A key question for writers: What’s missing?

jig saw puzzle with one item missing
Notice anything missing?

Writing teachers are supposed to teach students to  edit their own work. Sometimes we treat the task as nothing more than having students correcting misspellings and put commas in the right places. But the most important part of teaching editing is teaching students to ask what’s missing from their texts.

This week I was reminded of the necessity  of teaching writers to make sure they have not omitted any  information readers must have to understand their texts.

Tuesday  I picked up a copy of a free publication put out by a regional newspaper trying to drum up local readers. The banner story was about a business that is trying to get the local zoning law changed so it can be included in the commercial zone.

The most interesting part of the story was what wasn’t there: It didn’t say where the business is located.

In any zoning dispute, the location of the property is the central issue. Leaving it out of a news story is like reporting on the Kentucky Derby and not mentioning horses.

I know from experience with newly-hatched journalism graduates that they may need to report one or more stories a day for a year before they learn to automatically include the basic Five Ws and an H in each story: who, what, where, when, why, and how?

As a newspaper editor, I would never have described seeing a novice writer’s work every single day as a luxury, but it is. We writing teachers may see one document a week from our students. That’s nowhere near enough output for students to learn the necessity of editing their own work for errors of omission.

As a newspaper editor, I probably had more opportunities in one month to teach reporters to make sure they hadn’t left out any information that readers needed to understand the story than a writing teacher gets in a full semester.

If we value our reputations, we shouldn’t wait until students have mastered the writing process before we start teaching them how to edit for missing essential information.

We need to teach our students to:

  • plan their writing so it includes all the essential information
  • compare their draft texts to their plan
  • repair the draft so any missing information is included.

If we start early enough teaching students  to plan, check, and recheck their work so they omit no essential information, we at least stand a chance of turning out writers who can edit their own work and do so routinely.

Teach self-editing via informal writing

The typical English class grammar exercise contains a single error for students to correct. The typical written assignment by an English class student, however, often contains multiple errors.
Rather than having students do single-error exercises, it’s more realistic—and far more effective—to have them

  • edit real-life examples of writing, and
  • describe the impression that poorly written work leaves on them.
I like to use short, informal writing sessions—usually less than five minutes—to provide those experiences.
There’s never a dearth of examples of writing that shouldn’t have appeared in public without editing, and they are free.
Here’s an example of how I use informal writing in lieu of single-error exercises.

The informal writing session

These two sentences appeared in the high school principal’s column of a school district newsletter:

(Display and read aloud.)

To help all of us and to benefit our state aide as it relates to student attendance, please make every effort to first get your child to school, and second follow the school procedures when they need to be absent. Proper procedures include notifying the Attendance Office of any absence with a phone call, but as important, is following up with a signed note explaining the absence.

In no more than three sentences, identify what you believe are the three most serious problems with that passage. Be as specific as possible.  You have one minute to write. (Time students as they write.)
Now that you’ve identified the problems, your task is to fix them.

(Display and read aloud.)

Do whatever you think will best accomplish these four tasks:

  • Target the information to the intended audience.
  • Make the text easier to understand.
  • Eliminate any spelling errors.
  • Eliminate any grammar errors.

You will have three minutes to do your revision.

Formative evaluation

Sometimes I use the informal writing to get students’ attention before teaching some topic that’s suggested by the errors in the writing. In such cases, I might have students write informally a couple more times during the class period, responding to information I present.
Alternatively, I might take five minutes to have the class discuss their observations orally before going on to a different topic for the day.
Either way, I always collect informal writing and use it for formative evaluation.
© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Rewriting is a waste of time

For the last two months, I’ve been working fulltime on an update of a book I wrote several years ago.

More precisely, I’ve been working on an update of the first 20 pages of that book.

Yesterday I said to myself, "Self, what would you tell a student who had this problem?"

Self answered, "Don’t rewrite; revision."

writer at typewriter tossing pages into trash

Revising is a last-century technique.

As a teenager, I followed my English teacher’s dictum and revised my writing again and again and again until I had beaten it into a lifeless mass of words, with nothing to show for my effort but a wastepaper can full of crumpled paper.

Later, as a newspaper reporter, I discovered that once I had my lead paragraph the rest of the story would fall into place.

For years I eschewed rewriting.

If I started a piece that didn’t work, I looked for a different approach to the topic, a different perspective.

And I taught my writing students not to waste time rewriting, but to find a new vision.

But every so often I forget.

I revert to the behavior Mrs. Clark drilled into me.

I try to rewrite my way to clarity.

It never works.

Use cell phones to teach editing

Editing and teaching editing are not my favorite activities

Learning editing and editing are not my students’ favorite activities.

But neither of us enjoys being laughed at when we’ve let some silly mistake slip by us.

To help students realize the importance of editing their work for errors, I have students snap three shots with their cell phones (or grab screen shots) of errors. I ask students to submit each of their items with a single-sentence caption that indirectly indicates what the error is.

Below are three sample visuals.

ad in which chauffeur is misspelled
Any gifts for moms who spell chauffeur correctly?


ad containing misplaced modifier
I don’t think I know anyone with unwanted space.

ad for a two-sided box
This two-sided planter box is a one-of-a-kind item.

 

This is a simple activity that can lighten up a classroom and make the point that people notice errors.

Your students might even make news: A 9-year-old  shocked her teacher by finding 15 apostrophe errors in 15 minutes in a market in West Yorkshire.

 

 

Unleash critical thinking in six informal writing prompts

Sign "all pets must be kept on leash"
My village has leash laws.

Students must learn to look at their writing as an editor would. In other words, they must learn to read their writing as if they were an outsider without knowledge of, or prejudice about, the subject.

Developing an editorial attitude toward writing takes time and practice. Usually the easiest way to get students started toward editorial sensitivity is by having them look at another person’s writing.

This message below, which was posted to an online forum, would work well as a starting point for high school or college students and even for some middle schoolers.

what do you think about leash laws? my dog was attacked and is hospitalized because there are no laws in East Hampton

To get students to examine a text carefully, I like to use informal writing. In this case, I’d would use a series of six questions to force students to do more than superficial reading.

Begin by display the message so students can refer to it as they work and read the message aloud to them.

Ask students the following series of questions one at a time. Do not present all the questions at one time.

Students should answer each of the six questions in no more than three sentences written in no more than one minute. Time the writing.

(It’s best if you not only read each question but also display it for students. Not all students are quick to grasp oral directions.)

1. Read and answer the writer’s question. (Maximum: 3 sentences, 1 minute)

2. Identify the writing mechanics changes needed to put the passage into standard edited English. (Maximum: 3 sentences, 1 minute)

3. Identify one problem other than writing mechanics that you see in the passage. (Maximum: 3 sentences, 1 minute)

4. Identify a second problem other than writing mechanics that you see in the passage. (Maximum: 3 sentences, 1 minute)

5. Analyze why I asked you to answer the writer’s question before you looked at it closely. (Maximum: 3 sentences, 1 minute)

6. Explain why editing the item only for writing mechanics would not be enough to make the writer’s meaning clear. (Maximum: 3 sentences, 1 minute)

After students have answered all six prompts, have them discuss orally what they discovered.  Students should have noticed that:

  • Prejudice can blind an editor to problems in a piece of writing.
  • Correcting only mechanical errors can leave serious logical errors.

This activity can be done in 15 minutes. It won’t produce good editors, but it opens the door to an understanding of what editors do.