Family Magazine, a Northern Virginia-based publication on parenting, is including content from Congressional staff, and it’s my turn. I thought I’d use this week’s post to work out some ideas and reflect on publication as an aspect of the writing process.
The piece I agreed to write, way back in August, was “The Write Stuff.” In the spirit of commercial tabloids, I will provide “Five Tips to Turn Struggling Scribes into Scribbling Superstars.” I can dash off 800 words on this quick; I’ve been working on this trick for fifteen years and counting.
After a pithy lead my five bullets will be about freewriting, paragraphs, concrete examples, snapshots and grabbers. My subheads (this is the fun part): Free the Writing Willy, Building Blocks, Like What?, Click!, and The Beginning Comes Last.
This reminds me of a gig I had a few years back, penning monthly for Sylvan Learning Center’s e-newsletters. For a few hundred bucks a pop I wrote on subjects geared to the anxious parents of C students, like “Color-Coding: The Key to Your Kid’s Success.”
I reminisce not just about the pennies from heaven, but to illustrate the point that writing begets writing. Every piece I’ve published in the past is in my writing today, which is why I want my students to begin publishing now.
When I say publish, it doesn’t have to be in Family Magazine. It means writing for a specific audience and purpose in a defined form. This week, my eighth graders are drafting short articles for a newsletter to parents.
You’ll recall from last post that I’m unfolding the writing process slowly. First we got into the swing with freewriting. Now, with our newsletter drafts, I’ve introduced writing workshop.
Workshop is so integral to my approach that I forget that not all teachers use it. The set up is that there are four kids in a group, and each brings four copies of a typed double-spaced draft. The basic rules are simple. The author reads his piece out loud, then shuts up (not permanently, but long enough to hear the group talk). The paper needs to speak for itself; if the readers didn’t “get it,” it’s valuable, if at first a little painful, for the author to hear that.
The group has a protocol, too. Writing circles are not for red-penning or tearing a paper apart. They are for responding in a genuine and constructive way as readers. I liked the part where… I want to know more about… This reminds me of… These are some of the “conversation starters” with which I equip students. Simply asking an author a question — What did the alien look like?—can be one of the sincerest forms of feedback.
In answering a reader’s questions, an author is prewriting, which leads to revision. (Good writers anticipate questions and answer them as they go.) Understanding that revision is a fundamental part of writing is one of the big leaps for student writers. Too often, untutored writers think proofreading is revision. Moving a comma from here to there or “fixing my sentence structure” is not the same thing as inserting a snapshot or writing a new lead to hook the reader.
Speaking of hooking the reader, here I am at the end of a post and I haven’t done what I set out to do, which is write a draft for Family. But I do have a plan, and a group of eighth graders to workshop with on Monday. I’ll get to work on that draft, and in the meantime I invite you to share a comment below about how writing workshop or publishing happens in your classroom.
(Note: Read on to see the workshopped draft sent to Family.)
The Write Stuff: Five Tips for Reluctant Writers
Emmet Rosenfeld for Family Magazine 10-1-08
Clutching a pencil with white knuckles and throwing yet another crumpled ball of paper at the trashcan are familiar signs of writer's block. But writing can be a joyful and liberating act of self-expression if kids have the tools and training to outrun the blank page boogie man.
After more than fifteen years as an English teacher of students ranging from elementary to college, I've found five sure fire ways to catch writing lightning in a bottle. Read on to learn how freewriting, paragraphs, concrete examples, snapshots and revision can turn your struggling scribe into a scribbling superstar.
Free the Writing Willy
Freewriting is a basic and helpful exercise for any writer, novice or accomplished. It's a form of conditioning, like weight-training for the athlete, that builds writing muscles, promotes fluency and voice, and allows a writer to capture thoughts quickly instead of getting stuck in a frustrating culdesac of "I don't have anything else to say."
How do you do it? The simple answer is, Keep the pen moving. Start with small chunks of time, building up from three to five minutes at first, then to longer sessions of ten to twelve minutes. The point is not to sprint, or write until the hand cramps, but rather to keep a steady pace and never stop. Freewrites are never checked for grammar or spelling; in fact, they are often not even shared. The idea is to capture raw ideas and follow thoughts where they lead. We can mine freewrites for ideas or "golden lines," but this kind of expressive writing doesn't need to be correct to be perfect.
Once fluency has increased by regular freewriting, a writer will be more comfortable facing a variety of writing tasks. These can range from an essay test in history class to a short story in English, or even more transactional forms like a letter to a local newspaper to argue for the installation of lights on the soccer field.
Whatever the purpose and whoever the audience, a writer needs to communicate clearly. And the best way to do that is to learn to think in terms of paragraphs. These are baskets filled with related ideas. Some teachers advocate a topic sentence at the top of a paragraph. That might help some kids but it tends to produce writing that is formulaic. A better approach is to ask, of each and every paragraph, what is the controlling idea? Once you know, weed out sentences that don't help the cause.
A common malady of poor writing is vagueness. "At the beach we had a lot of fun," for example, is a sentence that may make the writer herself smile, as she recalls chasing sand crabs and digging a huge hole with plastic shovels to catch the incoming tide. It is not, however, a sentence that makes the reader smile. There just isn't enough information to make us feel much of anything.
Writers must always favor concrete examples over abstractions. This applies when writing about a personal experience, or in a subject like science or history. "Show don't tell" is another way of saying it. Don't write "Johnny was scared." That's pure telling. Instead, try "Johnny's eyeballs bulged out of his head like blood shot ping pong balls." With the use of specific detail, the reader gets the picture.
Barry Lane is a writing teacher who talks about the use of the "snapshot." When I'm conferencing with students about their paper, I ask: if you had a magic camera, at what moment could you snap a picture that would capture the essence of your topic? Once they've decided, this is the basis for a snapshot that can bring the paper alive.
Technical tips for writing a succesful snapshot are to keep it in the present tense, and use lots of sensory detail. At the magic moment, what can we see, hear, touch or feel? Using this technique, the boring sentence about the beach gets gritty with sand that sticks to our ankles, and a plane flying along the shoreline trailing a banner for Sharky's Crab House makes us want to keep on reading.
The Beginning Comes Last.
Sometimes the first words are the hardest. Student writers need to give themselves a break. It doesn't have to be perfect the first time. In fact, it doesn't even have to be good. Heck, you don't even need to write complete sentences-- a lot of times, a list is a good way to get going, or a sketch or a web or just plain freewriting.
Explore your subject in a low risk way, and generally speaking, a certain logic will emerge. For me, in writing this piece, I did some writing on my blog to warm up, and discovered that I wanted to talk about five different ideas. When I sat down to the keyboard, it wasn't too hard to crank out a couple paragraphs about each one.
Notice that what I didn't do was worry too much about a formula ("Write the topic sentence first and then three supporting sentences.") Having a rough outline to begin is often useful, but what's important to remember is that writing is thinking. I don't always know what I'm going to say before I start, and I certainly don't know how I'm going to say it. What I do know is that once I start, I'm on my way. And with these simple tips, your son or daughter will be, too.