Monday, September 20, 2010

The Economy of Word-Crafting: Shopping for the Right Words

Yes, you can shop at the Under-a-Dollar store of words if you seek words merely to fill pages, but you'll end up paying for what you get: cheap, trite sentence fragments, products that last only a short while, rather than finely wrought, unique verbal images that become treasured keepsakes. Don't just toss the most-sold items into your paper cart; travel the aisles, search the overhead storage shelves and back rooms of the word warehouse. Take the extra time and walk the extra yards to find the highest quality product for your communication needs.

Before you check out, carefully observe your word choices as they move along the conveyor belt before your eyes. Ask yourself whether you can swap any items for more economical choices. This does not mean cheaper choices, but BETTER ones: one superior word for the price of a few inferior ones. The "Two-for-the-Price-of-One" mentality guarantees only a cart full of unnecessary items that you'll later feel sorry that you bought.

In the Economy of Words, scarcity ensures higher quality than abundance. Less is more in the word store!

For All Writing Students and All Genres

Editing Checklist for Writing Students:
For Self-Editing or Editing the Works of Other Writers

by Susan L. Lipson

Remember to double-space your written work for easier, clearer editing later. Complete all 15 steps, writing your comments on a separate piece of paper so that you can reuse this checklist for everything you write or edit.

For Draft One:

1) Listen to someone read the entire piece aloud to you, or read it to the author if you are editing for someone else. The reader should read slowly and with expression. If you have no one to read aloud for you, read your own work aloud, to allow yourself to hear your words outside of your own head.

2) Note your observations about the following issues:

* Is the main idea clear or unclear?
* Does the story or essay show a clear beginning, middle, and end, flowing along in a logical order?
* Does the work move from point to point at a reasonable pace, maintaining a balance in the depth of each point or scene (versus rushing certain points or scenes without developing any depth)?
* Does the work stay focused on its topic (rather than veer off into unnecessary tangents, or side stories?
* Do the word choices reflect the proper tone for the piece, and, in fiction, the proper voice for each character?
* Do you enjoy hearing it aloud (without wincing over awkward-sounding parts?

If you answered “no” to any of those questions, revise before continuing with the second level of editing, which follows.


3) Check for repeated adjectives and verbs, and delete those that add nothing to your piece. If the repeated words seem absolutely necessary for the reader’s understanding, substitute words of the same meaning for the recurring words. Also, if any of your word choices strike you as not exactly what you wished to convey, now is the time to find more powerful words. Use a thesaurus, if necessary.

4) Lightly circle all descriptive words and phrases.

* Write T for Telling over any description that only tells, but doesn’t show a word picture, such as “opinion words” which mean different things to different people (like “ugly,” “scary,” “beautiful,” “awesome,” “old”...) or words which can be imagined in more than one way (like “sad,” “annoyed,” “shocked,” “excited,” “angry,” “kind,” “nice,” “big,” “little,” “smart”...).

* Replace every telling word with a more specific, colorful SHOWING word or phrase. Use a thesaurus to help you, if you need it.

5) Reread the changed sentences. Will your words paint a picture that stimulates more than just the visual sense in your reader? If not, look for a way to add a sound or a smell, a feeling or a taste in a natural way, to help the reader EXPERIENCE the scene, rather than simply observe it.

6) Have you included a simile or metaphor in any of your descriptions? Try to include at least one in your work, but no more than two in a paragraph.

7) Lightly underline ALL verbs and verb phrases. Immediately DELETE any of the following PASSIVE VERBS (except when no alternative exists): AM, IS, ARE, WAS, WERE, BE, BEING, BEEN, GO, GOES, WENT, DO, DOES, DID, SAY, SAYS, SAID.

8) Now replace the passive verbs with active verbs that SHOW an action, not just tell about it. (SHOW, DON’T TELL!) If the passive verbs follow “there”—as in “there was,” “there is,” “there were,” and “there are”—delete “there” from that sentence as well. Also, replace “said,” whenever possible, with a dialogue tag that shows how a character says his words (“whispered,” “shouted,” “snapped,” “cooed,” “barked,” etc.).

9) Now look at the rest of the underlined verbs and verb phrases. Label D for “Dull” over any vague words and replace them with more specific ones (like “sprinted” instead of “ran,” or “snapped” instead of “said in a mean voice”).

10) Have you used any DIALOGUE or QUOTATIONS to show what someone says, to illustrate your ideas or main points? Add either of these kinds of “spoken words,” if possible. (Remember, in nonfiction, to cite your source in parentheses after quoting other authors!)

For Draft Two:

11) Recopy or retype the piece with the changes.

12) With your fresh-looking copy in hand, PROOFREAD for misspellings, punctuation problems, paragraph formatting errors, and grammatical difficulties. Correct the errors you have identified.

13) And for the errors you have not identified: Ask a writer or reader who has more writing experience than you to read your second draft and proofread for you. A fresh pair of eyes can make a significant difference at this stage.

14) Make final changes based on your reader’s suggestions—if you agree.

15) Carefully recopy or type the changes onto the document. Double space!

16) Reread the final draft. Write on a separate piece of paper the grade or evaluation that YOU would give your work, based on the quality of your previous works, and on a rubric founded upon the relative strength of each piece. In other words, on a scale of 1 to 6:

1 means a weakly written, barely readable piece that merely tells without SHOWING, using vague, nonspecific, forgettable word choices, and no D.A.D. or M.O.M. elements. A 1 exhibits a lack of attention to, or knowledge of, basic writing mechanics, with frequent errors in basic mechanics, also known as proofreading issues: problems with spelling, punctuation, format, grammar, and unnecessary extra words.

2 means a piece that uses one or two aspects of the D.A.D. and/or M.O.M. elements, but possesses little word power in its mostly nonspecific word choices. A 2 also shows numerous errors in basic mechanics, though not as many as a 1.

3 means that the piece shows a balance between its strengths and weaknesses, indicating the potential for a powerful revision. A 3 offers some memorable lines and uses at least three of the D.A.D. and/or M.O.M. elements.

4 means a work in which the strengths overpower the weaknesses, and the weaknesses are limited to minor stylistic and/or proofreading issues to resolve, rather than substantive problems. D.A.D. and M.O.M. clearly influence a 4, even if the writer has not mastered the subtle use of those elements yet.

5 means that the writer has created a powerful, memorable work that clearly shows the writer’s control of both the D.A.D. and M.O.M. skills by using specific, apt word choices and a strong, yet subtle style. The 5 needs no editing, only proofreading—for either very few misspellings, incorrect punctuation, or minor grammatical errors.

6 means vivid, memorable writing that employs the D.A.D. and M.O.M. models, painting a clear, logical, multi-sensory word picture or argument (in the case of an essay), without any mechanical errors. A 6 motivates the reader to reread the piece, for enjoyment.

17) Turn in your final draft for a teacher or peer’s evaluation. Later, compare the reader’s assessment to your own. If they differ a lot, be sure to discuss why with your reader.

18) File your work (by date) so that you can chronicle your progress as a writer. Review your works, from first to final draft stage. LEARN FROM MISTAKES; THEY’RE TOUGH, YET HELPFUL TEACHERS. Also keep in mind that teachers and editors are NOT always right; some critiques are matters of opinion, not fact. Make sure you agree with and accept their criticism before you make further changes in your work.

If you have completed these 18 steps, I guarantee that you have added new life to your writing! --S.L. Lipson

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I Enter Writing Contests, Too!

Writer’s Digest contest directions:
Your Story #26--Bloody Knife in Your Hand
You wake up to find a dead body on the floor—and a bloody knife in your hands.
You can't remember exactly what happened, so you piece together the clues.


"Wait, what?" I mumbled, struggling to sit up and open my eyes. Through the strobe-light created by my flickering eyelids and a hot, bright light, I thought I saw a bloody body. Yes, a body. A man. Slashed by... "Oh my God!" I unclenched my hand and a blood-smeared knife clattered against the floor. The back of my head throbbed, and I couldn't figure out how I'd fallen or why I'd been fighting with a knife or who the dead guy was or WHAT THE #@%% I WAS GOING TO DO NOW.

I scrambled to my feet, suddenly drenched in sweat, and gasped as I heard a voice snap at me.

"What are you doing?!"

I squeezed my eyes shut, preparing to be killed by the angry man. "Please don't--"

"CUT! That's not in the script! Geez, did you actually knock yourself out when you did that fall?"

I opened my eyes, suddenly remembering that voice. The voice that had asked me just moments ago--at least it seemed like moments--whether I wanted to do my own stunt or let a stunt man fall for me.

I rubbed my aching head, forgetting about the sticky, fake blood, and then grimacing as I felt the goo in my hair. The dead guy sat up and sighed. The director groaned. And I asked timidly, "Take two?"

Then everyone on the set burst out laughing.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The 5 R's of Workshop Writing

An effective writing workshop, I have found, must stress what I call the "5 R's":

1) Record (thoughts and ideas)
2) Read rough drafts (aloud, for feedback)
3) Respond (to feedback, and to works read by other writers)
4) Revise (based on feedback)
5) Reflect (upon your progress, in writing, from rough to final draft)

All 5 steps are essential to progress and to giving meaning to the writing process. And the beauty of #5, Reflect, is that students practice the Response-to-Literature essay style on their own work, analyzing their word choices from first to final draft, and drawing conclusions about their stylistic improvement; plus, students create their own progress records via their reflective paragraphs--progress based on qualitative standards they set for themselves.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Why I Use the Workshop Format To Teach Writing

My wish for all of my students is that they establish their own Best standard in writing--and then strive to surpass it with each new project. When a student asks me, "Is this good?," I often ask, "What do YOU think?" The student either shrugs and says, "I don't know," or nods proudly and awaits my critique. To those who shrug, I usually say, "Can you add more details? More D.A.D. elements? Can you find repetitive words or off-topic ideas to cut out?" Those questions make most uncertain writers say something like, "Oh yeah, okay...," and return to their seats to revise.

These two kinds of responses to "What do YOU think?" indicate to me that what students need most in establishing their strongest writing skills is to first establish themselves as credible critics of writing. The writing workshop format allows students to learn self-editing skills by starting with editing the work of their classmates and published authors. Public critique sessions following the sharing of writing pieces thus lay the foundation for writers to learn evaluation techniques that will eventually transfer to their self-evaluation skills. Now, no one can be completely objective about his/her own writing (I have a critique partner to keep me "objective"), but learning to critique certainly enables us to accept and integrate suggested revisions without destructive defensive posturing. In short, the workshop format of writing instruction stresses writing as a communication process, not the fulfillment of a teacher's assignment.

If writers create works based only on what others expect or demand from them, they are not truly communicating, only fashioning words to serve others; not creating, but merely reiterating; not sighing with pride upon completion of a written work, but rather, with relief to be finished. If I, as a teacher of writing,javascript:void(0) do not lead my students into careful examination of the words they choose and the reasons they choose them, I fail to assist the communication process.

So when students don't participate in the discussions of their fellow students' work, they overlook the application of the discussion to their own work. I have had parents say to me, "My child is bored having to listen to the other kids' pieces and comment on them. Can't we have a private lesson instead?" Sometimes I do make time to give a private lesson, if the student truly works best in a one-to-one session, or is disruptive to a group due to his/her own insecurity; but I strongly feel that to become the best writer one can be, nothing beats a workshop for facilitating growth.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why Are Most of My Students Asian or Indian?

Today an Asian parent asked me why most of my students are Asian- or Indian-Americans? Why not American-Americans?

Good question. I was recently pondering that myself. Possible answers:

1) Children whose parents do not speak English as their first language want to be sure that their children are getting as much high-level English instruction as possible, because they recognize that the mastery of English, and the ability to think critically in English, will empower their children in this country, as well as in many other nations throughout the world.

1a) American parents take English for granted, and many equate the ability to write a grammatically correct sentence with strong writing skills. They also see that their kids get decent grades, and that is enough for many Americans who have grown up in an educational system which stresses scores and sports over learning.

2) Highly intelligent Asian and Indian children feel unchallenged by the often superficial level of instruction in literature and language arts that they receive in regular elementary and middle schools. Though some of these kids belong in "gifted" programs, they may not have passed the tests back in 2nd or 3rd grade due to having insufficient English skills as new immigrants, like their parents. They might quickly catch up with their American counterparts in English, but by the time they do, they are in English classes designed for non-gifted students, and they lose interest in writing out of sheer boredom.

2a) Some Americans whose children are already in "gifted" programs feel that their kids must be learning more than average kids learn about writing, so why pay for extra classes and add more work to their already over-stressed, over-scheduled kids?

3) Kids of non-English speaking parents often have more difficulty with writing in English than kids of native English speakers; thus, the immigrant parents hire me as a remedial teacher.

3a) American parents who could never write well themselves may not value writing as an art, but rather, view writing as a skill; thus, they hire tutors, not writing instructors, who help their kids improve skills related to the mechanics of writing, rather than the substance and style.

4) Math- and science-focused immigrant families, with parents whose jobs do not involve much English writing, hire me to provide balance for their children by igniting their children's interest in writing, since they cannot do so themselves. They prioritize writing because they recognize, via their own communication problems in America, how beneficial clear writing skills can be.

4a) Many American parents, seeing how the Asian and Indian cultures have exceeded our schools in math and science progress, feel the need to focus their kids on scientific and mathematical studies to keep up with our "competition." This need to compete has caused many Americans to neglect and place a lower priority upon the language arts.

5) Many Asian and Indian kids I've met are avid readers whose appreciation for literature suffers in school, where writing instruction focuses not on meaning, but on formulaic assignments that restrict creativity and make writing a pressure-filled task.

5a) American parents may think that their avid readers learn how to write by osmosis and don't need more than good literature as examples to emulate.

These are some of the reasons that seem logical to me as answers to the question posed in this post's title. If you have any to suggest, please comment here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

On Critiques (a long overdue article)

Today was the first day of my 2010 classes. 2010! Unbelievable--especially when my former students write me that they're graduating from college and need advice on an essay for graduate school!

My current students learned today that a truly constructive critique session is TRULY CONSTRUCTIVE. They helped each other construct their revisions by offering suggestions like a team, with everyone rooting for their workshop teammates in a noncompetitive pursuit of excellence. I asked them to take notes about the ideas suggested by their classmates, and to decide later whether to incorporate those changes, "if they make sense in terms of what you want your reader to experience." The workshop atmosphere held no defensive posturing, no stubborn frowns, no teary eyes, or grimaces--only nods, pondering looks, and note-taking. By considering their fellow young writers' ideas, they not only showed respect and openness, but also gave their critics more confidence in their own skills.

Learning to respond to literature as a writer, not just a reader, with an eye on meaning and style, eventually carries over into the critic's own writing. Once I can get students to think and react critically to what they read, not just absorb words to regurgitate them later in superficial summaries, then I can create writers whose analytical skills translate into carefully chosen words. Too often, writing students tell me that the only criticism they get from peer editors AND teachers in regular school is negative, focused on problems with grammar, spelling, punctuation, and form. Or they get useless comments, like "great vocabulary," without any comments on how that "vocabulary" moved their readers/listeners. Using sophisticated words means nothing if the writer uses those words merely to impress, rather than to clearly and vividly communicate thoughts and word-pictures, as well as touch the reader in some way. Problem-centered and vague comments during critique sessions are DESTRUCTIVE in that they destroy the joy in the writing process by ignoring the meaning of, and the reasons behind, specific word choices. The purpose of writing is communication, sharing images and ideas to establish connections between the writer's and the reader's perceptions; all words should contribute to that purpose. The constructive critique session used in workshop-style writing classes is the only way to inspire awe for words and awesome writing--my goal as both a teacher AND a writer.

I was proud of my first "workshop team" today. I look forward to fostering a team spirit that enables everyone to progress happily this year.