Revising a Narrative


Now that NaNoWriMo is over, a LOT of people are revising the novels they just finished writing. Revising is a difficult skill to teach. I’ve told students that revising is changing the words to make it better. That helps them understand, but it really doesn’t tell them what to do.

I’ve heard of teachers who tell students to write down the first word of every paragraph looking for too many repetitions, or to count the words in each sentence to make sure there are both long and short sentences. Nothing kills a joy of writing faster than these drills.

The reality is that most writers have a hard time looking at their writing objectively. It’s very clear in your head, so why isn’t the reader getting it? Or you write a scene you love that doesn’t further the story. It hurts to cut them out. What all writers need is an honest voice to give them feedback. In the classroom, I use the students’ peers to do this. They read each other’s stories and tell the author what works as well as what doesn’t. They’ve all written their own novels, so they have a good feel for missing description or unclear dialogue. Notes the reader makes on the story are very helpful to the author.

It’s also important for the author to distance themselves from the novel for awhile. Wait until the pressure of finishing and the euphoria of completion have faded. You will be in a much better position to revise. I catch myself wondering why in the world I ever thought that chapter was done!

When you are revising, it’s difficult to tell when you are finished. In reality, you are never finished. It can always be made better. It’s your piece, though, so you have to decide when it’s good enough to turn in. With students, I have to train them to raise their personal expectations a bit higher. Otherwise, they would turn it in with zero revisions!

I tell my students that I spent seven years revising and rewriting my first book. If I ask them to revise a story again, I don’t want to hear any complaining!

Teaching Writing

Teaching Writing in Elementary School


Children enter kindergarten loving school. They eagerly begin learning their alphabet and look forward to writing their name. By the time they reach sixth grade, they groan when the teacher says, “Take out your pencil and three pieces of binder paper.” Somewhere along the line, writing has become a dreaded chore. Something has killed the joy. My goal is to make my students’ eyes light up when I assign a new piece of writing. I want them to be eager for the challenge.

When learning to write, children are expected to go from learning to write their name to sentences, paragraphs, then multi-paragraph essays fairly quickly. By sixth grade they are expected to be able to organize their ideas and express them coherently with correct grammar. Along the way, there are many possibilities for a student to experience failure. As anyone knows, the more you fail at something, the less you like it.

ORGANIZATION OF IDEAS…..When a student first learns to write multiple paragraphs, they are usually handed a format to use. By sixth grade, they have different formats for narrative, persuasive, response to literature, summary, and expository. Some of them are so busy worrying about what format to use that they lose sight of the goal: to communicate their ideas on the assigned topic. Maybe instead of teaching format we should teach them to think. Discuss the topic, get them riled up, then let them write. If they are truly trying to get across an idea, it will be organized enough to understand their point.

EXPRESS THEM COHERENTLY…..After a child learns the basics of writing, they are told to ‘make it better,’ often with no specific instruction how to do that. Teachers teach a variety of strategies (transitions, choosing better words, specific sentence structure). Students get frustrated when they use a thesaurus and pick the wrong part of speech. Their sentences become convoluted when they try to twist them into a certain format. They add extra words and bigger words in order to ‘make it better.’ Often, their ideas are lost.

GRAMMAR…..My own students will tell you that I am a stickler for grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Teachers have a habit of marking up an essay in red and handing it back. Students look at the grade and are happy or disappointed. They don’t look at the markups, especially if there are a lot. No one holds them accountable for improving. When they have some program of Daily Oral Language (DOL), instruction targets certain grammar rules. Very rarely, though, do students translate that to their own writing.

So what’s the solution? Practice. Just like any sport or musical instrument, the more they practice the easier the task becomes. When students master the first steps of writing, they can move on to learn new skills. Frequent practice keeps old and new skills sharp. Positive feedback is a must, even if it means letting go of marking some errors this time around. Work on clarity for one assignment and when that’s achieved move on to run-on sentences.

I strongly believe that all students can enjoy writing and do it well. It is a form of communication that must be learned. It drives me crazy when I get a promotional flyer with misspellings or see a sign with a missing comma. (Check out my DOL page) I’m frustrated myself when a student gives up and turns in junk (or doesn’t turn it in at all) because they fear failure. Maybe not everything you put down on paper is perfect, but something is good. Rejoice in that and do better next time!






A Room of my Own

essay written by a sixth grader

A Room of My Own

by Atti

My baby sister, Annie, has taken up my old room, and I am currently sharing one with Ethan, my younger brother. You may think that I am perfectly fine, but certain circumstances that you do not realize have caused me to ask for my own space. Ethan is completely wild, you favor others over me, and I’ll promise to do my best at school and neatness.

Although you possibly could imagine I should share my “abundant space” with Ethan, my little brother is the ultimate roommate nightmare. As he’s one of the noisiest kids in the universe, his snoring sounds like a cat coughing up hairballs and keeps me up at night. Also, he pesters me, 24/7. While I’m doing my homework, he’ll pop up with his toys and beg me to play with him. Ethan’s also very unhygienic. He’ll stick his crayons up his nose if he thinks that will make him look more like a walrus.

You may think I could work it out with Ethan just by talking to him, however people (and a dog) are having a better life than me. Why Annie needs privacy, I have no idea. She too young to wear makeup, and if she did, it would smear. Besides, she doesn’t even have any hair yet! The dog gets better treatment than me, too. Stink sits on the couch all day, eating popcorn and watching TV.

Maybe you assume that letting me get my own room again is expensive, but I will guarantee that I’ll behave like the perfect child.  I’ll make sure my room keeps spotlessly clean. If you come into my room, you’ll never again find toys or papers on the floor. Besides, haven’t I been getting good grades? I’ve gotten lots of A’s lately! I promise that I’ll be responsible overall. If you find anything wrong with my new room, I’ll gladly fix it as quickly as possible.

I’ve been dividing the room with Ethan after my sister took up my former room. Ethan is no longer tolerable, and I’ve had enough watching others treated like kings while I wallow in the mud.  If you give me a new room, I will be the best kid possible. So don’t bother thinking about it when you can give me my own space back now.


Supporting Your Arguments

   Persuasive writing is something I have been teaching with varying success for years. It is also a major component of the new Common Core Standards that are gradually being implemented nationwide. At its very root, students understand persuasion only at a very basic level. It takes skilled instruction to make them effective.

When a child first learns the word no, and five minutes later adds a stamped foot for emphasis, it heralds the independent thinking of a new person. No is soon joined by Mine, but it’s not until I wanna springs forth that the seeds of persuasion are sown.

By the time students are in sixth grade, as mine are, they have learned that demanding what they want is not enough. Oh sure, it works for a few years, but no one gives in to a twelve year old with a pouty face saying, “But I want it.” They need to develop logical reasons to support someone giving them what they want, and here is where they fall short. Sixth graders have limited experience with logic.

Sixth graders know that if they want their parents to buy something for them, it has to be something that will help them in school or help their self esteem.  They know if they want the school board to keep the school libraries open, the money will have to be found somewhere else. They know if they want to convince their teacher to give less homework, they need to show they can master the material without it. (See my post on Knowing Your Audience)

Those are all good ideas, but they all lack strength. They need E’s. From the Step Up to Writing! program that our school uses, the E’s provide the meat of any expository paragraph. Very catchy, that all nine start with the letter E. Even though some seem redundant, these are designed to help writers jog their brain for supporting statements. Here they are, with examples for the above arguments:

Example: The school board might consider cutting or reducing the music program in order to keep the library open.

Everyday occurrence:  Soccer practice is important to my physical and emotional wellbeing, but homework often causes me to miss it.

Events: Our school could have a fundraiser each year to raise money for the library.

Evidence: When I can listen to music and relax, I do better on my schoolwork, so buy me an iPod.

Expert opinion: My teacher says that every student should have their own flash drive to store their written work.

Elaboration: We already do classwork to master the concept.

Experience: Especially in Social Studies, I never do the homework and I do fine on tests.

Effective illustration: In the silence of the library, I am able to think, to read, to complete my work.

Explanation: Everyone else has a plaid backpack, so if you want me to fit in and feel confident, I need one, too.

Of course, each paragraph needs more than one E, but this is a start. Students need to learn to think about their reasons and generate support for them. Only then will they write effective persuasive essays.

On my Kindle: Daughter of the Centaurs by Kate Klimo


Know Your Audience

Persuasive writing can be hard for students for a number of reasons, but one of the toughest is learning to address their words to the right person. Let’s face it. Thinking adults know that whining and stamping your foot will not work if you are asking the president for tax reform, although some politicians continue to try that approach. Conversely, a well-reasoned, heavily supported position does not work on a two year old. When students are learning to write persuasive essays, their audiences are usually their parents, their teacher, the principal or school board, or the city council.

The first step in choosing the best arguments for a persuasive essay is to determine exactly who the audience is. Who is the person or group responsible for making the decision that will give you what you want? If you want an increase in your allowance, to stay up later at night, or to get a pet, then your audience is your parents. If you want a decrease (or increase) in homework, more field trips, or fewer group projects, then your audience is your teacher. The principal would be the one to address if you want more after-school activities, more assemblies, or to change the playground rules. The school board handles issues such as closing school libraries, laying off teachers, and shutting down (or establishing) a music program. If you want a stop sign installed, cleaner sidewalks, or new parks, then you should write to the city council.

Once the audience is identified, you must get inside their head and determine what their objectons will be. On a city or school board level, the objection is usually money. Parents look out for the well-being of their children. Teachers and principals are focused on student learning. Which of the arguments for your position will work best for your intended audience? If you make a well-reasoned, well-supported argument to the school board about how important your idea is for the well-being of students everywhere, they are most likely to counter with a statement that they still have no money. Your argument may have convinced them, but it has not overcome obstacles and caused action. And that action, of course, is why you are writing.

Below are some arguments students have used for various assignments. Which audience would they be most effective with: parents, teacher, principal, school board, or city?

Write your choice in a comment, and add arguments of your own. Maybe use this space to test out arguments for an essay you’re working on.

* I will do my chores every day if I can have it.

* Streetlight maintenance will go a long way to reducing crime on the streets after dark.

*Reducing the amount of homework will allow students to spend quality time with their parents after dinner.

*Saturday school would cost more money because of the need to run heat and lights, and buses.

*Everyone else is doing it.

*Honor roll assemblies should be reinstated because they recognize achievement and that encourages students.

*School libraries should remain open so that students continue to have a wide variety of opportunities to read for pleasure as well as research.

*School projects should be done in groups because it allows the smarter kids to help the ones who aren’t as good.


On my Kindle: Ranger’s Apprentice #10: The Emperor of Nihon-Ja by John Flanagan


Considering Audience

Whatever you author, you must think about your eventual audience as you write.  Remember that writing is communication, and you are striving to get your message across to the reader.

As I write for young adults, for example, I know I can include challenging vocabulary but need to keep the content appropriate for the age.  Writers of books for younger children simplify vocabulary or use repetition to reinforce ideas.  You know, as a reader, that a book on dogs for a kindergartener is very different than a book on dogs for a high schooler, or for an adult.  Keep in mind the age of your target reader.

Audiences are not determined by age alone.  When I was revising the beginning of On a Wing and a Dare, many reviewers mentioned that I had a lot of place names and character names in the first chapter.  Fantasy readers, however, understood that those names are needed in order to create the world.  The important names will be repeated until the reader sorts out the characters.  Keep in mind the interests of your target reader.

Nowhere is audience consideration more important than in persuasive writing.  Arguments that work very well with your friends, for example, will never work with your parents.

For example, let’s say that you want to skip a family birthday party to go to a new movie with a friend.  What do you say to your friend?  Your friend agrees with you, so this is easy.  Maybe you say it’s opening day for the movie and everyone will be talking about it at school tomorrow; your favorite actor is in it and you can’t wait to see it; it’s fun to go together.  After all, your cousin has a birthday every year and this movie only comes out once, right?

Now do those arguments work for your parents?  Of course not.  You might begin  the same way, but if you don’t address the family obligation you won’t be allowed to go.  And your parents are never going to like the birthday once a year idea.  Maybe you offer to go see your cousin earlier in the day, or stop by after the movie.  Maybe you point out a lot of other people will be there, including friends your cousin has invited, and you really won’t be missed.

And what if you are trying to persuade the cousin who is having the birthday?  Maybe you apologize and promise to make it up to him/her later.  Maybe you offer to take the cousin to the movie with you.  But you definitely DON’T say the movie is more important than the birthday.

So when you start writing persuasive essays, whether to a teacher’s prompt or your own, pay close attention to who you are trying to convince.  Brainstorm a mass of arguments, but only include in your essay the ones that relate closely to your audience.

On my Kindle: Priscilla the Great by Sybil Nelson