How to Teach Good Writing Without an English Degree
By Amanda Freitag
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #68, 2005.
Amanda breaks down what you need to know in order to teach college-ready writing skills.
Want to rocket your student into the 99th percentile? Nothing contributes more to college and career success than improved writing.
The end is approaching: It's your daughter's senior year. You spent hours reading to her as a child, and now she reads Tolstoy with ease and eats up C.S. Lewis. Her elementary school struggles with spelling and grammar are humorous now that she is the resident grammarian for your younger children. When it comes to your daughter's English education, t's have been crossed, i's dotted, and she's ready for college.
Or is she?
What if you knew that only 1 percent of high school seniors write at an advanced level? According to a 1998 National Assessment of Education Progress study, most students are skilled in writing basics, like punctuation and grammar. However, students producing "precise, engaging, coherent prose" are becoming a rarity. While we hope that our homeschoolers are protected from these statistics, the reality remains that good grammar is not enough.
The National Commission on Writing (NCW) reported that "by grade 12, most students are producing relatively immature and unsophisticated writing." It is not much better by the time they are college seniors. As a result, graduates are not prepared for the tasks required of them in the workplace, whether it is church, corporate, or classroom.
In a survey by Richard J. Light, author of Making the Most of College, over 90 percent of midcareer professionals assert the "need to write effectively as a skill of great importance in their day-to-day duties." Research summaries, proposals, and reports keep professionals on top of the trends, win over clients, and provide accountability to employers. The NCW is right: "Writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many."
The debate is as old as "What came first... ?" Is good writing natural or can it be taught? Both positions can be defended well because both are right: good writing is built-in, and good writing is brought in. The best writing enchants us with a blend of both, but no matter what-whether you've "got it" or not-good writing requires some training.
So how can you prepare your student for college and professional writing? Here are some ideas for improving your student's writing that won't require a new bookshelf for curriculum or an English degree.
What you write should make sense. While this is obvious, it is not automatic, and the key to coherence is organization. I learned this fact when I was a college writing tutor at my campus. Students were looking for a quick fix for their punctuation and grammatical errors, but their papers lacked basic outlines and required structural overhaul.
A good paper is like a family: Each part has to work together for the whole unit to be strong and effective.
For the most effective and clear writing, students should use elements like sentence variety and transitional phrases.
Example: I like to read. My favorite books are mysteries. I like Sherlock Holmes books the best. I try to solve the case before Holmes. He always solves it first.
Revised Example: While I enjoy reading any book, my favorite genre is mystery, especially Sherlock Holmes. I try to solve the case before he does but haven't been able to beat the great detective.
Sentence Variety. Remember the Dick and Jane books? Each sentence had the same structure and length, which, aside from being boring, can be confusing because the thoughts and sentences do not flow smoothly. Your students should be careful of writing too many sentences of the same length and openers (e.g. "I think" or "He is") because these bore the reader and may not logically connect ideas. Have your students re-write one of their own paragraphs to include more variety-combine or split sentences, move phrases within sentences, and rearrange the word order. Use the example below for ideas.
Transitional Phrases. Once your students have worked on one paragraph, have them link their ideas and paragraphs with transitions. Lack of transitions leads to poor organization, which causes incoherent writing. Practice with different types of transitions for the same sentence to see what works best.
Here are some common transitions:
although, on the other hand, however, therefore, in fact, consequently, first, after, also, while, in addition, similarly, nonetheless, accordingly, furthermore
Organized writing will enable your students to work on other aspects of their writing.
Writing too much only amplifies incoherence. Joe Glaser, professor and author of Understanding Style: Practical Ways to Improve Your Writing, titles unnecessary words "deadwood" and believes that overwriting is one of the most widespread problems today. In addition, William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, asserts that most first drafts have so much deadwood that they should be cut in half, literally. While this may be hard to believe, have your students practice on their own writing.
Example: (66 words - note the bracketed phrases that can be cut or rephrased) [Throughout history,] [all] people [from every age] have desired to [have faith] in something greater than themselves. [This is because] people want to [come to feel] fulfilled [and satisfied]. [The reason they are not fulfilled is that] people have a God-shaped hole in their hearts [that can only be filled with God, which is why] people [spend their lives] searching for something to fill [that hole].
Revised example: (31 words) People have always desired to believe in something greater because they want to be fulfilled. People have a God-shaped hole in their hearts, so they search for something to fill it.
See if your student can make this passage even shorter and improve the sentence variety and transitions.
Knowing what words to use and how to use them can also keep your student's writing clear and concise. One major style element is word choice-this is the fun part!
Diction or Word Choice. The complexity of a word adds to its message. The words "chew" and "masticate" have the same definition, but do not necessarily suggest the same thing. What do you think of when you read each word? Masticate: Perhaps delicate Jane Austen women eating finger sandwiches at tea. Chew: Maybe cavemen grunting and smacking as their food falls from their open mouths. Encourage your student to notice diction when they read and write. It may be the difference between Elizabeth Bennett and Fred Flintstone.
Adding to the image of a word is whether or it shows or tells. Verbs and nouns that are alive in meaning will do a better job showing an action or idea than adverbs and adjectives. Good writing should have fresh nouns and verbs.
Example: Linus is a mischievous teddy-bear hamster. (In this example, "is" is a weak verb and tells us about Linus.)
Revised: Linus, the teddy-bear hamster, scampers into mischief. (This time, the verb "scampers" and the noun "mischief" show us Linus.)
It is also important to be specific:
Example: The man ran quickly to the store.
Revised: The man sprinted to Johnson's Pharmacy.
Style changes like these will give shape and movement to your students' writing, putting the cherry on top of their increasingly coherent and concise writing.
And you, too, have put the finishing touches on your child's English education. Math people, history buffs, and word nerds alike will benefit from an understanding of writing that goes beyond commas and semicolons. You may even catch yourself rewording a sentence in next year's Christmas letter. Now that's good homeschooling.
Recommended Writing Resources
Understanding Style: Practical Ways to Improve Your Writing by Joe Glaser is one of the best advanced writing books available. Best of all, the title fits: it's practical. Glaser covers in detail the three elements of coherence, conciseness, and style.
Thesaurus. Even though most word processors come equipped with a thesaurus, the real deal can be an exciting (thrilling, inspiring, riveting, sensational, stimulating) tool for fresh diction. Warning: Keep your diction audience-appropriate and avoid wordiness.
Guide to Rapid Revision. No writer's toolbox is complete without this handy book. Perfect for referencing when you just can't remember when to use a semicolon. Wordiness, sentence variety, and diction also stow away in this alphabetically arranged quick read.