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Taking More Time to Write Less

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I've never seen a more challenging writing assignment for students than English teacher Brent Bice's journal prompt during my recent visit to his classroom at Esperanza Academy Charter High School in Philadelphia. Actually it wasn't the prompt but rather Mr. Bice's requirement that students respond to it in "20 words or less." That's right, 20 words or less.

And as difficult as this was for a group of today's texting teens, it might have been even harder for my classmates and me. That's because, unlike Brent Bice, our teachers always imposed minimum writing requirements, which conditioned us to stretch out our words. Literally stretch them out when an assignment called for a minimum number of pages--no computers then, so we would just write bigger. But many teachers were onto us, and instead required a minimum number of words, leaving us no choice but to write more.

Often, however, writing more doesn't mean writing better. I'm reminded of a quote by Mark Twain: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." (There's an earlier version of this attributed to Blaise Pascal: "I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.") The point being that it's a lot easier to ramble when you write than to be concise. Yet good writing involves making your point in the fewest words possible--painstaking as it may be, which I know first-hand as a recovering rambler.

And so, as important as it is for students to write often (see my earlier post, Bring Back the Third R), it's also important for them to write less. It's important for teachers, therefore, to "force" students to do this, as Brent Bice does. As for resources to help students become tighter writers, here are two that have made a huge difference for me on the road to rambling recovery:

  1. William Zinsser's On Writing Well
  2. William Strunk's and E.B. White's The Elements of Style

Image provided by Phillip Martin with permission

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