A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Tag: writing

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

E.B. White on the Eloquence of Facts

You might suppose that the next few entries in my journal, covering the days when I must have been winding up my affairs and getting ready to sail on a long voyage of discovery, would offer a few crumbs of solid information. Not at all. From Friday morning, when I announced that I would soon be off, until the departure of the Buford, several days later, my journal contains no helpful remarks, no hint of preparation, no facts about clothes, money, friends, family, anything. A few aphorisms; a long, serious poem to the girl on Lake Union (“Those countless, dim, immeasurable years,” it begins); a Morley clipping from the “Bowling Green” about writing (“A child writes well, and a highly trained and long-suffering performer may sometimes write with intelligence. It is the middle stages that are appalling. . . .”); a short effort in vers libre written on Sunday morning and describing my boarding house slatting around in the doldrums of a summer Sabbath—that is all I find in these tantalizing pages. Mr. Morely was right; the middle stages are appalling. As a diarist, I was a master of suspense, leaving to the reader’s imagination everything pertinent to the action of my play. I operated generally, on too high a level for routine reporting, and had not at that time discovered the eloquence of facts. I can see why the Times fired me. A youth who persisted in rising above facts must have been a headache to a city editor.

That’s E.B. White from “Years of Wonder” in Essays of E.B. White. I thought of this passage when I read Jonathan Rogers’s recent issue in his newsletter, The Habit: “On Giving an Account of What You Have Seen.” In that, Rogers tells the story of seeing a young girl keep a careful record of what she saw at a concert and compares her work to his own when he was in college:

I have a journal I kept in college. It’s terrible, terrible stuff. At that time in my life I seemed to have the impression that “real writers” only wrote about big ideas. If I ever made reference to an actual thing that actually happened in the physical world where I actually lived, it was only to turn it into a metaphor for some philosophical or theological notion I had. That journal is intensely boring to read. There are people whose philosophical and theological musings are interesting to read, but twenty-year-old Jonathan Rogers was not one of them.

The sad thing is that I happen to know that my life wasn’t intensely boring at that time. I knew interesting people and did interesting things. I so wish I had had the writerly discipline of that little girl who brought her notebook and pen at the concert in order to make a record of the life she was given that day. Sure, “Here’s what I thought at age twenty” has a certain interest. But I wish I also had made a record of what I did at age twenty, what I ate, where I went and with whom, and how much I paid for gas.

That’s good advice from two writers who know what they’re doing.

Helping writers by getting involved early

My juniors are writing research papers, and a key element of this process is the proposal. Before students take any notes or commit to their project, they must create for me a proposal, where they present their sources and a short description of what each source will provide for their paper.

For my juniors, an AP class, I have added an extra step before the proposal, where they describe for me their top three ideas. I read over these ideas and suggest which ones I believe are feasible and which ones will present problems. I don’t really care what they write about, but after a decade and a half of teaching, I can see quickly which topics are trouble. With trouble-topics I find myself asking students, “When it comes time to research this idea, what are you going to type into the query box?” If they can’t articulate something tangible, trouble is brewing.

Whatever the particulars, though, my goal is to get involved early and make myself into the helpful editor, the kind John McPhee celebrates in his little book Draft No. 4:

Editors are counselors and can do a good deal more for writers in the first draft stage than at the end of the publishing process. Writers come in two principal categories–those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure–and they can all use help. The help is spoken and informal, and includes insight, encouragement, and reassurance with regard to a current project. If you have an editor like that, you are, among other things, lucky; and through time, the longer the two of you are talking, the more helpful the conversation will be. (83-84)

In teaching writing I am an editor as much as anything, and McPhee is exactly right about getting involved early–the earlier in the process I can interact with students about their ideas and papers, the better I can encourage them. And the less discouraging I am when I suggest they steer in another direction. When they hand me that final draft, I can critique it and correct it, but at that point students are emotionally finished with it; the last thing they want to do is wait two weeks and have me demand they return to it. It was a final draft, after all.

Along these lines, I have also adapted McPhee’s idea into advice to students heading to college. Which is to say, I’m telling students what I would love to tell my 18-year-old self. If I could go back in time, I’d instruct myself go to my professors a few days before my papers were due and throw my thoughts before them, like a proposal. Then I could have sat there with them to hear their responses to my initial ideas, letting their responses push me into new or more profound directions.

I have discovered as an adult that I have better ideas than I thought myself capable of producing when I am able to bounce them off another person and adjust them. As a teenager and college student I was intimidated by my professors and brilliant classmates—they were so insanely smart! How did they ever think of those things?—but I was depriving myself of the conversation they were engaged in. When I worked completely in isolation, never interacting with another person until the paper had reached its unalterable state, I limited myself to a first hearing.

McPhee is particularly happy with the thought of an editor and writer working together for a long time. I can see the appeal and would love one for myself.

But as an editor/teacher, there is something exciting about getting an entirely new crop of talent to work with each year. In terms of their careers, I get to be involved in their early stages, and that’s a time I can do a good deal more for them.

I find myself inspired to share, inspired to write

Jonathan Rogers describes in his newsletter The Habit how some writers make him want to write:

There are writers I read when I want to read, and there are writers I read when I want to write. Charles Portis is a writer who makes me want to write. Portis is best known for True Grit. His lesser-known novel The Dog of the South is one of my all-time favorites. I make no claims for Charles Portis’s greatness. I never put his books in people’s hands and say, “You have to read this!” I just know that when I read The Dog of the South or True Grit, I feel emboldened to sit down and try writing another story.

Portis does something similar to me, though the news writing collected in Escape Velocity inspired me more than his novels (his novels simply delight me–I have no desire to attempt such fiction, it is beyond my skill). And while I think it’s a shame I can’t say, “You have to read this!” about a writer as great as Portis, I know what Rogers means: some people won’t enjoy him.

E.B. White has always had the effect on me that Rogers describes; I don’t know if everyone would love his work, but I always do, and it makes me want to grab a pen and attempt the same noble pursuit. Harrison Scott Key and Alan Jacobs are working writers who also elicit this response from me. I won’t create anything as good, but their work makes me want to jump in behind them and glean what’s left in the fields.

It was on a tip-off from Alan Jacobs that I read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, a book that also falls into that wonderful category of ‘books that make me want to write,’ though this version is closer to the way The Writing Life (Annie Dillard) or Art and Fear (David Bayles and Ted Orland) makes me want to write–through encouragement and explicit description of the craft.

It took a day to read Kleon’s book, and I did so mostly hovering at the edges of the classroom while students were working on other tasks, but it’s advice was encouraging and inspirational and grounded in reality. This is someone who lives in the real world and does work I might be able to do, not a best-selling novelist pretending readers can achieve the same thing.

Two ideas stood out as advice I could use.

1. Share your work

In terms of media, I’d quit using my blog years ago and had reduced my Twitter activity to random jokes. But Kleon focuses his advice on sharing work: “Show just a little bit of what you’re working on.” It’s a slight tweak to the perspective I had, but I realize it makes a ton of difference. My work includes my efforts teaching in the high school classroom, my study of the Bible and my teaching it in Bible studies, my reading, and my for-publication writing projects. It’s all my “work,” and that is the stuff I should share–not just the jokes. When I began my blog I posted personal stories, in essence an open journal, but when I chose to stop that, the purpose for the blog ceased. This simple refocus has me recognizing the way my blog can be of use to me, how it can compliment my work.

Kleon writes more about this in his other little book, Show Your Work, encouraging the reader to share one thing every day, be it a blog post or a tweet. I think I can do that. On a given day I definitely have one idea, one thought, one snippet I can share on this blog or on Twitter that is related to my work. If nothing else, such an exercise will help me want to do the work, as it will keep it in the forefront of my mind.

2. Write the book you want to read.

Kleon writes, “The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s to write what you like.” Though it took me a while to discover it, Books and Culture was a revelation to me, because I read in John Wilson’s magazine exactly the kind of work I wished I’d been writing. I never wrote for John, but when I write reviews for The Curator, it’s usually a pursuit of what I liked best in Books and Culture and what I still like best elsewhere.

In the same category, Kleon also advises, “Do the work you want to see done.” I don’t know that I have any business writing a book, but in my study of 1 and 2 Samuel I was dissatisfied with how little I could find exploring Joab, son of Zeruiah. I am very much toying with writing the book on Joab that I’d like to read.

I don’t know if it will work out, but if I can keep up with the first item I mentioned here, I’ll be sure to let folks know.

DFW on college writers’ most common error: self-absorption

As rhetoric, this sort of attitude works only in sermons to the choir, and as pedagogy it’s disastrous, and in terms of teaching writing it’s especially bad because it commits precisely the error that most Freshman Composition classes spend all semester trying to keep kids from making–the error of presuming the very audience-agreement that it is really their rhetorical job to earn. This kind of mistake results more from a habit of mind than from any particular false premise–it is a function not of fallacy or ignorance but of self-absorption. It also happens to be the most persistent and damaging error that most college writers make, and one so deeply rooted that it often takes several essays and conferences and revisions to get them to even see what the problem is. Helping them eliminate the error involves drumming into student writers two big injunctions: (1) Do not presume that the reader can read your mind–anything that you want the reader to visualize or consider or conclude, you must provide; (2) Do not presume that the reader feels the same way that you do about a given experience or issue–your argument cannot just assume as true the very things you’re trying to argue for.

Because (1) and (2) seem so simple and obvious, it may surprise you to know that they are actually incredibly hard to get students to understand in such a way that the principles inform their writing. The reason for the difficulty is that, in the abstract, (1) and (2) are intellectual, whereas in practice they are more things of the spirit. The injunctions require of the student both the imagination to conceive of the reader as a separate human being and the empathy to realize that this separate person has preferences and confusions and beliefs of her own, p/c/b’s that are just as deserving of respectful consideration as the writer’s. More, (1) and (2) require of students the humility to distinguish between a universal truth (“This is the way things are, and only an idiot would disagree”) and something that the writer merely opines (“My reasons for recommending this are as follows:”). These sorts of requirements are, of course, also the elements of a Democratic Spirit. I therefore submit that the hoary cliche “Teaching the student to write is teaching the student to think” sells the enterprise way short. Thinking isn’t even half of it. (106, FN 59)

Wallace, David Foster. “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Little, Brown, 2006.

Writing without Self-Absorption

Writing demands a certain amount of introspection. But introspection doesn’t have to become self-absorption. In my own writing life, I have found that writing can be a means toward blessed self-forgetfulness. As I get absorbed in a subject I’m writing about, find that I am freed from self-absorption–and I am able to do good work. When I stop asking “What will my reader think of me?” I start asking, “What will my reader think about this person or event or idea I’m writing about?” And good things start to happen. I don’t live in that place all the time. I don’t even live there most of the time. But I don’t get much good writing done when I’m not in that place.

Jonathan Rogers

Artists need to live modestly

It takes time. This means that you need to find that time. Don’t be too social. Live below your means and keep the means modest (people with trust funds and other cushions: I’m not talking to you, though money makes many, many things easy, and often, vocation and passion harder). You probably have to do something else for a living at the outset or all along, but don’t develop expensive habits or consuming hobbies. I knew a waitress once who thought fate was keeping her from her painting but taste was: if she’d given up always being the person who turned going out for a burrito into ordering the expensive wine at the bistro she would’ve had one more free day a week for art.

– from Rebecca Solnit’s tips on how to be a writer. Many of them are good, but this one is the one I haven’t heard elsewhere. And she’s right.