Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Probing Questions to "Right" Your Students' Writing (and Your Own)

Last month, I held forth on the art of getting your students — or, for that matter, yourself! — to write more. By now, you no doubt have sheaves of scrawl-covered loose-leaf sitting about. So, what's next? Editing and revising. That's the topic for this column, and not, I swear to you, just because I felt the need to make one last "write/right" pun. Rather, writing about writing without writing about editing is like wearing only one boot out in the snow. You can do it, and sometimes it will work out just fine, but things would be much more likely to go smoothly if you had both.

Besides, I'll be honest with you — I enjoy editing and revising. In some ways, I actually enjoy the process of editing more than that of writing. When I write, the very blankness of the paper can seem almost overwhelming; But when I edit, the words already there seem much more manageable. All I have to do is resort them and reword them? Why, that's basically organizing! I like to organize! The folks at the Container Store know me by name! I'll just pop in and pick up a few "Very Tiny Word Holders" (in imitation teak) for my essay!

Well, it's not quite that simple, but truly, editing and revising can be much less disheartening than it seems. It has a reputation of the mood-killer of the ELA world, but I think you're doing your students, and yourself, a true favor if you learn to revise and edit well. Just think about all the books, articles, movies, television shows and so on that you've seen or experienced which were pretty good... but not quite great. What do they all need? An edit and/or a revision.

There are a few questions I like to ask my students to think about as a beginning to revising. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and it is a bit more sophisticated than elementary questions like "Did you punctuate correctly?" I find these questions help my students move from adequate writing to truly intriguing, personal writing. I hope they'll help you and your students too. Here goes!

Have I chosen action verbs?

Unless you're one of the very few writers who can pull this off, do not write the majority of your piece with passive or linking verbs. Essays written with such verbs are spineless. They are dull. They are repetitious. I am not interested in reading those kinds of essays. Most of us are not interested in reading them. Even written in the present tense, essays like this are uninteresting.

Hey! Wake up! See what I mean? Get some action verbs in there. Essays written with action verbs soar! They wake you up and force you to feel engaged in the writing. It's difficult to learn to write actively, so come to your students' aid now and show them the difference just a little effort makes.

Does my verb tense make sense?

Verb tenses was, were, are and is weird. Most of us can pick up on simple subject-verb disagreement mistakes, even in complex sentences (say, "The girls and I was the last to be picked for the team") and students can generally learn to spot them by re-reading. But the overall tense the story is written in is harder to catch and a more delicate problem to fix. I'm talking about things like an essay turned in by one of my students recently. Her topic was teenage smoking and the entire essay was written in the future perfect sense: "The problem will have been in existence for many years." (Not too bad, so far... but?) "We will have been fixing the problem." (Um... OK?) "Teens will have been smoking less someday." (Annnd... that's enough.)

Sometimes the verb tense switches in the midst of an essay, which is problematic too. Suddenly, an author who has been dead for many years "will have been creating," and not from the spiritual beyond. Like many of the issues I'm pointing out here, a read-through by a peer or the writer herself often catches these issues. (I include myself in this. There's a reason why I chose the feminine pronoun in the previous sentence. As a student writer, I had a strange habit of suddenly switching to past tense.)

Who's my audience?

Another common mistake is writing without an understanding of who your audience is. I recently read a student's essay that included the admonishment, "If you're going to have sex before marriage, be sure to use birth control! You don't want to be a teenage mom!" Whilst I am touched that my student feel there is even the slightest possibility I could be a teenage mom, that ship sailed a good 15 years ago. It's more funny than horribly wrong in this example, but, generally, writers should keep an idea of who they're writing for in mind.

After all, there's a reason I don't reference the MTV series "Jersey Shore" in this column, nor do I think twice before using words like "admonishment." Y'all are gonna be with me. And why shouldn't my students be clear on the fact that they're writing for me? Or for the student newspaper? Or for classmates? Or for their parents? That's what the pros do.

What's my thesis?

Not your topic. Your topic is clear from the title and/or question you seek to answer. What is your idea? What are you trying to prove, state or explain? That's your thesis, and all non-fiction writing should have one. If you re-read my opening paragraph, I hope you come away understanding that my topic is writing and editing, and my thesis is that the skills of revising and editing are important and not nearly so awful to practice as we think.

Do I have any place-holding language?

Hey, I know. Writing is hard for all of us at some point or another. Sometimes we need to just get the pen moving so we start, "This is my article on?" Fine. Get started however you can. But then go back and remove this place-holding language. It's lazy and weirdly meta. (I refer you to my favorite place holder of all time, in a student's concluding paragraph: "And so we come to the end of my essay on Little Women, which I began by stating that this would be an essay on Little Women.") It can also be terribly, terribly unsophisticated. Noel Coward is rolling in his grave, darling, every time you write (or allow) "Now I will tell you about the poem I read and a theme I saw in it."

Write this kind of thing to get started, if you need to, but then, for heaven's sake, go back and take it out.

Have I bothered to use transitions?

Writing without transitions is difficult to read. The flow of language is stopped. It's almost like riding in bumper cars. We stop and start. It might remind you of reading a book for beginning readers. One such book is Go, Dog, Go.  

You see what I mean? Needless to say, I love Go, Dog, Go but when I move out of the realm of fiction that features dogs driving cars, I need transitions. Please, throw me a "therefore," a "to conclude," a "similarly," or a "to that end." Your transitions, even the simple ones such as "because," "also," and "as well" make a huge difference in the readability of what you've written. Using transitions is also a surefire way to make sure your essay makes sense — can you actually transit from one sentence to another smoothly? If not, you have a major flaw in your essay's logic, and that's a problem no "on the other hand" can fix.

Learning to use transitions will also help your students learn to use phrases and clauses to create more mature writing. After all, many transitions are really transitional phrases (like, um, "after all").

Did I show, not tell (too much)?

This suggestion doesn't apply to every piece of writing, of course, but I encourage my students to think about showing, not telling. This is a concept in playwriting that I find very powerful. The idea is simply that it's better to show something as being true than to tell the audience it over and over. A female character can talk at length about her love for her child, or we can see her peek into her daughter's room at 3 a.m., making sure she's asleep.

I often ask my students if they can show me something in their writing, instead of telling me. So, instead of writing about how he used to be a troublemaker, a student might write about the scolding he got from his grandmother after pushing his cousin into the pool. Or, I might ask her not to tell me that she is going to do better next term, but rather to show me what the moment was like when she realized she wasn't going to get into Duke with a D in Global History.

Have I used at least one word that has as many syllables as my age divided by 4?

My math is arbitrary, but up to a point (say, age 20?), reasonable. High schoolers should be using the occasional four-syllable word. Middle schoolers, a three-syllable word, every once in a while. Why? Because we learn words when we use words.

I have one student who is constantly inserting impressive words that he isn't quite using correctly (for example, I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but a parable is not the same as a paradox... at least, not all the time!). But I love him for it, because he is trying. These attempts will someday yield a young man who actually does know the difference between the two words. After all, I was a young woman who, for a very long time, thought "ethereal" meant something along the lines of "intelligent." (Yes, as a matter of fact, I did tell once college admissions officer that I considered myself reasonably ethereal. I mispronounced it, too!) Encourage your kids to use words, and, when they need it, correct but don't punish them.

Did I kiss up or lie?

Particularly in college essays, this is an issue. But it's found everywhere in writing, that desire to say just the right thing to make your readers like you (and give you an "A"). I call this the "I have learned a lesson" effect. When I first began teaching, I was astounded and humbled to realize that whenever I assigned a reflection on a recently read book, at least half of my students remarked on what a powerful lesson they had learned from the work. I only got suspicious after a number of them wrote that the powerful lesson they learned from The Diary of Anne Frank was to go out and live life to the fullest. Hmm. I mean, yes, that is kinda the message — but isn't a bigger theme a belief in the inherent good of humanity?  Could my students possibly just be writing what they think I want to read, without too much thought about it?

Sure, they could. And did. There's nothing wrong with writing for your audience (see above), but there's nothing to be gained by pandering to your audience, either. Don't tell me something that's not true — and don't lie. Learn from one of my students, who made up a story about his mother's death in an essay for a colleague. The colleague called home to tell his father about the essay — and the phone was answered by his mother. Who was alive, by the way.

Did I do my best?

There are times when we cannot do our best. I get it. I took Astronomy 101 in my senior year of college, and I had three essays due in that class per semester. I would say that all three of my essays could have gone under the subtitle, "Here Are Some of the Words You Used in Class, Mr. Professor, Strung Together and Delivered to You on Time." Nothing I'm proud of, and thankfully, lost to the wind.

But more and more, I think, our writing stays with us. Certainly, columns that I wrote years ago for the Visual Thesaurus are still here for you to read. Plays that I worked on and sent out six months ago reappear on stage. A college essay gets pasted into a scrapbook. An essay at school gets put into a portfolio. Our words linger.

And we won't get better at anything without practicing to the best of our ability. It's a cliché, but it really is like learning a sport. You can't half-heartedly toss a football around in your backyard and then kick butt in a weekend league. Bring your A game, I think they say. Good advice. Make your writing count now, I tell the kids. Do the best you can in the moment you have to write.

As you can see...

Oh, one last thing. Please, can we ban the use of "So as you can see..." as a conclusion? I don't know what exactly it is, but this phrase drives me bonkers. There's something about it that is stubbornly illogical ("I can't see, I'm reading, not looking!") and I detest this phrase.

To conclude, my friends, I hope this list of questions has empowered you to edit and revise with renewed vigor! Just think how much happier the world would be if everyone did one more draft. Not that I'm going to. Heck, I just made my deadline with this.

Kidding. Have a great month, and I'll see you in March, with a literature update from my classroom!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday February 8th 2010, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Rosine L. (NANTES France)
Thanks, it was interesting. Now I have to make it useful, and practical and now I now that I have to show, and nt to tell.
Monday February 8th 2010, 2:37 PM
Comment by: Meggin M.
This is wonderful! Would you be willing to do a modified version for the new Top Ten Productivity Tips for Writers? ( www.TopTenProductivityTipsforWriters)


Tuesday February 9th 2010, 12:36 AM
Comment by: JOHN E. (BEDFORD, NH)

Regarding editing -- some good suggestions in your article that I intend to use in my work in the techno-management-marketing world.

Most everyone agrees with me, "It's easier to edit than create."

So ... (Whoops, I almost forget this usage drives you bonkers.) :)

Accordingly, I often volunteer to prepare ("create") a first draft for someone to subsequently edit to his/her satisfaction. This works wonders. Now, just how well they edit the draft is another question. ...

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