Category Archives: Writing

6 Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block

Most writers have experienced that terrible feeling that you have nothing to say. Or that you have something to say, but no idea how to say it. There are those moments, fingers poised over the keyboard waiting for words that do not come. Whether it lasts for a few moments or days may depend on what you let your mind tell you. I’m convinced that writers who say they have never experienced writer’s block simply have never prolonged those moments because they push through and write any way. By taking some of the following steps, you can be one of those people.

  1. Give yourself permission to write garbage.

If you think of the time you spend writing as the time to produce perfect, polished material, you will get held up in that search for perfection. Instead, think of writing as drafting—producing material that you will polish later when you get to the revising stage. Let your ideas flow in any form—sentences don’t have to be smooth, word choices don’t have to be targeted, ideas don’t have to be clear, and they don’t have to come in a logical order. You are simply producing a draft—getting the words on the page so you can shape them later into something worth sharing. Sometimes when you do this, you will get caught up in the flow of ideas and write words that are brilliant; sometimes you will find little capsules of brilliance mired in a lot of muck; sometimes you will end up with ideas that fall short of brilliance, but that you can nurture and shape into what you want to say. You just have to remember, that you are not producing an end product—you are gathering the materials you need to shape the written text you want to share (and others will want to read).


  1. Go for a walk.

According to developmental molecular biologist John Medina, author of Brain Rules, the human brain was designed to think most effectively while moving. You can see more of his rules here: So take a break from writing and get moving. I’ve often said that I wrote most of my dissertation while walking my dog. The rhythm of footfalls lulled me into thinking of the points I wanted to make and how I wanted to articulate them. After a short walk, I would rush back to my computer, ideas tumbling almost faster than I could type. I would let myself just transfer the jumble in my mind, which some people might think of as garbage, as quickly as possible onto my document—and then go back and revise it later. (See how these points are connected?)


  1. Write something else.

I’m a big fan of finishing your writing projects. Many of the members of my writers’ group bring in new stories each week because they can’t finish one idea before moving onto another, and I think this is a big problem. However, if you run out of ideas for one project, working on another might be a good way to keep your writing muscles limber so you don’t stop writing altogether. These breaks into other writing should be brief, though, and should always be done with the intention of gaining inspiration for the original project.


  1. Write a letter to yourself stating what you want to write.

Sometimes you can’t write because you don’t know exactly where you are going with your words. While it can feel like creativity comes when you just let ideas flow, the uncertainty of this can make it more difficult to write. So tell yourself what you want to write, in writing. You can write a letter to yourself that helps you to explore the content of your writing, your purpose, what you want readers to get from it, what your deeper purpose for writing might be, how you want to connect ideas or explore patterns, and where you see your writing ending up. The nice thing about this letter is that once you get your ideas going, you might not even need it; however, you might draw from your own words to yourself when you need inspiration. When you are writing the letter, and later when you use it to inspire your writing, you need to remember that you might end up veering in other directions. Give yourself permission to move away from your original intentions when new ideas and inspiration come.


  1. Draw from your own or others’ writing.

We all know that reading forms the foundation for good writing. When good writing won’t come, though, re-reading texts that you have written might be helpful. You might also draw on other people’s writing. Chances are the text you want to write belongs to a genre with conventions already in place. Exploring those conventions as a writer might help you to formulate your own writing. You might also keep a file on your desktop of inspirational writing. I keep one that I call “Extras” where I keep sentences, paragraphs, or pages that I loved but had to cut during the revision process. Sometimes these excerpts are the starting point for new writings.


  1. Keep up your writing practice.

Along with setting word or time goals for writing each day (for instance, writing 1,000 words per day or writing for at least 2 hours a day) on a given project, you might also want to consider setting up a daily or weekly writing routine that involves writing from prompts or writing on different topics. This will help you train your brain to write on demand. You might also consider keeping a daily journal—you keep your commitment to write every day and you might also generate some great ideas to write about later.


Writer’s block might be the inability to make progress on a specific project or the feeling that you can’t write anything at all. For those of us who feel like something is wrong with the world when we are not writing, this feeling can be debilitating—and the negative feelings that result can magnify the problem. While the final product that you share and publish should be your best quality work, you can take your time getting there. That means letting go of self-judgement and just writing—maybe the sheer joy of that will inspire you to finish your project.

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Storytelling Basics: What to Withhold

Most writers know that exciting curiosity and creating tension are good ways to keep a reader interested. The twists in Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train are great examples of how authors can surprise readers, compelling them to read on—even if it means staying up all night. As a reader, once you find out the new truth revealed in the narrative, you keep thinking back, trying to find the little hints that should have clued you in.

While the strategy is often effective, it must be used carefully. If you frustrate your readers too much, especially younger readers, they will put the book down and find one of hundreds of other ways to occupy their time. Though every book and every author’s style is different, here are five dos and don’ts for holding back information.


  1. What you withhold should be part of a major revelation.

Most of us know the iconic moment in Star Wars when Darth Vader says, “No, I am your father.” Throughout the film, new revelations about the characters and how they are tied together excite curiosity and change our perceptions about what is going to happen in the story. However, this final revelation forces the audience to rethink the nature of light and darkness in the film and compels us to the other offerings in the franchise.


  1. What you withhold should not be trivial or necessary to understand the narrative as it emerges.

On the other hand, if you are writing a family drama and fail to mention that the father in a household is a step-father to some, but not all, of the children, your reader will spend time trying to figure out the family relationships and why they seem to be secret, rather than becoming immersed in the story. If the relationships are significant to the plot of the story, your reader may become confused and frustrated.


  1. What you withhold should match Point of View (POV).

If you are writing in first person from the POV of a character in the story, then you can only include what that character would know and understand. If your protagonist is a fallible or naïve character, the telling of the story might possibly include misunderstandings that are not cleared up until the character learns something or matures. Thus, your narrative unfolds as you share the new information the character gains. Even if you are writing with a third person narrator limited to the POV of one of the characters, what you can reveal will depend on what the character knows. You can create tension between what the reader knows or understands and what the character knows and understands. Mark Twain does this with the naïve narration of Huck Finn, when he describes Huck’s views on slavery, which are obviously flawed, in contrast with his actions, which show the real interpretation that Twain is trying to present.

  1. What you withhold should make sense to the reader once the truth is revealed.

When the writer reveals the truth that has been withheld, the reader should have an a-ha moment—that palm slap to the forehead when the reader says, “I should have seen this coming all along. There were a few hints along the way and now it makes sense.” I don’t want to give anything away here, but my book group recently read The Last Mrs. Parrish, and our discussion revolved around when in the first half of the book we thought we should have known the twist that was coming in the second half. Further, once the truth was revealed about some of the characters, we realized that little scenes that had bothered us as readers suddenly made sense. That is a very satisfying feeling for a reader, and it happens when an author presents a scene that could have more than one interpretation. When the truth is revealed, the reader knows which interpretation is correct.


  1. How long you withhold should not test the reader’s patience or go on longer than needed.

If as a writer you are saving up all your revelations until the end of the book, you might be trying your reader’s patience. Gradual revelation of new information connected to the narrative as it unfolds lets the reader have several a-ha moments—and if they are spaced well, readers won’t feel like you are gratuitously holding back information to taunt them. Like a good murder mystery, all books should provide a trail of clues that are slowly revealed to build up to a final revelation that makes your readers rethink what they know about the story, the characters, and the world you have placed them in.

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Here is the rubric graders use to score the SAT essay. You can use this to focus your efforts as you practice writing for the test.


One Point

  • Demonstrates little or no comprehensionof the source text
  • Fails to show an understanding of the text’s central idea(s), and may include only details without reference to central idea(s)
  • May contain numerous errors of fact and/or interpretation with regard to the text
  • Makes little or no use of textual evidence

Two Points

  • Demonstrates some comprehensionof the source text
  • Shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) but not of important details
  • May contain errors of fact and/or interpretation with regard to the text
  • Makes limited and/or haphazard use of textual evidence

Three Points

  • Demonstrates effective comprehensionof the source text
  • Shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) and important details
  • Is free of substantive errors of fact and interpretation with regard to the text
  • Makes appropriate use of textual evidence

Four Points

  • Demonstrates thorough comprehensionof the source text
  • Shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) and most important details and how they interrelate
  • Is free of errors of fact or interpretation with regard to the text
  • Makes skillful use of textual evidence



One Point

  • Demonstrates little or no cohesion andinadequate skill in the use and control of language
  • May lack a clear central claim or controlling idea
  • Lacks a recognizable introduction and conclusion; does not have a discernible progression of ideas
  • Lacks variety in sentence structures; sentence structures may be repetitive; demonstrates general and vague word choice; word choice may be poor or inaccurate; may lack a formal style and objective tone
  • Shows a weak control of the conventions of standard written English and may contain numerous errors that undermine the quality of writing

Two Points

  • Demonstrates little or no cohesion andlimited skill in the use and control of language
  • May lack a clear central claim or controlling idea or may deviate from the claim or idea
  • May include an ineffective introduction and/or conclusion; may demonstrate some progression of ideas within paragraphs but not throughout
  • Has limited variety in sentence structures; sentence structures may be repetitive; demonstrates general and vague word choice; word choice may be repetitive; may deviate noticeably from a formal style and objective tone
  • Shows a limited control of the conventions of standard written English and contains errors that detract from the quality of writing and may impede understanding

Three Points

  • Is mostly cohesiveand demonstrates effective use and control of language
  • Includes a central claim or implicit controlling idea
  • Includes an effective introduction and conclusion; demonstrates a clear progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay
  • Has variety in sentence structures; demonstrates some precise word choice; maintains a formal style and objective tone
  • Shows a good control of the conventions of standards written English and is free of significant errors that detract from the quality of writing

Four Points

  • Is cohesiveand demonstrates highly effective use and command of language
  • Includes a precise central claim
  • Includes a skillful introduction and conclusion; demonstrates a deliberate and highly effective progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay
  • Has a wide variety in sentence structures; demonstrates consistent use of precise word choice; maintains a formal style and objective tone
  • Shows a strong command of the conventions of standards written English and is free or virtually free of errors



One Point

  • Offerslittle or no analysis or ineffective analysis of the source text and demonstrates little to no understanding of the analytical task
  • Identifies without explanation some aspects of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing
  • Numerous aspects of analysis are unwarranted based on the text
  • Contains little or no support for claim(s) or point(s) made, or support is largely irrelevant
  • May not focus on features of the text that are relevant to addressing the task
  • Offers no discernible analysis (e.g., is largely or exclusively summary)

Two Points

  • Offerslimited analysis of the source text and demonstrates only partial understanding of the analytical task
  • Identifies and attempts to describe the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing, but merely asserts rather than explains their importance
  • One or more aspects of analysis are unwarranted based on the text
  • Contains little or no support for claim(s) or point(s) made
  • May lack a clear focus on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task

Three Points

  • Offers an effective analysisof the source text and demonstrates an understanding of the analytical task
  • Competently evaluates the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or features of the student’s own choosing
  • Contains relevant and sufficient support for claim(s) or point(s) made
  • Focuses primarily on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task

Four Points

  • Offers an insightful analysisof the source text and demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the analytical task
  • Offers a thorough, well-considered evaluation of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or features of the student’s own choosing
  • Contains relevant, sufficient, and strategically chosen support for claim(s) or point(s) made
  • Focuses consistently on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task
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100 Journal Topics

Writing a journal can be a great way to record your life, practice writing skills, and build materials for other writing projects. Here are some ideas for topics to write about rather than just chronicling what happened on a given day.

  1. Describe an important event that happened today (or this week). How do you feel about what happened? Why is the event important?
  2. Look out your bedroom window for a while. What do you see? What do you think about it?
  3. Choose a person you know. Describe that person—both in terms of physical appearance and personality. Why is this person important to you?
  4. What is your favorite song? What is the song about? Why is it meaningful to you?
  5. Choose an event you have heard or read about in the news. What happened? What is your interpretation of the event? How does it affect your life?
  6. Describe your family’s holiday celebration for a holiday that is significant to you.
  7. How would you define happiness? What makes you happy?
  8. Choose something in your life that you see as a problem. Describe the problem and try to list possible ways to deal with it.
  9. How would you describe the ideal relationship? How does one of your current relationships fit with your ideal?
  10. What is your favorite activity? Describe what the activity involves. Why do you enjoy it?
  11. How would you describe yourself—both in terms of physical appearance and personality? What are some things you like about yourself?
  12. Describe your family of origin. What is your home life like? What are the roles and relationships of the members of your family?
  13. What would you consider the most significant event of your life so far? How did the event affect the way you see yourself and your life?
  14. Tell about one of your best accomplishments? Why is it important to you?
  15. Do you have a favorite place? Describe the place using all five senses. Why is it special to you?
  16. What do you consider to be one of your best attributes? Why?
  17. Describe an event that you think shaped who you are. What exactly happened? Why was the event significant?
  18. Describe a person who influenced who you have become. What is that person like? What is a typical action or behavior of this person? Why did he or she have influence over you?
  19. Do you consider yourself religious? How would you describe your core religious beliefs? Where did they come from?
  20. What religious or spiritual practice do you engage in regularly? What does it involve? Why is it significant to you?
  21. If you had to pass on a life lesson to a younger person, what would it be? How did you learn this lesson? Why do you think it is important?
  22. What is your favorite food? Why? Describe how you prepare it and what it tastes like.
  23. Does your family have a tradition? What is it? What does it involve? Where did the tradition come from and why is it meaningful?
  24. What do you know about your family’s history? Does your ethnicity play an important role in your family or individual life? In what ways?
  25. If you had a beautiful day with nothing required of you, what would you do? Why did you choose this option over others?
  26. What is/was your favorite subject in school? Why?
  27. What subject in school did you like least? Why?
  28. Do you have musical talent? What is the role of music in your life?
  29. Do you have a pet? Describe the pet. How has your pet contributed to your life?
  30. What is your feeling about the emphasis on going green in recent years? What actions have you taken, if any? If not, why not?
  31. Describe your house—or the dream house you hope to get some day.
  32. Who was your best friend when you were a child? Describe the friend. What activities did you do together? Are you still friends? Why or why not?
  33. Who is your best friend now? What is your friend like? What is important about your relationship?
  34. Describe something you and your best friend typically do together.
  35. How do you manage your money? What are your feelings about money?
  36. What is one of the most embarrassing things you have done? What exactly happened? How did you recover?
  37. Do you consider yourself artistic? How do you define art? How do you feel about art?
  38. Do you think creativity and art are important? Why or why not?
  39. What do you consider your biggest challenge? How did you meet the challenge?
  40. What item do you consider your prized possession? Describe it and tell why it is meaningful to you.
  41. What is your fondest childhood memory? Use your five senses to describe what happened.
  42. What value or belief do you feel is most important to you? Why? Where do you think the value came from?
  43. Should people be responsible for other people, even if they are not related? What is the nature of that responsibility? Tell a story that shows what you mean.
  44. Can individuals know about the world? If so, how does the individual learn about the world, himself or herself and the nature of existence?
  45. What is the nature of human existence? What purpose does that existence serve?
  46. What is death? What is the purpose or meaning of death?
  47. Is there a higher power? What is the nature of that power? What is its role in the universe? What is the nature of the relationship between a higher power (if you believe in one) and the individual?
  48. What is the individual’s role in the universe? In society? Toward nature?
  49. What is the nature of human relationships with each other? With the world?
  50. What rights do individuals have in their daily lives? What responsibilities do they have?
  51. What is love? What is happiness? How do you achieve each?
  52. What obligations do individuals have to others and to their communities and the world?
  53. If you could travel anywhere in the world where would you go and why?
  54. What trips have you taken? Use your five senses to describe important things that you saw or experienced on your trip?
  55. Is traveling to other places important? What can be gained?
  56. How would you describe your childhood? What are some important events that you feel shaped your childhood?
  57. Describe an event that you feel changed a core belief. What happened? Why did it change your belief?
  58. How do you spend your time? What would you say takes up most of your time?
  59. Do you feel that the way you spend your time reflects your values? Why or why not?
  60. What is your view of technology? How do you use technology in your everyday life?
  61. Describe your mother—both in terms of physical appearance and personality. What role has she played in your life?
  62. Tell a story about a specific event in your life that involves your mother.
  63. Describe your father—both in terms of physical appearance and personality. What role has she played in your life?
  64. Tell a story about a specific event in your life that involves your father.
  65. What qualities do you think make a good friend?
  66. If your friends described you, what would they say?
  67. Which of your qualities or characteristics do you think is most salient? Why?
  68. What makes you most angry? Why? How do you deal with the anger?
  69. What makes you most sad? Why? How do you deal with the sadness?
  70. Do you prefer urban, suburban or rural living? Why?
  71. Have you ever experienced the death of a loved one? What happened? How did you deal with your grief?
  72. Do you consider yourself healthy? What do you do to maintain your health?
  73. Do you participate in a sport? Why? Describe an important event related to your sport?
  74. What hobbies do you have? What does each entail? Why do you enjoy each particular hobby? Tell a story about something you did related to your hobby.
  75. How important are appearances to you? Tell a story about a time when appearances were very important or not important at all.
  76. Have you ever been victim of a crime? What happened? How did you feel? How did you recover?
  77. What is your opinion about the legal system in the USA? On what is your opinion based?
  78. How important are politics in your life? Why? What are your political beliefs?
  79. How do you feel about nature? Is there a spot in nature that is particularly important to you? Describe it in detail. How do you feel when there?
  80. What is your favorite book? Why? What significant lessons do you feel this book imparts?
  81. How did you learn to read? Does reading play an important role in your life? How?
  82. When you were a child, what did you want to be as an adult? Why? How have your goals changed or stayed the same?
  83. If you could do anything, what would it be? Why?
  84. Describe a typical day for you with as much detail as possible. When you read over what you have written, how do you feel about it?
  85. What was your first romantic encounter? Use your five senses to describe it in detail. How did you feel?
  86. What is love? Tell a story that illustrates what you mean.
  87. If you had to plan the perfect date, what would it involve?
  88. What famous person do you admire? Why?
  89. If you were famous, what would it be for? What would you do with your fame?
  90. What television show best matches your life? Why?
  91. If you had to make a show or book about your life, what would it be called? What would the premise be? Who would be the main characters?
  92. How much responsibility should parents take for their children’s lives? Tell a story which illustrates what you mean.
  93. Do you consider yourself to be guided more by emotion or logic? Tell a story that shows what you mean.
  94. Do you think most people are guided more by emotion or logic? What evidence do you have for your opinion?
  95. Describe your favorite item of clothing. Is it a favorite because of how it feels, how it looks or because of an event you wore it to? What do you think the item of clothing shows about you?
  96. Do you believe that everything happens for a reason or that things just happen and people create the reason after the fact? On what do you base your opinion?
  97. Is it possible to balance work and family life? How? If not, which would take priority? Why?
  98. How do you feel about money? How important is money to you?
  99. When you meet new people, how do you react? Tell a story to illustrate this.
  100. When you are around a group of people, how do you behave? What makes you most comfortable? What makes you most uncomfortable?


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What is a Beta Reader?

If you are like many writers, you have a difficult time sharing your work. You probably wrote alone, almost secretly, until you were certain your work was ready for the world. That first act of sharing your manuscript is fraught with all kinds of emotions. Sharing with a beta reader is one way to ease into eventual publication, but choosing beta readers and directing their feedback should be done with care.

A beta reader is a reader who represents the intended audience of the book. It’s easy to figure out a beta reader for a book on education or sales, but it can be more difficult for a mystery or a zombie apocalypse manuscript. As a writer, you need to ask who is your typical reader. Your beta readers should be people who are well read in your genre and who have a basic understanding of storylines and character development. If you belong to a writers group, you may have people available to serve as beta readers (most groups, though, only have time to cover short pieces of writing, unless you share work online). You might even be able to arrange a swap, your services as a reader with another writer.

That might be the easy part. Because we all know that reading and enjoying books is not the same thing as being able to critique with useful feedback to help a writer prepare a work for submission to an agent or publisher. As a freelance editor, I have a lot of writers tell me something like, “My cousin’s husband is an English teacher, and I’m going to ask him to review my work before I write a query and send off the manuscript.”

Beta readers like this generally give writers an idea of whether their writing is interesting and engaging to read (though almost nobody will tell you directly that your writing is boring), if the story is good (again, it’s difficult for readers to tell you if it isn’t), if the characters and plot are realistic, if it makes sense, and if it is something they would like to read. You can get a more detailed and direct response if you ask specific questions, but reading and providing feedback for a manuscript is time consuming and requires some expertise, so choosing the right beta readers will make the biggest difference. You’ll want to develop questions that are specific to the manuscript you are seeking feedback on, but here are some examples of the types of questions you can ask your beta readers:

  1. Does my book seem to start too slow or take a long time to get to the interesting parts? What do you think about the development of the action?
  2. What do you think about how the book begins? Does it make you want to read more? Are you invested in the plot or the characters?
  3. Does the writing style seem good? Is it consistent throughout the book? Are there points that seem to be in a different style that might not fit?
  4. I’ve withheld some information (such as X, Y, Z), does that pique your curiosity and make you want to read more? Are there points that become confusing because it feels like information is missing?
  5. Does the order of events in the story seem like the best way to present/develop this story?
  6. How do you feel about the characters? Do you think they are interesting and worth reading about? What surprised you about them? What would you expect to see?

A beta reader is the first step in a long process of reviewing your manuscript to prepare for publication. Once you get feedback from beta readers, you should work to revise your manuscript (ten to twenty rounds of revision are not too many, so if you think your writing is ready for publication after you make the revisions suggested by the beta reader, you are probably wrong—though there are exceptions—and this is especially a concern if you are self-publishing because your work will not have gone through any vetting or editing from a publisher).

Along with beta readers, you will need editing. Developmental editors will help you with turning your draft into a finished product by looking at issues like pacing, plot development, character development, internal logical and chronological consistencies, along with issues of clarity and engagement for a reader. Line editors look specifically at the way you present your ideas—language, sentence clarity, variety, and paragraph development. If you work with a publisher you will work with one of their editors; however, it might require an editor to get your manuscript to the level that a publisher will want to take it on. Copy editors deal with issues of technical standards for formatting and grammar. In other words, they have detailed knowledge of the rules of language, grammar and formatting. They also look for repetition, inconsistency, factual errors, and syntax errors. Proofreaders come in after the manuscript is printed for publication; this is the quality control stage of the process.

In general, you should prepare yourself for a lengthy process to move your manuscript from draft to publishable novel or book. Use your beta readers to prepare yourself for editing and revision, so you don’t end up reading your own book and wondering what you were thinking when you decided it was ready to publish.

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My Daughter Hates Algebra

Usually I think I have it pretty easy. My kids do their homework, get good grades, and are responsible. Having worked with students and taught college classes for years, I feel equipped to help them with homework when they need it. But this year, my daughter has an Algebra 2 class, which she hates. As a result, she struggles with learning concepts and doing homework—and her difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that her teacher basically refuses to explain material in class. Each night as she works through assignments, I sit by her, trying to explain materials (it was different when I was in school, she reminds me) and offer encouragement. Inevitably, she asks why she should even bother with Algebra 2, as her career plans will not involve math.

I have to admit that although I was a strong student in math, I have used algebra exactly three times since I left school: when I worked in a tutoring center if the math tutor didn’t show up and I didn’t have too many writing students, I would help students with their algebra homework; when my son was in high school, I would answer questions in algebra if he had them; and now I have to call on my knowledge of algebra to help my daughter. So answering her question about the value of learning something she is unlikely to need is a challenge for me.

Of course, I get the same questions from students in my college courses and workshops. They say they will never write in their careers, so learning to write is a waste of time. Based on my experience with professionals in a wide range of careers, I know this isn’t exactly true. There are a few careers that don’t require writing, but for professionals who want to advance to higher levels of management and success, writing is vital, whether they are in the medical field, finance, technology, science, or the service industry.

Even more important, though, is the fact that learning to write shapes the way people think, and it can have enormous impact on critical thinking and decision-making skills. Writing creates analytical skills when writers break down the many aspects of their topics, see how they function separately and together, and look for patterns and gaps. Writing develops the ability to synthesize information when writers gather materials from multiple sources and perspectives and draw conclusions. Writing enhances the ability to understand an audience of others and how they will think and react to information. Whether or not a student ever writes a single email or report, these vital skills will help them understand our political, economic and interpersonal worlds and make better decisions and better lives.

Is the same true of math? Of course, math requires close attention to details and adherence to established principals and procedures. It enhances an understanding of our physical world and the relationships among factors. Doing a math problem forces a student to slow down and focus on each element and its relationship to others. These are all vital skills; it just remains for me to convince my daughter of this in the same way I have to prove the value of writing to my college students.

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Writing Thank You Cards

Fewer and fewer occasions seem to require hand-written cards, the ones where you actually write in the content instead of signing on to the sentiments already contained in the card. Graduation is one of those, and writing thank you cards for graduation can be one of the many acts that signal a transition to adult responsibility.
As a recent graduate, you are coming from a series of events that are all about you, and thank you cards are an abrupt reminder that whatever you accomplished and what you do in the future really does involve others. Writing focused on others can be a challenge in any situation, but with gifts coming from distant relatives and parents’ friends, the call to write for others can be awkward. The same situation will arise when you have to write thank you letters after job interviews, so this is good practice.
The first step is writing something personal. This can be simple: I’m so glad you were able to come to my graduation party and celebrate with our family. It can also be more involved: My parents have told stories about growing up with you, so I was very excited to be able to meet you in person. I know they were happy to see you, too.
The second step is the actual thank you. Particularly with gifts of money, this can feel awkward. The simplest solution is to say thank you for the money and tell what it will be used for, as in: Thank you for the gift of money. It will really help me to pay for books my first semester in college. For a gift item, expressing gratitude can be general: Thank you for the iHome. As always, more specific writing is better, though: Thank you for the iHome. I will definitely need the alarm clock to make it to my 8 a.m. class.
Personal gifts call for a more intimate sounding thank you: Thank you so much for the beautiful gold pendant. It will be a constant reminder to me of your generosity and support as I pursue my dreams.
Even though thank you cards are relatively small, the task of filling them can be daunting. After the personal greeting and the thank you, if there is room, you can fill in with the type of newsy detail that any letter would contain. If you write really big, though, you might manage to fill the card with the basics and a signature. Either way, expressing your appreciation and building personal relationships should be the goal.

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The Difference Between Good and Excellent Writing

“She’s always there for me.” “Society should take care of children.” “It’s a good thing to be interesting.” “People should know better.”  These are the types of general statements that appear frequently in student writing.  In fact, I might get the same basic sentences in several different student papers.  They are so generic that they can be used in many contexts—and they are essentially drab and meaningless.  This type of general and vague writing shows students’ thinking to be vague and superficial.

Good writing, writing that people enjoy reading, moves away from these general statements to descriptions and words that readers can relate to because they can see what the writer means.  Good writing replaces general terms like there, society, thing and people with concrete, sensual descriptions.  Writers are often directed to show not tell. Here’s an example:

General Statement:  Mary always helps her friends.

More specific:  When her friend Barb was sick, Mary helped take care of her.

Very specific: When her friend Barb was struck with brain cancer, Mary went to her house each week to give Barb’s husband and two children a night away from their caretaking.  As Barb’s condition got worse, Mary spoon-fed her pudding, the only food she could swallow, and adjusted her morphine levels. 

In the moment:  Mary cradled Barb’s head in her arms as she dipped the spoon into the pudding bowl.  She spooned small amounts of pudding into her friend’s mouth, trying to appear happy and hopeful in spite of the brain cancer that was taking Barb away from her family and friends. Each time Barb moaned, Mary felt sick with grief.  All she could do was to check the morphine level and give her another dose.

A lot of student writing is made up of statements like the first two above.  The very specific example shows the reader what exactly was involved in the caretaking and gives a detailed account of what happened.  The final example puts the reader into the scene, able to see and feel what the narrator sees and feels—and it engages the reader’s imagination and emotions.  Good writing moves back and forth along a spectrum from general to in-the-moment detail.  It balances what the writer wants to say with what the reader can relate to and use.  However, if writing stays at the generic level, neither reader nor writer has a chance to achieve any depth of knowledge.

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What Should High School Students Write to Prepare for College?

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 44% of college professors feel that their students are not prepared for college writing.  My experience with colleagues is that 100% of them feel that some percentage of their students are not prepared for the challenges of writing in college and that the work they hand in is below standards.  That seems like a pretty dire problem.  I also know from experience that most high school English teachers are doing everything they know how to prepare their students. 

It also seems that it could be the luck of which schools and which teachers within those schools students end up with.  For instance, my son is a junior in high school and has never been assigned a paper longer than three pages.  My daughter, on the other hand, is in 9th grade, and she has just been assigned a twelve-page paper.  Of course, she isn’t happy about this, but I’m relieved that at least one of my children has an opportunity to do the kind of work that will help her when she transitions into college.  It’s not just the length of the paper that matters, though.

Here are some elements that make a good writing assignment:

Length:  Length for it’s own sake is not enough.  Students do need to have an opportunity to explore a topic in depth and to have to explore more than two or three ideas related to a topic.

Subject:  Students should be able to write about topics that interest them.  They should also be able to investigate new topics in order to build interest in new topics.  Not only should the write about materials related to literature, as in most Language Arts classes.  They should be writing in other content classes about science and history.  Because writing on a subject creates expertise, students should be writing at length in all classes.

Research: Students should be charged with researching topics using academically valid sources.  They should learn how to evaluate the credibility of various sources and they should become familiar with experts in the fields they are writing about.  Students should be asked to synthesize related ideas from varied sources and to draw some of their own conclusions.

Citation: Students should learn when it is appropriate to quote or paraphrase information.  They should learn how to attribute ideas and words to their original sources.  Finally, they should understand what plagiarism is and why it is problematic. 

Of course, this is just a brief highlight of four of the major issues that students should experience in high school to prepare them for college.  But these are challenges that many students don’t face until they get to college, when the expectations can be a surprise and a source of anxiety.  The opportunity to learn and practice writing in high school where they can receive guidance in these key areas could save many students from being overwhelmed in college.

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Why Is The Five-Paragraph Theme a Problem?

Almost every high school student learns to write the Five-Paragraph Theme.  Its basic structure asks students to write

  • a one-paragraph introduction with a thesis that highlights three points
  • three body paragraphs, each elaborating on the points listed in the thesis
  • a conclusion paragraph that restates the thesis.

The problem is that most college professors hate the Five-Paragraph Theme.  Here’s a story that illustrates why.  I had a student come to me for a conference to plan her 10-page research paper.  We discussed her topic and came up with about six ideas that she needed to research.  She developed an insightful and sophisticated thesis.  I felt we had done good work.  As she left, she asked “How am I going to fit all of this in five paragraphs?”

Of course there was no way she could meet all of the requirements of the assignment in five paragraphs, but that model was so ingrained that she couldn’t think outside it.

The Five-Paragraph Theme offers an easy model for teaching and learning about writing. It can even be a good starting point—however, it is totally inadequate for longer and more sophisticated writing.  Students need to learn it as a starting point for writing and then build on the paragraphs to expand their thinking and development of ideas.

Given the workload of many high school teachers, it’s easy to understand why the Five-Paragraph Theme is popular.  A teacher who has 100 students throughout the day would have to grade 1000 pages each time a 10-page paper is assigned.  Five paragraphs generally take up only one and a half to two pages.  An even better reason is that it’s easy to teach—five paragraphs with a clear structure and content makes an easy to describe and define assignment.  Also, it’s easy for students who are often frustrated by the abstract and varied guidelines of writing.


The trick, which the best teachers know, is to teach the Five-Paragraph Theme as a starting point and then teach students how to build it up to meet the more sophisticated demands of college and professional writing.

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