A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Tag: AP English Language

Helping Students Write More Without Fillers and Clutter

Years ago I took a group of sophomores to the computer lab to write an essay of some kind. The essay, whatever it was, was supposed to be a page long, and with much of the period still remaining a particular boy–we’ll call him Brad, since that was his name–handed me his printed essay, an effort that covered only half of the single piece of paper in his hand.

“No,” I told him firmly. “I said it needs to be at least a page. There is no way that paragraph meets the requirements.”

“Take it,” he replied, placing the paper on my pile when I wouldn’t accept it from his outstretched hand. “I don’t care what the grade is.”

“No,” I insisted, handing the paper back to him. “You have 40 minutes. Write more.”

Brad and I were not new to one another–I’d had him in freshmen English and knew he hated writing–so he openly glared at me before stalking back to his chair.

Forty minutes later the bell was about to ring and as students rushed to the door they piled their printed papers on my desk. Brad tried to meld with the crowd, but I stepped in to glance at his paper; the text reached the bottom of the page, so I let him go.

Later that day, as I read through the essays, I encountered Brad’s, which did reach the bottom of the page, but it did so because, I now saw, he had copied the first paragraph and pasted it below itself.

Touche, Brad. You won the battle. Though the battle appeared to be over last place.

* * *

I think of that moment often, especially as so many of my students struggle to write more. Anyone who has attempted to write surely understands the writer’s frustration of having nothing else to say. And unfortunately many of my academically successful students have learned strategies that are second-cousins to Brad’s trick. They don’t double the paper’s length by copying and pasting it, but they do repeat themselves ad nauseam and fill in empty spaces with cluttered nonsense until they hit the word count. Their papers contain exactly as many ideas as Brad’s did–half as many as their length suggested they do.

How, then, can a student add more words–and, by extension, ideas–to their papers without adding this filler?

I built a unit for my AP English language students where we explored this conundrum, and while I could have added any number of strategies, we settled on three:

  • Use scenes
  • Address naysayers
  • Add outside evidence

The concepts weren’t complex, so I didn’t lecture extensively on the ideas to help them understand them. (The naysayer idea we’d addressed earlier in the year, with They Say, I Say.) Instead, we dove into essays where writers used the strategies and we discussed how the strategies could benefit our writing. After assigning essays I’d ask students to discuss them with these three questions:

  • Where are the scenes? (Take an inventory of them)
  • How do the scenes contribute to the argument the writer is making?
  • What do the scenes add to the essay generally? (apart from the argument)

Any number of essays could work to explore, but I thought I’d list which ones I used. Many of these are available online, so I’ve provided some links, but some I’ve copied from books and used as fair-use documents, so in those cases I will simply list the books where I found them (many libraries have these books–they’re not obscure).

Using Scenes

  • “The Braindead Megaphone” by George Saunders (The Braindead Megaphone: Essays)
  • “At a Shelter After Katrina” by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Pulphead: Essays)
  • “Against the Grain” by Marina Keegan (The Opposite of Loneliness)
  • A Wounded Boy’s Silence” by Peggy Noonan
  • “Junk Food Heaven” by Bill Bryson (I’m a Stranger Here Myself)

Addressing Naysayers

Adding Outside Evidence

We wanted to put these strategies into practice, so after we read the essays with scenes students wrote an assignment I called “Practicing for a Eulogy,” which sounds morose but is pretty fun since it’s basically writing tributes to friends or family. I didn’t give them long to do that assignment–two days of homework–and I graded it kindly, but the point was to treat it like we would treat a drill at basketball practice, trying out the skill we were learning.

After the “address a naysayer” readings students wrote another short piece, which we called “Best/Worst: A Naysayer Argument,” where students argued that something was the best or worst and framed their case around a minimum of three naysayers.

To practice using outside evidence struck me as a bit overwhelming–I couldn’t think of ways to keep that as a quick drill, so we refrained from assigning anything.

In case they’d be useful, I’ll post the instructions I gave out this year for those drills.

Practicing for a Eulogy

For this writing assignment, I’d like you to write a tribute about a friend–a eulogy, really, but without the funeral and death. Another word we could use is ‘encomium.’ 

What do you have to write? 

  • 300-600 words (1-2 pages, MLA format) about someone you know
  • Use scenes–this is a practice drill at filling a paper with material by thinking in terms of scenes.
  • Include in your paper a statement that summarizes your point–a thesis, really. You may place this thesis where you think it will bring the most delight and clarity to the reader. 
  • Remember: if your reader can’t watch it happen like they’re a witness or watching a movie play out, it’s not a scene. If you couldn’t insert dialogue, it’s not a scene

Best/Worst: A Naysayer Argument

Defend whether something is the best or worst by writing 250 words articulating your position. State your position right away and then construct your response by addressing naysayers. See how many naysayers you can work in, but make sure to include at least three. 

Choose any topic you want (I’ve listed some here to give you ideas). The point is to practice thinking of naysayers and practice using the templates from They Say, I Say. I want you to see how coming up with naysayers can help you expand your thinking on a topic and how by simply addressing naysayers you create a worthwhile argument for a topic. 

Topic ideas: 

  • The best/worst restaurant or fast food place
  • The best/worst summer activity
  • The best/worst place to live
  • The best/worst season
  • The best/worst music
  • The best/worst movie
  • The best/worst subject in school
  • The best/worst job
  • The best/worst pet
  • The best/worst hobby

Fix-It, An Essay

My favorite essay prompts push students to use skills we’ve been learning but allow them flexibility of response. I like flexible responses not only because they allow students to write about things they care about, but because they prevent me from reading essays that are overly similar. (Few things discourage the grading process more than 40 essays about how Huck Finn’s being the narrator colors The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)

This year we had been studying how to write more without adding clutter, so I created the “Fix It” essay.

My goal was for students to expand their thinking, drawing their ideas out over many paragraphs, pulling their reader through a full experience. Too often students write a page and declare themselves finished; here, I wanted them to need to talk more, to face the predicament where less is actually less, not more.

Here is my handout on the essay:

In that handout I reference our study of They Say, I Say as well as the “three-legged stool,” which is the solution I presented to the question “How do we write more without adding clutter?”

In my future versions of the Fix It essay, I will likely encourage students to stick to real solutions–a few students took their essays into comedic, fictional directions, which could potentially be fun but ultimately hindered their ability to judge what their arguments needed. Also, a few days after assigning this essay I read some comments from Alan Jacobs that I might incorporate somehow, but I have yet to discern how without miring my own assignment in complexity.