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.