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Practical Student Writing Activities for Teachers

posted Aug 24, 2012, 6:49 PM by Lynn Salsi   [ updated Aug 24, 2012, 7:04 PM by David Burkhart ]

March is the time teachers are pulling out their hair in the last minute dash to inspire students to write. The first part of March means that the big writing test is staring everyone in the face. Teachers are nervous and the students are scared to death. - And, there's no remedy. This is a cycle that just goes on and on.

Here are a few last minute suggestions.
  1. Have students read several really good short stories and have a class discussion about what made each story interesting (or not interesting).
  2. Have students look up the biography of an author of a book the class has read and have a discussion about what the students think inspired the author.
  3. Assign students to read a non-fiction essay and talk about how the author's writing makes the article just as interesting as fiction.
  4. Let students think about the things that inspire them. Too many in-service writing classes for teachers tell the teachers what should inspire the students. Allow students to draw from their own experiences. That's what full-time writers do.
  5. Teach students to be aware of the conversations and activites around them. Noticing simple things and being aware of daily activities can be inspirational. The younger students generally think that their lives are boring. However, if they learn to sharpen their awareness of daily interactions, it will give them ideas about who and what to write about.
  6. Teach older students to write press releases. This is an announcement of an event or an announcement about a museum opening or a new book that has been published and is now available. Cut out a few newspaper articles that came from such releases and make students aware that many people graduate from college and make a living writing press releases. In my day, we also called them "news releases." This exercise makes students award that even ordinary events and accomplishments make "news". Thanks goodness I was one of those people paid to write releases.
Good luck and good writing.  Writing is fun!!

Over-Used Concepts

posted Aug 24, 2012, 2:23 PM by David Burkhart   [ updated Aug 24, 2012, 2:23 PM ]

Writing magazines, how-to-write books, and instructors of writing seminars inevitably mention to fledgling writers that there are five things to remember when writing. Recently I saw a headline that announced, "The Five Most Important Things That Effect Writing."

Eager to read something I did not know, I purchased the magazine only to see that the article was about five things writers needed to know about commas. Although the points were valid, it was not anything that could not have been looked up in a writing handbook. And, if a writer has problems remembering rules about conjunctive adverbs or comma splices, he or she needs to keep a list of how-to's in a small notebook that is handy when writing.

There is not a concrete list of only five things that are overlooked and underused by all writers.Some writers could possibly compile a list of 20 things they need to remember. Experienced writers might have a mental "hang up" about three or four things. Regardless, a "things to remember list" should be treated the same way as a "to do" list--it's personal.

Every writer has his or her own mental block. I tend to develop bad habits. Recently I was putting commas in for no reason at all. I've gone through the same thing with the word "the." About a year ago, I delete numerous unnecessary "the's." During proofing, I'd see a comma or a the I'd thrown into a sentence that I could not believe I'd thrown in. I sent myself back to the comma rules chapter to re-familiarize myself with something I learned over 25 years ago. The "the" caper made me a total believer of reading everything I write aloud. That's the tried and true way to making writing more concise.

Then I had to mull over whether I was losing my mind, or simply writing so fast, I was not thinking critically about punctuation and the use of articles.


posted Aug 24, 2012, 2:22 PM by David Burkhart   [ updated Aug 24, 2012, 2:22 PM ]

Annotation is under-estimated by students of reading and writing. It is a cornerstone of understanding--of comprehension. This is a technique that should be taught in the early years of education. It should begin as soon as a child learns to write. However, before students annotate, they need to give themselves permission to read material more than once.

This is another concept that teachers don't always embrace. That is, they don't tell children to read, re-read, and take notes. Furthermore, there are way too many timed tests requiring children to answer questions at the end of the reading. What a way to turn students off of reading for the rest of their lives.

Annotation may include jotting down notes as the reader reads or during a second read through. The purpose of note taking is to help the student retain information. It works for every subject.


posted Aug 24, 2012, 2:22 PM by David Burkhart   [ updated Aug 24, 2012, 2:22 PM ]

Writers need lots of tools, including pen and paper, a computer and printer. However, an English handbook is often overlooked. Lacking the technological appeal of surfing every five minutes, it seems archaic. Writers who lived in the dark ages of the 50s and 60s can attest that every college freshman was required to buy a thin paperback issue that was worn to a shred by the time the senior year arrived. Freshmen are required to purchase a handbook, but they usually relegate it to a permanently unused status.

I've been amazed for years that elementary, middle school, and high school teachers require students to memorize writing and grammar rules from a textbook and never teach them how to use a handbook. I have freshmen from ages seventeen to sixty in my English class who have never heard of an English handbook.

Why don't all English teachers instruct their classes how to use an English handbook (now called a writing handbook)? Can this be part of the reason students are "turned-off" by writing? If they think they have to know everything (all rules about tense and punctuation) before they can write, they'll be overwhelmed with doubt before one word could be put on paper. It is important for writers, no matter how skilled or unskilled, to learn how to use an English guide.

Many writers own more than one. When I teach reading and writing across the curriculum for teacher re-certification, I point out to school teachers that they are requiring students to do something that professional writers never have to do. That is the single thing that gets to me. Think of this! A person who gets paid to write can use a reference book at any time during the process. I've been a writer for years and would never think of writing a piece without my English handbook with me. (Even if I don't use it.) Note: Sometimes I don't use it, and find out later, that I should have.

I have an English handbook with me wherever I write. There is one on my desk, one on my night stand, and one in my briefcase. I have one when I need it. During my classes, I have students use their handbooks even if I have to give them the page number to look up "active voice" or "comma splices." I can not believe how many hundreds of students I've taught that don't bother to use a handbook because their fifth grade teacher had them memorize punctuation and grammar and they've developed an inferiority complex because they can't remember every thing they learned about the English language.


posted Aug 24, 2012, 2:21 PM by David Burkhart   [ updated Aug 24, 2012, 2:21 PM ]

All writing needs carefully constructed transition. Transition is the connection between paragraphs that gives the piece flow and makes it a pleasant read.

Hint for better transition: Be sure that the chronology of each paragraph is correct. Some writers let their flow of consciousness define their finished writing. They don't go back and analyze the sense within each paragraph and revise the order of the sentences. Sometimes, better order can be created after an author reads their writing aloud. 

There is nothing about writing that is effortless. At the least, it requires concentration and attention to detail. Having the correct order of sentences within a paragraph leads to ease in constructing transition. Failing to make writing clear and organized makes it nearly impossible to create transition. 

Paragraphs have certain boundaries. That is, they help develop ideas. Yet, one paragraph has to lead to another. If, when reading aloud, the text seems choppy (or confusing) first check to see if adding another sentence to the paragraph above or subtracting words (making the sentence more concise) or a sentence would help create a smoother read. 

These are additional hints to create better transition, include how to find problem places within the text:
  • Analyzing each paragraph as a separate writing, making sure that multiple subjects are not covered in one.
  • Circle all verbs; then analyze things. Is the tense consistent? Is active voice used?
  • Are the sentences clear. Ask a critique partner to read and respond.
  • Sometimes there is a lack of detail. The addition of which will not only add to the work, but will create a smoother read. 
  • Read the entire paper and make sure nothing sticks out as being awkward.

Run-On Sentences

posted Aug 24, 2012, 2:20 PM by David Burkhart   [ updated Aug 24, 2012, 2:20 PM ]

Many writers think a run-on sentence is one long sentence that spreads over multiple lines of type. In reality, a run-on sentence is two independent clauses (meaning each could stand alone as a sentence) that lack punctuation. In some cases, the punctuation is not complete or whatever punctuation is used may be incorrect. Likewise, if the sentence has no punctuation it is still a run-on.

The easiest correction includes dividing it into two concise sentences. Otherwise, the punctuation of choice might be a semi colon. Using a conjunction or a conjunctive adverb will also cure the problem. Sometimes, removing extraneous adverbs and redundant prepositional phrases will give the newly constructed sentences clarity. 

Most of my students think of run-on sentences as any word grouping that "runs-on" across the page. The biggest point I can make about run-on sentences is that they are not fragments thrown together. However, students and teachers will probably forever dub an independent clause with numerous dependent clauses (with or without proper punctuation) as run-on.

Revise, Revise, Revise

posted Aug 24, 2012, 2:19 PM by David Burkhart   [ updated Aug 24, 2012, 2:19 PM ]

Many students and beginning authors fail to understand that a completed book or other type of writing requires revision before it can be published. There is no writing until revision. That's my firm belief after grading at least 900 essays a semester. 

Writing a first draft may be a rough draft, depending on the conscious effort the writer puts into his or her preparation to write. An essay that springs forth from writing any old thing that comes to mind, will require more revision than a text that has been thought through and organized from a list or an outline. Pre-writing helps a writer "see" what comes next, helping to keep content in order and making transitions between paragraphs easier.

Students who fail to refer to writing handbooks and lack punctuation skills often confuse "style" with correct grammatical writing. They are prone to tell their instructor how they express themselves in an dependent manner regardless of their lack of clarity. Many students who have florid writing styles often get caught up in a swirl of colorful phrases neglecting to express valid points. They may add that others like their writing.

Without rambling further, it is fair to restate. Essays that receive "As" require multiple drafts or revisions. Style has nothing to do with typos, misspelling, and lack of understanding of punctuation and overuse of "to be."

Readable writing takes time. Too bad that many potentially good submissions fall short because the author refuses to reread and rewrite more than once. Some writers simply do not read their own work.

Commas, Comma-itis

posted Aug 24, 2012, 2:16 PM by David Burkhart   [ updated Aug 24, 2012, 2:19 PM ]

(8319) Everything anyone needs to know about commas can be found in every writing handbook. The same information can be read in a textbook, a writing handbook, or found online. Google "comma use" or "commas."

However, I have found that many students live in denial. They think if they don't use a comma the need will go away.

Compare this with being thirsty. You can't ignore it. It will not go away until you drink a glass of water.

Therefore, this gets to the point that many students write and don't know they need a comma. It finally hit me that most students think their professors are also their editors. Imagine the shock emitted from 100 students when they see I have counted off points for comma usage and lack of usage, as well as typographical errors.

I progress to this point every semester after three weeks of pointing out comma errors, marking commas on hard copy, and verbally telling students to use their writing handbooks.

Hey! (southern expression not to be used in technical writing) Dudes and Dudettes! (not gender stereotyping) use the writing handbook to learn all the parts of speech that you didn't learn in high school. Or, use online sources.

Start by opening the handbook and going straight through. Do ten pages a day until you've made it through. After that, you'll know what is there and you will be able to look up all usage. It cost at least $35.00. So, use it.

Big clue: If you are writing complex sentences, meaning you have ventured from simple sentences, you may need a comma.

True: If you are writing any form of technical communication you need fewer commas because your goal is to write concisely in standard English. If you write essays and non-fiction, you're writing fact. Therefore, you will use many simple sentences mixed with complex sentences. Watch your punctuation. If you are writing a novel, not all thoughts will be complete sentences. You will mix in all the punctuation you've ever known and then some.

The cure for comma-itis is to open the writing handbook to the section on comma usage. This can be accessed by finding the section via the index (which is in the back of the book in the part called "back matter").

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