Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Friday, November 02, 2007

A writing exercise

or a NaNo scouting technique or something

This week, I was working with my students on paragraph development. In an academic essay, short paragraphs are not, as such, bad. In fact, effective rhetorical development may involve short paragraphs: The writer may have several longer paragraphs, and then when she wants to emphasize a particular point, she may hit the reader with a short paragraph. In that situation, the short paragraph goes bam, and the reader takes notice.

But if all or most of the paragraphs in an essay are really short, that’s a symptom of inadequate development. Usually, the writer has presented a broad, general idea, but additional details or explanation is needed in order for the reader to get a clear idea exactly what the writer means.

As an exercise in developing supporting details, I gave my students a topic sentence, and then I told them to develop that sentence into a paragraph with at least ten more sentences to give details supporting that topic. I told them that if they reached ten sentences and were on a roll, they were certainly permitted to keep writing. Here is the topic sentence that I gave:

As soon as I woke up, I knew it was going to be a ____ day.

I told the students to pick an adjective of their choice to fill in the blank.

Many students struggled to come up with so many sentences. For many, the general idea was all: “Oh, well, you know what I mean, so I don’t have to explain it.” No, I don’t necessarily know what you mean, especially if I wasn’t there that morning. You need to tell me enough that I really will know what you mean.

And then there was the opposite. In each of my four classes this week, I had at least a couple of students who rose to the occasion and wrote really effective pieces – not only did they have plenty of supporting details; they had emotionally engaging details. In 15 minutes or so, they produced vivid, compelling narratives of 100 to 120 words.

Then there was my grand champion. In just 10 minutes, he produced 407 words of coherent, vivid prose, while also surfing off to other websites when he thought I wasn’t looking. I told him he ought to sign up for National Novel Writing Month; for him, it would be a breeze.

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