

Have a great year of writing and revising. And to learn more revision strategies, check out that great little book Sneed and I had so much fun cobbling together (even if he didn’t take all my advice).

What Are You Reading?

free-books-traveler-restaurant-connecticut (1)
This is one of those “We could change the world!” ideas.
This little restaurant gives away a book to every person who stops in to eat. The original owner started doing this a long, long time ago. When the business was sold to new owners in 1993, they decided to keep up the tradition.
 
How hard is it for a restaurant to keep a few books hanging around? How hard is it for someone who has a few books hanging around to give them away to the people who visit?
There are roughly 600,000 restaurants in the United States.
 
How might we change our nation if, just about everywhere we went to consume something, we also consumed a book? Margot and I are going to send this restaurant multiple copies of our book, “Be a Better Writer“.
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How hard is this? Not hard. Takes less than a minute for me to tell Amazon where to ship them. Is it expensive for us? In a way, it is. We’re as small as a small publishing company can be and we’re not yet profitable. Printing batches of books isn’t free and when you’re sending batches of them out, there’s shipping, too, plus state tax on each copy as well.
 
But when we send our own books out, we get a good price on both printing and shipping, and giving some sales tax money to our state isn’t such a bad thing to do either.
 
So what’s stopping us as a nation of publishers from sending our books out free to any place that will give them away? Not much, really. And how would this change our nation? Pretty significantly over the stretch of a generation, I think.
 
And publishers don’t have to be the only groups who send out free books. We now have millions of self-published authors as well. And, of course, millions of people with thousands of books gathering dust on their shelves at home.
 
Now I’m thinking, “Well, there’s a Bible in most hotel rooms…”. And there are 120,000 schools in the US. And roughly the same number of public libraries. And restaurants. And tens of thousands of other places.
free-books-traveler-restaurant-connecticut (7)
 
Margot and I have given our book away to pharmacies, doctor’s offices, ophthalmologists, dentists, just about anywhere in our town where people find themselves waiting. But why stop with our town? We can give away a few more books here and there. It’s fun when people tell us, “Hey, I think I saw your book over at the pharmacy today!”
 
What would happen if the United States of America became “The Nation of Books”?
 
Notice that I’m using the definitive article there. That’s intentional. We lead the world in so many areas. Why not lead the world in literacy?
 
There is not one single legitimate reason why we can’t do this. And ya know, it’s an ideal project for a First Lady to take charge of. Or a hugely popular media star. Or an unimaginably wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Or a very large non-profit organization. Or… And the list goes on.
 
Once again, there is not a single legitimate reason we can’t reach 100% literacy in our nation. Yes, there’s more to it than giving people books. But I don’t think that’s a bad place to start.
free-books-traveler-restaurant-connecticut (4)
 
The reason I think this might make a different kind of difference than so many of the wonderful organizations who give away millions of books to kids each year is that this idea is about giving books to everyone—especially adults.
 
Improving literacy in our country isn’t just about better schooling or better access to texts for young children and their families. It is, first and foremost, about becoming a nation of readers—and, as with so many things in life—adults must lead the way.
 
There is some difference of opinion with regard to whether or not our President reads books. We know that past Presidents have been big readers. What if everywhere the President went—and I mean everywhere—someone gave him a book to read? What if every person who came to meet him, came with a book to give him? What if we took this approach with cabinet members, and politicians at both the federal and state levels.
 
And I don’t mean junking people up with books you know they won’t like or that are meant to send some message. Pick a book for a person that you think they are likely to read. What’s so hard about that?
 
Are you seeing the point of all this? In an instant, it changes the national dialog from “Who do you hate?” to “What are you reading?”
winterhouse logo

The only thing better than having your own best-seller on the market is seeing a dear friend enjoy that success. I went to high school with Ben Guterson. Thirty years later, we reunited at a coffee house in Seattle’s Broadway neighborhood and sat down, ironically, for a lovely pot of tea.

During all of our catching up, Ben told me that he’d recently inked a multi-book deal with a Big 5 publisher for a series of MG novels called “Winterhouse“. The first book in the series is out and it’s wonderful.

ben guterson

Ben Guterson

 

More than that, the book is full great craft. Amazing to me is the how well Ben captures that creepy-odd voice that perhaps we might associate with Roald Dahl or someone similar. Ben is clearly a writer of immense talent. I had a lot of fun reading his book, and I’m 54 years old.

What I loved best about it was the voice. It’s such a wonderful example of well-crafted KidLit. Here’s a paragraph near the start of the book where the main character begins her odd journey after discovering a letter with, of course, some instructions for an odd journey:

 

“The chugging red-and-white bus was half empty after making seven stops on its journey north from the train station. Elizabeth sat in a plump seat with a comfortable head rest, working on a crossword puzzle in a newspaper someone had left on the luggage rack above her. She was good at crossword puzzles. In fact, she was good at all sorts of puzzles—word searches, hangman, acrostics, cryptograms, any puzzle with words. She especially loved anagrams, and had already mentally rearranged the letters on the advertising sign at the front of the bus—“ Fred Daul Transport”—to “Dreadful Torn Parts.”—from Winterhouse by Ben Guterson

Without being derivative in the least, this passage has a wonderful Lemon-y Snickett-y quality to it. Or, as I mentioned above, a bit of Roald Dahl-ish-ness. At least to my ear.

Our “hero” is on a long ride; she has passed the 7th stop and doesn’t seem to be embarking anytime soon. One assumes she’s headed for the end of the line which she has anagrammed into something morbid and sinister: “Dreadful Torn Parts.” Ben puts a lot of interesting wordplay into this book including nifty word chains at the top of each chapter. There’s a book to read and enjoy here, a mystery to followed and solved, and a bunch of neat intellectual “games” to play as we go along.

The length of the trip and our heroine’s way of thinking about the destination tell us she’s not on her normal Monday morning commute. Her journey has the feel of an odyssey, particularly the point in the Hero’s Journey when one enters the Otherworld.

This is just the kind of challenge MG readers enjoy, served up with a lovely lilt to the author’s language and memorable descriptions of the quirky savant-like abilities of his main character.

Look at these simple elements of word choice that normalize a decidedly not normal situation and add a tinge of humor, too:

“chugging red-and-white bus”
“plump seat”
“comfortable head rest”
“newspaper someone had left on the luggage rack above her.”

And then we learn of our heroine’s odd—and oddly harmless—talent for word-gamery:

“She especially loved anagrams, and had already mentally rearranged the letters on the advertising sign at the front of the bus.”

I love the modifier “mentally”. Technically, we might consider it redundant. How else would someone anagram something? But its use adds something here by hinting at the significance of the character’s mentality. We’re certain to discover more of her unusual thinking as time goes by. This, more than anything, may endear her to us as we follow her along the way.

This is the classic voice of KidLit. It’s what makes KidLit the joy that it is, even for us big kids. Roald Dahl is probably the master. But here, we discover a new author in Ben Guterson who has mastered the voice of KidLit, too.

mom and baby

We tell kids all the time in school that description is good and that “showing” is great. But description is only good when it does more than describe and showing is only great when what it shows is a great deal of depth and texture.

When kids slop a bunch of adjectives and adverbs around in an endless attempt to please their teachers or themselves, what they’re trying to clarify for their readers becomes, ironically, murkier.

Great writers know this intuitively. They use description for more than making pictures in their readers’ minds, and they use it, often in tiny bits, for powerful in-the-moment impact.

Barbara Claypole White is one of those great writers.

The Promise Between Us by [White, Barbara Claypole]

The Promise of Great Detail

In her latest Amazon bestseller, “The Promise Between Us”, Barbara uses bits of carefully crafted description to elicit from her readers a flood of inferences that reveal the depths of her main character.

Barbara’s descriptions are vivid and enjoyable for their own sake, but they accomplish more than mere entertainment. With just a few well-chosen phrases, she tells us things that might require thousands of words of exposition.

Let’s take a long walk off a short paragraph and see how she works her magic.

Crouched in the corner of my baby girl’s bedroom, we both shake: the three-legged mutt and the mother with a colony of fire ants multiplying in her brain.

“Crouched in the corner…”

“Crouched” is a terrific verb. “Corner” is a perfect place.

Four words in and we know this character is frightened, anxious, falling apart perhaps, wedging herself against walls to hold herself together.

“…of my baby girl’s bedroom.”

More alliteration, that’s nice for energy. Now we know she’s a new mom. This adds to the weight of her anxiety and opens a question: “Is the fear she’s feeling about herself or her child?

Let’s read on.

“…we both shake:…”

Maybe it’s both of them. Or?

Now, look at those tiny two points of punctuation: a colon. This tells us that the words on the left side that we’ve just read are in some way equivalent to the words we’re about to read on the right.

“…the three-legged mutt and the mother with a colony of fire ants multiplying in her brain.”

“… three-legged mutt….”

A dog who has lost a leg, a stray, a rescue, not a purebred—and no longer “whole”.

“… and the mother with a colony of fire ants multiplying in her brain.”

“…THE three-legged mutt and THE mother…”

Switching to the third person here. Why? We’ll tackle that in a moment.

“… with a colony of fire ants multiplying in her brain.”

Me—an arachnophobe and a just-about-every-other-kind-of-insect-aphobe—I’m a little creeped out by this which is probably exactly how Barbara wants me to feel, whether she knows about my quirky queasiness or not.

It’s a “colony of fire ants”. That’s pretty serious. Not your every day bumble bee buzzing around like a random thought looking for a pretty flower.

These are fire ants. They’re in this woman’s brain. It’s a “colony”, an organized mass of Helter-Skelter-scurrying creatures. And it’s “multiplying”. This is not a static situation. It’s terrifying, it’s intensely painful, and it’s getting worse!

Is it a panic attack? I’d say not. I’d say it’s something more chronic, something that happens often to this woman, if not very often.

What’s the clue for me? The switch to third person.

When we go from “I” to “me”, we distance ourselves from ourselves. This typically indicates that a behavior or situation is something that happens so regularly we can describe it as if we’re the omniscient narrator of our own lives.

I think this woman struggles with some kind of serious mental illness: anxiety or OCD? But probably not PTSD or paranoia. The first two tend to be chronic and seemingly continuous; the last two, while possibly chronic, tend to be episodic.

 

The Known Unknowns

What I’m also pretty sure of is that we can rule out one thing that’s very common in fiction today: she’s not hiding from an intruder.

If she were, the book would be some kind of thriller perhaps. But I don’t think she’s afraid of someone else. I think she’s afraid of herself and what she might do, or fail to do, for her child, if those fire ants continue to multiply.

Do we need a definite diagnosis of her mental state? Nope. We just need to know that this is probably the worst possible feeling a person could hold in her head and still be self-aware enough to momentarily reflect on her situation.

This is another reason why the switch to 3rd person is so important: we know she’s not mentally dissociative; she’s holding it together—herself, her child, her motherhood—even if just barely.

The important thing for me is that I’m getting the feeling, in just one sentence and 29 words, that this is not a thriller, that this may be the story of a personal struggle for a new mother.

 

Let’s Not Forget the Title

Oh! The book is called “The Promise Between Us”.

Is the story about that implicit promise of protection that exists between every mother and child? Just a guess on my part. But not a bad one. And if I’m right, Barbara has also solved the genre question for me.

This isn’t a thriller or anything like it. It’s probably a drama of some kind. A drama about family.

 

From a Few Words Come Many Ideas

A few well-chosen words can do a lot of work—if they’re the right words written in the right order. Using only 29 of them, a talented writer can set up an 80,000-word novel.

This is what we need to tell our students, again and again and again—well, every time they burst into the full-flowered purple prose they often do. The words need to work, of course, but most young writers don’t know how hard they need to work—nor how hard they can be pushed. (I talked to Barbara about this bit and she said it was possibly the toughest few lines she’d ever written: 10, perhaps 20, revisions.)

With practice—and models of good writing broken down as we’ve done here—kids can do it. Even very little kids can do it. But we need big kids, like Barbara, to show them how.

Facing Pacing

facing-pacing

Writing mystified me when I was in school, and many mysteries remained long after I got out. One of them was about something called pacing. I knew it had to do with how fast or slow a piece of writing felt, but that was all I knew.

I didn’t figure pacing out until I had to teach it to kids. I wish I’d learned everything there was to know about writing in high school, through my English degree, or in my 10+ years of professional writing. But I didn’t. When I started teaching in classrooms, I was both surprised by how little I knew and more than a little embarrassed.

We often say that kids are our best teachers. I’ve certainly experienced that. For me, however, the obligation I feel to kids is my best teacher. It’s not a very kind teacher. It’s always telling me I’m failing. And it doesn’t accept late work or give extra credit. But the cruel master of obligation to others (especially to young others) pushes me to understand things I probably wouldn’t push myself to understand. So it is with pacing.

Here’s where I start with kids when I want to talk about pacing. It’s not a definitive treatise by any means. But I’ve found over the years that this is the best place to start because I’m really just talking about details, something the kids hear me talk about almost every day I’m with them.

 

Embracing Pacing

The pace at which a piece of writing moves forward is influenced by several things: (1) the number of words used to describe a set of ideas or actions; (2) the type and amount of details used; and (3) the lengths of sentences. Here, we’ll take a look at #1 and #2. I’ll talk about sentence structure in a forthcoming piece.

In general, the more detail a writer uses in a part, the slower that part seems to move along, especially when those details are descriptive details. When we move from part to part with more actions and fewer descriptive details, the pace quickens and the piece seems to speed up.

 

Read this:

As she awoke, she realized something wasn’t quite right. There was too much light coming from the above-ground display. Too confused to climb down the ladder all the way to the floor, she squinted at the screen on the far wall directly across from the sleeping-shelves stacked 10-high with barely a meter between them. The blinding white of sun-bright snow on the screen illuminated the dirt floor below. When she last closed her eyes, there were many days of darkness left in the season. Now it seemed, all of a sudden, that the light season had appeared. How many days and nights had she slept through?

 

Now read this:

She awoke confused and hurriedly climbed down the ladder. She knew something was wrong and ran to the door. Peering through the tiny window, she saw no one. Turning around, she realized she was alone in the room. How could she have slept past the second-morning bell? Where were the other girls? Why was it so bright in the middle of the dark season? Frantically, she pounded on the door. It moved slightly. It was unlocked. That was strange, she thought. They always kept the door locked whenever children were inside. More anxious now, she threw open the door and ran down the empty hallway.

 

Both passages describe exactly the same character in exactly the same scene. They’re also exactly the same length—to the word. Yet the second passage seems to move more quickly than the first. Why?

In the first passage, most of the words describe the scene itself; fewer things happen; it takes more time to move from one action to the next. In the second passage, almost every sentence describes a thought or action; many things happen rapidly.

This is one way to control pacing. In general, the more important a part is, the more detail you should include about it. This slows readers down, makes them pay closer attention, and extends the suspense.

By mixing more descriptive, slower-paced sections with more action-oriented, faster-paced sections, we ensure our readers have the energy and interest they need to read to the end.

 

Acing Pacing

Controlling the pace in narrative writing is easier than it is non-narrative writing because narrative writing has a timeline—sometimes explicit, sometimes implied, but always there. I have kids think of any action movie they’ve seen. Hollywood writers and directors understand pacing well.

The first two hours of an action movie may cover years of story time. But as the clock ticks down through the final crisis, running time slows way down relative to story time. In Minority Report, for example, where Tom Cruise plays a police detective who uses the prophetic power of a small group of strange people who seem live in a shallow pool of water (Hey, don’t blame me. This is dystopic sci-fi!), he can arrest people before they actually commit crimes.

By the end of the movie, of course, the hunter becomes the hunted. Cruise finds himself with just 15 seconds (there’s actually a clock ticking down in the movie) to do whatever Tom Cruise usually has to do to save himself, some beautiful woman, all of mankind, or the career of the executive producer who sold the studio on an alleged box office blockbuster.

The end of this movie really is fascinating and suspenseful. We watch the clock ticking down from 15 seconds to zero. We know there’s only 15 seconds left. But it takes several minutes for that tiny amount of time to elapse. The pace literally slows down with a bunch of cool slow-mo sequences at key points. We know Cruise is going to save whatever it is he has to save but it doesn’t matter. The long, drawn-out, slowed-down execution is riveting. In particular, the amount of detail the director shows us (like views of the scene from multiple perspectives) is excellent.

 

First-Base-ing Pacing

If you’ve read this far, you probably know two things: I’m about to wrap this up and there’s a lot more to say about pacing. We’re only on first base here. But this is a good place to start because every kid I’ve worked with, no matter how young, has been able to get to first base with pacing.

Sentence structure, word choice, voice, even punctuation can be used to change the pace of a piece of writing. Pacing in non-narrative writing is different than it is in narrative writing. In some cases, pacing may not even be a definable element because a text reads differently to different readers.

So why do I take on something this challenging with K-12 writers? Because they desperately need it. If I don’t give them at least a hint of what pacing is about (if I don’t get them at least to first base), I’m going to receive writing all year long with extreme amounts of detail in some places and no details in others. Kids also won’t understand pacing in what they read. They won’t understand, for example, that they need to slow down their reading rate as authors add additional detail because this is often a tell that the writer has something very important to say.

Small Words

small words

Word choice is hard to teach explicitly within the context of original composition. Even in revision, kids are apt to keep the words they have as long as those words make sense to them.

I’ve had a gut feeling for 25 years that most kids don’t develop that “gut feeling” for varied language that many adult writers develop. To me, this is a feeling that says, “Oh! Can’t use that word there!” or “Ya know, this word would be so much better here.”

Kids don’t naturally do this because the “game” we teach them about writing is really the game of “drafting”. We often say, “Just get your ideas down for now.” But “now” rarely becomes later. When it does, word-level revisions often aren’t nearly as important as idea- and organization-level improvements. These changes have to be made first anyway lest we spend our time working with words only to abandon them when our ideas are out whack or we cut a section to improve organizational flow.

When it comes to word choice, I want kids to get the same feeling I get, the feeling that a word or phrase isn’t quite right or that a more right alternative would make a difference. But I’m completely convinced kids have to experience this explicitly—during original composition—in order to develop the true intuitive sense so many advanced writers have for words that are “just right”.

 

Constrained Writing

To help kids make different word choices, I often use so-called “constrained writing” activities. These are just simple activities with a constraint about how they are to be completed.

A palindrome is a form of constrained writing where a thought must read identically forward and backward: “Ana nab a banana.” So is a pangram where all 26 letters must be used in a sentence: “How vexingly quick daft zebras jump!”

The constrained writing activity I like best for teaching word choice, and for helping writers learn how to say things simply and clearly, is the “single-syllable” piece. That is, only words of a single syllable are permitted.

Here’s a self-referential example from my book, “Be a Better Writer”, that is an explanation, in single-syllable words, explaining why these small words work so well.

 

SMALL WORDS

What if there was a rule that said you had to use small words when you wrote? Could you still say what you had to say?

We tend to think big words are worth more than small ones. But I think this is wrong.

Small words do big things. They are clean, they are clear, they are strong, they are true. They help us write how we feel, say what we mean, be who we are.

 

I’ve taught this to kids as young as 2nd or 3rd grade. No matter what we come up with, it always sounds like poetry, even though I always use it as a means of writing prose.

 

It’s About Choice, Not Words

Most adults think kids who use big words are smart. I think kids who use the best words are smart. I know I’m pushing a huge societal bounder up a hill and having the typical Sysiphean experience of getting kids to do exactly what I think they need to do—and then watching their skills roll all the way back to down to where they were when they move on to the next grade.

So be it. I teach a lot of things that are, paradoxically, highly valued by society, yet hardly valued in school. Many of us do. That’s part of the heartbreak so many of us go through during this highly restrictive time in education.

The writing skill I’m teaching here has nothing whatsoever to do with expanding kids’ vocabulary; I’m actually trying to show how a constrained vocabulary is often more effective. The constraint forces writers to go through word after word as they work to find something of one syllable, or a set of single-syllable words that helps them express a thought.

The hardest part about teaching word choice is getting kids to realize that they are intentionally choosing the words they use. Constrained writing activities force them to recognize this explicitly. After many practice sessions, kids become more flexible writers in their regular work after completing just a few short passages in a constrained style.

In my next article, I’ll share another constrained writing exercise, one that has been used to write entire full-length novels.