Learning how to write well is learning how to think well. The act of organizing aimless thoughts into coherent, compelling arguments is perhaps the most important skill students learn. That being said, writing a paper, like giving a speech, is one of the most anxiety-inducing tasks for high-school students. Debilitating writer’s block, the tedious nature of MLA formatting, and vague instructions cause most students to push that English paper until tomorrow. But as the Spanish proverb goes, “Tomorrow is often the busiest day of the week.” If writing is so terrifying, how do we help students write more efficiently and more effectively? We make it abundantly clear that this process ALWAYS has two discrete phases: writing AND editing.
It can be incredibly difficult to solve an intangible problem. Students get hung up on the perfect verb for the hook sentence of the intro paragraph. Soon, procrastination rears its ugly head, and the final product suffers all because of one “perfect” word. It’s silly. Encourage your students to write imperfect sentences, then perfect them. Draft, then edit. The editing phase is where the magic happens, but too many students try to write and edit simultaneously.
We teach students to edit more holistically than most. Let’s get beyond the age-old teacher commandment of no passive voice. Specifically, students should think about editing as three succinct categories: verbs, brevity, and flow.
Strong verbs produce strong sentences. After students finish drafting their paper, we look at the verbs. In most academic writing, verbs should be simple, present-tense. They should also be visual in nature and complementary to the tone of the sentence. For instance, I find the verb “get” or “gets” to be the most useless word in the English language. Combine it with some passive voice, and you have a rather feeble sentence. For instance, if a student writes, “Ivan Illyitch is getting changed through his suffering,” it’s a good idea but let’s fix the verb. Try to picture someone “is getting changed.” It’s not visual. Furthermore, it’s written in the passive voice. Let’s fix it by flipping the sentence structure, simplifying the verb, and taking the extra step in the thought process. Here is the final product: “Ivan’s suffering transforms him, injecting meaning into his quickly fading life.” Powerful verbs are the cornerstone of powerful writing.
The second editing phase is all about brevity. Teach students to avoid diluting their words. The rule of thumb is to not say with three words what you could communicate with one, and the biggest offenders of this rule are passive voice, unclear antecedents, and general awkwardness. Every English teacher talks about how much they dislike passive voice, but very few explain how to fix it. The easiest method is to flip the sentence on its head. For example, “George Washington was given command of American forces by the Continental Congress” becomes “The second Continental Congress gave Washington command of American forces.” Another source of wordiness is unclear antecedents caused by the words this, that, these, and those. Eliminate the demonstrative pronouns above, and your writing becomes more precise and more concise. We’ll discuss awkwardness, the third offender, in the section below.
The third and final stage of editing is all about flow. After students eliminate weak verbs and tighten up their word count, flow separates good writers from great writers. Encourage students to read their writing aloud. Anytime they pause or hesitate undirected by punctuation, we need to correct the flow of the sentence. Students should read and edit independently once, then ask someone else (a parent, sibling, etc.) to read it. Once they make the necessary revisions, it’s time to submit.
The writing process is tricky but oh so important. We help students develop macro skills that bring success beyond the classroom. Encouraging the continuous improvement process of writing is one of the best ways to help students develop a growth mindset, think profoundly, and communicate confidently. Happy writing!
For other tactics to help students both inside and outside of the classroom, please see our blog page. If your child could benefit from our personalized approach to executive functioning skills, please reach out today to start with a one-on-one academic coach.