Assessment: First things First: Does the Writer Have Anything Worthwhile to Say?

In many ways, a well-written essay is like a well-built house.  If it has a solid structure it can be turned into something good pretty easily.  When a writer has something worthwhile to say, can back it up, and can tell us why we need to know it, he is well on his way to building a structurally sound essay.  Like a house in need of updating, the essay may need sprucing up: more description, less redundancy, better transitions, but these stylistic changes are not difficult to master once the basic structure of the argument is in place.

On the other hand, if a writer has no real point (or has not yet figured out what point she is trying to make), no amount of stylistic improvement — rich vocabulary, clever transitions, etc. — will make her essay good.

So the next time you read one of your student’s essays, remember:  If a house is missing fundamentals such as a staircase to the second floor, washing the windows and getting rid of dated wall paneling will not improve its value.  Similarly, if the structure of an essay is not sound, i.e., if its basic point is not worth making or not well defended, having the writer revise it to get rid of redundancies and run-on sentences will not result in a good essay.

As writer Sholem Asch observes, “Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.”

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How Can You Tell Whether You Are Making Progress? Formative Assessments Part 1

Here’s the good news:  When you keep your approach to teaching writing simple, you can keep your approach to tracking achievement simple.  

It is important, both in teaching writing and in talking about how to teach writing, to keep jargon to a minimum.  The problem with most “how to teach writing” resources is that they are way too complicated and crammed with words that few people use on a regular basis.  Good writing is about making a strong point, backing it up, and telling us why we need to know it. It is pretty simple when you think about it — but less simple when you try to teach it.  Because to teach writing well, you have to reinforce these basic points day after day.  And if you do, you will see progress.

For students to become good writers, you must first teach them to think.  But how do you measure progress in thinking?  Fortunately, it is pretty easy.  Back in the 1950s, Benjamin Bloom proposed a way to classify how students think, the now-famous Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning.  It is interesting and educators talk about it all the time. (If you have been out of Education classes for a while and you need to refresh your memory, here is a good explanation from the University of Georgia.)

The problem with Bloom’s Taxonomy, is that, interesting as it is, it is still way too complicated to be useful to teachers as they try to figure out whether their students are actually learning to think (and therefore to write).  And so, for the purpose of keeping it simple, we are going to adapt Bloom’s basic premises to develop simple assessments.

Let’s start with the basics:  What kind of thinking leads to good writing?  Simply stated, well-written (or spoken) works should answer the following questions: 

  1. What is the point?
  2. Is the point one that is worth making?
      • Is it obvious?  (Do we already know it?)
      • Is it arguable? How?
      • Is it important? Why?
      • Is it interesting? In what way?
  3. Does the author adequately support that point?  If so, How?
      • Appeals to our emotion or to our belief in the author’s sterling reputation are not support for a main point, but are worth talking about.
  4. Does the author tell why we need to know what he has written (spoken)?
  5. Is there another way to look at look at it? 
      • Can you take what the author is saying and come up with a different main point or conclusion?

 Each of these questions targets a different level of thinking.

For instance:

    • Your first quiz might be just a short reading passage and a follow-up question asking your students to identify the main point in the passage.  If a student can identify the main point accurately, she is ready to learn how to assess whether a point is one worth making.  
    • Your second quiz might be a passage with follow-up questions that require the student to  both identify the main point and identify whether it is a point worth making
    • Your next task  is to teach students how to consider whether a point is well supported.  Thus, your next assessment might be a quiz in which you ask students to identify the main point, analyze whether it is a point worth making, and evaluate how well the point is supported.

Get the idea?  The five questions form a simple rubric (we get more specific on this in workshops)  which you can use to assess how well students are progressing in their critical thinking/writing skills.  And simple rubrics are the way to go in teaching writing — if you need to learn a new vocabulary to assess student writing,  there’s a problem.  Remember the basics:

      • What is your point?
      • How do you back it up?
      • Why do we need to know it?

Stay tuned for more on assessments — tracking progress is critical!

More Practice with Finding the Point, Courtesy of Barack Obama

This post is a follow-up to The Well Built Essay:  It’s All About Structure.

Let your students practice finding the point in longer pieces of writing.   For example, have your students read the famous Obama speech on race: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0308/9100.html.   Then have them answer: 

  • What’s the point?
  • How does he back it up?
  •  So What?

Collect the answers and review them to assess how well your students are able to identify the main point and supporting evidence in a longer work of writing.  Here, generally, is what you might look for:

What’s the point?

This nation has been  in a racial stalemate for decades.

 How does he back it up?

  • I’m here today because of the Reverand White scandal – African Americans are angry and have legitimate concerns about discrimination
  • White americans are angry – they have worked hard and resent affirmative action, e.g,  “your dream coming at my expense.”
  • African  and White Americans often focus their anger on each other –and often behind closed doors – and that is not helpful.

 So What?

  • Now is the time to break through the racial stalemate and focus on our common needs: Our union may never be perfect, but it can always be perfected, thanks to princibles on which it was found.

The Writing Crisis In Brief…

  •  Two thirds of salaried employees now hold jobs with writing responsibilities.[1]   
  • U.S. employers rate more than 80 percent of high school graduates entering the work force as “deficient” in written communications skills.  Although four-year college grads do better, the numbers are still alarming — nearly 28 percent can’t write basic memos and other communications critical to day to day office operations.  
  • Instant Messaging is not to blame.  According to a 2008 Pew Research poll 60% of teens consider texting as “writing.”  The same survey found that 86% of teens view writing as important to success in life (56% find it essential to success) and eight out of ten teens feel their writing would improve with more in-class writing!  
  • But the Internet may be part of the problem. Public figures are well aware that anything they say can be taken out of context and wind up on YouTube or blogging sites—and remain there forever, easily accessible through a Google search.  And so they are more wary than ever of speaking clearly.  So kids are growing up forgetting that words are meant to communicate, not hide a point of view.   

There are many causes of the writing crisis in this country, but the solution i that we must teach kids to think.  But to do that, you have to first clarify your own thinking.

[1] The National Commission on Writing. “Writing:  A Ticket to Work or a Ticket Out  A Survey of Business Leaders.” September, 2004.  http://www.writingcommission.org/prod_downloads/writingcom/writing-ticket-to-work.pdf

How to Avoid the Perils of Peer Editing

It sounds like a great idea:  teach your students to grade each other.  Actually, it is a great idea.  Good writers need multiple drafts.  You should not have to grade at least one of those drafts.

But often, initiating a peer editing program in the classroom seems like more of a chore than a time-saver.  Why is this so?  Is it because peer editors do not take their job as seriously as teachers?  Maybe, but some teachers are using peer editing effectively and cutting back on hours they spend grading as a result. 

What are these lucky teachers doing right? Here are a few simple tips to avoid the perils of peer editing:

  1. Teach them what to look for:  In the beginning, just ask your student editors to assess whether the written piece makes a point that is worth making and backs it up.  That’s all.  It will save you time later on.  Over time, make sure your students, can distinguish between big problems and smaller problems in the essays/papers they read.  (See “How Much Red Ink Should You Use?”) 

Here are the big problems: 

  • The basic point of the essay is not clear.
  • The basic point of the essay is clear, but not worth making.
  • The basic point of the essay is not supported in the essay.
  • The essay is so poorly written that you cannot figure out what the writer is trying to say: the essay is unintelligible.
  • The many grammatical problems in the essay are making it hard to understand what the writer is trying to say. 

Here are smaller problems:

  • The basic point is clear and defended, but the language is boring.
  • The essay is wordy.
  • The writer does not use a consistent tense addressing the audience.
  • The writer has some grammar weaknesses that need to be addressed. 

2.  Hold both writers and editors accountable.  When you ask students to edit each others work, make sure you give a joint grade on the result.  Grade the writer’s revisions based on the editor’s feedback, but also grade the editor’s feedback.  Since the ability to revise and to edit are equally important, explain to your students that the grade they receive on an assignment that is peer edited will depend on both the quality of their writing and revision and the quality of the feedback they give to their partner. 

 3. First, pair weak with strong. It sounds counter intuitive, but it is actually a good idea to pair very strong with very weak writers.  Why? Because strong writers will usually have a pretty good first draft that features a strong point that is well defended.  The weaker writer can help the strong writer by asking for clarification in certain areas.  The strong writer can help the weaker writer better define the main point and better organize his ideas for a second draft.  This saves you time, and it is a nice challenge for a strong writer to have to analyze and think about how to fix a weak paper.  

4. Then, mix it up.  After a few peer editing sessions, change partners.  Have strong writers edit each other.  Give weaker writers an opportunity to make suggestions for improving weaker pieces of writing. Then, keep mixing it up: Writers benefit from different perspectives!

Why You Should Discuss Real Estate With Weak Writers

Imagine you are shopping for a house.  You have seen so many houses that you have a good idea of what you like and what you don’t like.  You don’t like dark wood paneling in the family room.   You prefer wood floors to carpeted ones in general.  

 One day, you find a house that is just about perfect; it has everything you want, even the wood floors!  But when you have the house inspected, you learn that its foundation is weak – so weak, that the house is not structurally sound.  In other words, even thought it looks almost perfect, the house is almost worthless.  

In many ways, a well-written essay is like a well-built house.  If it has a solid structure, that is, if the writer has something worthwhile to say, can back it up, and can tell us why we need to know it, he is well on his way to writing a good essay.  But if the main point is not worth making, even grammatically perfect and well-organized essay will be a weak one. 

Students need to be reminded over and over again that writing is thinking on paper.  So if a writer has not thought hard about what she wants to say and why she needs to say it, her paper will not be a good one. If on the other hand, the writer has a good point to make and can back it up well, she has already scaled the biggest hurdle in writing a good paper. 

So the next time you read one of your student’s essays, remember to focus first on the basics

  • What point is this writer trying to make? 
  • Is it a good point? 
  • Can she back it up?” 

If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” don’t bother talking to the writer about redundancies and run-on sentences.  Even if the writer were to get rid of redundancies and run-ons, the essay would be weak.  

 

The fundamental rule about a written work is that it can only be as good as the information it imparts. Or to use the words of writer Sholem Asch, “Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.”

How Much Red Ink Should You Use?

One of the biggest challenges writing teachers face is to determine how much criticism to give developing writers.  If you try to correct everything, the writer may retain nothing except a sense of failure.  So you have to adjust your feedback accordingly. 

 Generally Speaking:  

Weak writers need to work on the basic argument and logical flow of ideas:

  • Think out loud with them, help them to organize their thoughts as they speak.
  • Once you agree on a point, help them come up with support for it – again, ask them questions (lead if necessary)  

Average writers need to work on grammar, especially fragments and run-ons.  The weaker the writer, the simpler the sentences should be. 

Stronger writers need to work on mining for richer vocabulary and better transitions.  Use 10 Rules for Adding Bling to help them make their writing more interesting.

Strongest writers should be challenged even more.  Ask them to find the greatest weaknesses in their papers.  Play “devil’s advocate” and disagree with their main points just to make them defend them more strongly.  Have them read their papers out loud! Whenever a writer finds that a sentence is a mouthful, have her rewrite it.

In Sum:  Some Basics for How to Give Feedback on Writing 

First:  Content and Structure

  • Does the writer make a strong point?  If not, allow her to talk through her ideas and ask questions that will help her determine which point she wants to make.
  • Does the writer back up her point well? If not, ask him how he can defend his main point.  Are there passages from the text that he can use to defend what he is saying (if he is arguing a point)?  Can she put her ideas in a more logical order (if she is explaining a point)?
  • Has the writer considered opposing views? If the writer is arguing a point, it is useful to consider the opposing side.  This can be a great way to transition into a new paragraph (e.g., if you are writing a paper against cloning, you might begin your second supporting paragraph with: “The Frankenstein Society recently argued forcefully that human cloning would save lives and ultimately prolong our existence.  But at what cost?”)
  • Does the writer answer “so what?” in the conclusion? Why did the writer write this in the first place? Why do we need to know this?  

Then, Paragraphs, Transitions, Definitions and Grammar  

  • Does the writer use paragraphs correctly?  If not, review the five paragraph essay (first paragraph= introduction, next three paragraphs=supporting points, final paragraph = conclusion)
  • Does the writer use transitions?  If not, help her to practice moving from one point to the next – talk it through, then have her rewrite.
  • Does the writer define all terms? Remember, a good paper can be understood by anyone – even someone unfamiliar with the material.
  • Does the writer use too many run-on sentences or sentence fragments?  If so, encourage him to writing in simple, short sentences – for a while. 
  • Are there subject/verb/pronoun agreement and other problems?  If the writer has never been taught grammar (and many students these days are not), you will have to help him learn it.  DON’T PANIC: There are plenty of resources out there. Most SAT prep books, for instance, provide a quick way to cover the basics. 

Finally, Style

  • Does the opening paragraph grab you?
  • Are there too many passive or tired verbs?
  • Are there opportunities to redefine boring nouns so they seem fresh (Remember Abe Lincoln — instead of “our democracy,” he wrote “our government of the people, by the people, for the people.”)
  • Is there too much telling and not enough showing? (Remember Barack Obama– Instead of “We need to create more jobs,” he talks about “the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, and every walk of life.”)
  • Are there too many clichés and mixed metaphors?
  • Is the paper too wordy?  (if so, have the writer go through and eliminate all words (sometimes sentences and even paragraphs!) that are not necessary to making his point.)
  • Is the writing easy on the ear? The ear is a writer’s best friend. If a writer can not read a sentence out loud without difficulty, he needs to rewrite it.

Fun with Style: More Fictional First Drafts

This post is a follow-up to an earlier one which featured a fictional first draft of the Gettysburg Address.

It is never too soon to begin talking about style to students, but until they know how to  structure a coherent argument,  focusing on style is like putting lipstick on a pig.  However, it is fun to make students aware of what good writing sounds like.  So here are a few more examples of fictional first drafts (ffd) followed by the actual quotes we are all familiar with.  Ask your students to describe the difference. 

  • Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.  When you think about it, it probably makes more sense to say that he as dead as a coffin nail, but the convention is to say doornail. So let’s just say Marley was as dead as a doornail. (ffd)

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

  • Not this time.  This time we want to talk about how to get better schools for all children of all races creeds and colors so they can get up to speed.  This time we want to talk about how to get everyone health care for everyone – rich and poor.  This time we want to talk about how to keep Joe six pack working and reminding him that prejudice won’t solve anything.(ffd) 

 “…Not this time” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.  This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together. This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men  and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.  –Barack Obama’s speech on race. 

  • It’s time to let everyone know that our generation is in charge now.  And we’re the generation who fought in a war and we don’t want it all to be for nothing.  So let the world know we will do anything at any price to protect freedom. (ffd)

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.        

 Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.  This much we pledge—and more.  — John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address

The takeaway for your students? Inject a little fun once in a while. Paint with words. Be as specific as you can be.

Step Four: Top Ten Rules for Adding Bling: Abe Lincoln’s First Draft

What’s your point? How do you support it? So what? 

 If the piece you’ve written can answer those three questions, you are off to a good start.  But really good writers go one step further: they add some bling.  Consider, for instance, one of the most famous American speeches of all time, the Gettysburg Address.  What if Abe Lincoln had delivered this version – we’ll call it Abe’s first draft: 

The United States of America was born in 1776.  It was based on the idea that all men are equal.   But now our states are fighting each other and so it is hard to see how this is all going to last.   Today, we are here to dedicate this cemetery in honor of our great soldiers.  And it’s the right thing to do.  But, when you think about it, this whole ceremony is a sham. Who are we to stand here and say “this place is special?”  It’s really special because our soldiers died right here, where we stand.  No one is going to remember us being here – but you can bet everyone will remember the people who died for us. That’s why we have to remember them too and keep our country together.  We must make sure we are always free so our democratic government doesn’t simply go away.  

Let’s face it:  If Abe Lincoln had delivered these words at Gettysburg, he would have been absolutely right — no one would have remembered him being there.  So what is it about the Gettysburg address that makes it so good?  

Well, for starters, Abe did not violate any of the top ten rules for how to add bling to  prose when he wrote it.  Here they are: 

The Top Ten Rules for Adding  Bling 

  1. Start with a wow.  If your first paragraph doesn’t really grab the reader, you are in trouble. There are countless ways to draw readers in. You can make a shocking claim, contradict yourself, write a poetic sentence, ask a probing question.  The important point is to read your first few sentences carefully.  Do they make the reader think, “Wow, interesting.  I want to keep reading?”  If not, rewrite for the wow.
  2. Be specific.  This is perhaps the most important and most difficult rule of all – you must strive to write exactly what you mean.  Beware of vagueness.  Instead of “He was tired of his job,” try “Whatever ambition he had was crushed along with the countless bottles he fed into the jaws of the compactor. ” 
  3. Vet your verbs.  One easy way to make your prose more interesting is to go through and check your verbs.  You can probably replace 90 percent of them with verbs that are more specific, more appropriate, more precise – and less tired — than the verbs you used. 
  4. Replace or define tired nouns and modifiers.  This is similar to the verb check.  If you must use a common word, define it for us in a fresh way – e.g., instead of “our democracy,” try “this government, of the people, by the people, for the people.” 
  5. Use the active voice.   It’s an old remedy that never fails to perk up a sentence.  
  6. Pepper in a little poetry.   Strive for prose that has a rhythm that you can hear as you read it aloud.  Look for opportunities to include alliteration and rhyme when you replace those tired verbs, nouns, and modifiers. 
  7. Paint a picture (show, don’t tell).   One of the Barack Obama’s great rhetorical talents is his ability to paint a picture with words. Instead of saying “We need to create more jobs,” he talks about “the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, and every walk of life.” You can see why we need more jobs, he doesn’t need to tell you.  
  8. Stay away from cliches and don’t mix metaphors.   If, on one bright and sunny day, you find yourself standing on a well-manicured lawn with a smile beaming from ear to ear, run for your life. This place will not bring out the best in you.  And, by the way I’m not just saying that because I see the glass half empty with sour grapes and would rather curse the dark than light a candle.   
  9. Punch up your transitions.  Never underestimate the power of the transition.  In a long paper, a good, “one-liner” transition can perk up your prose and renew your reader’s interest.    In a short essay, a powerful transition (e.g., “But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.”) will keep your audience riveted. 
  10. End with a bang.  The last paragraph is often the “so what?” of a well written piece.  The last line should leave your readers in awe – you made your point so eloquently, they are speechless.   

With those rules in mind, let’s suppose Abe is looking over that first draft to see how to revise it.  He might proceed as follows: 

Problem:  The United States of America was born in 1776.  It was based on the idea that all men are equal.  

Hmm… A little boring – no, a lot boring.

 Solution:  Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Ahh, much better “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation” says the same thing as “Our country was born in 1776” but it says it with rhyme and alliteration it makes the opening line sound like a poem! Now, let’s get specific — if a nation is born, it must first be conceived – how about a nation conceived in liberty?  And let’s get rid of that passive voice – who gave birth to our country?  Our fathers – oops they can’t give birth — so let’s just say they brought forth a new nation. And let’s replace that boring phrase, “based on the idea” with “dedicated to the proposition.”  (“Dedicate” but the way is a much-repeated verb in this address – can you guess why?)

Problem:  But now our states are fighting each other and so it is hard to see how this is all going to last.   

Again, a little boring  – especially the verbs — and not specific enough.

Solution:  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

Wow, what a few word replacements (with an ear for rhythm) can do“Engaged in a great civil war” is much more specific and eloquent than “we are fighting.”  “Testing whether that nation so conceived or so dedicated” is much more specific than “hard to see how it is all going to last.”    

Problem: Today, we are here to dedicate this cemetery in honor of our great soldiers.  And it’s the right thing to do.  But, when you think about it, this whole ceremony is a sham.  Who are we to stand here and say “this place is special”?  It’s really special because our soldiers died right here, where we stand. 

Aghh.  Boring, general, clichéd,   Today we are here?  Where are we? Why is it the cemetery dedication the “right thing to do?”  “When you think about it” is a weak transition that just sounds silly.  And using the word “special” twice in one paragraph? Even in 1863, before everything was special, that would have been the lazy thing to do.

Solution:  We are met on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

Great changes! Language is much more specific and powerful.  If we are in a great war, we are meeting on a great battlefield.  And, instead of dedicating a“cemetery” (overused word), we dedicate a “final resting place” which puts a more human image in the minds of the audience.  And “all together fitting and proper” is altogether more interesting and rhythmic than “it’s the right thing to do.” 

But perhaps the most important improvement to this section is the transition. To replace “But when you think about it” with “But in a larger sense” is to remind everyone that this cause is bigger than all of us.  And what does it really mean for Gettysburg to be “special”? It means it is sacred ground – ground it has been sanctified by the blood of our soldiers, not by a speech.  To make that point, Abe adds three synonyms for “sanctify” in a row — dedicate, consecrate, and hallow.   Wow. Then he adds that wonderful line about our poor ability to add and detract – great verbs that turn us into number crunchers compared to the brave men who spilled their blood for liberty.  

Problem: No one is going to remember us being here – but you can bet everyone will remember the people who died for us. That’s why we have to remember them too and keep our country together.  In the end, my fellow Americans, we must make sure we are always free so our democratic government doesn’t simply go away.

Here we go again:  too boring, too vague and does not end with a bang.  Who are “we” and what does it mean to “keep our country together?”  What exactly is “our democratic government?”  And the final line is so vague, it begs the question: where might our democracy go?

Solution:  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Much better. The first sentence is wonderfully alliterative (world will, little note nor long).   And instead of simply using the word “us,” Abe reminds us that we are still alive (unlike those dead soldiers), and we have a task, “ rather for us to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”    Then he cleverly rearranges the first half of that sentence to begin the next sentence (It is rather for us to be here dedicated…).  He replaces that tired word, “democracy,” with a fresh definition of it– a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  And then, for the last line, he gets really dramatic when he vets his verbs.  The risk is not that our government will go away, but that it will perish, from the face of the earth. Bang! 

And so Abe arrives at his final draft: 

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. 

Now that’s adding some bling!

Step Three: The Five Paragraph Essay: It’s a Great Place to START

Up for a challenge?  Try staying awake as you read this:

The five paragraph essay is a topic of much discussion.  Some argue that teaching students to write a five paragraph essay is teaching them to be boring writers.  I disagree for the following reasons:  First, the five paragraph essay helps students organize their thoughts.  Second, students who have mastered the five paragraph essay will do well on the essay portions of standardized tests.  Third, the problems with the five paragraph essay format are easy to solve. For these three reasons, the five paragraph essay does not lead to boring writing.

The five paragraph essay helps students organize their thoughts. In the first paragraph, the writer introduces his thesis statement.  The second third and fourth paragraphs each give a supporting idea for that thesis statement.  Each of these paragraphs begins with a topic sentence that states that supporting idea. The fifth paragraph, which is the conclusion, can just restate the thesis statement and summarizes the ideas of the writer.

The five paragraph essay can help students do better on the written portions of standardized tests.  Tests such as the SAT and the Regents exams have essay topics for which knowledge of the five paragraph essay is very useful.  These topics tend to be very general and require the writer to state a thesis, back it up and draw a conclusion – all of which can be accomplished very well using the five paragraph format.

Problems with the five paragraph format are easy to solve. For instance, writers can try to be more flexible in how they use the format.  They might try to use more interesting transitions.  They might try using the active voice.  They might try doing something more with their conclusions than merely restating the thesis statement and its supporting points. 

 Students need a way to organize their thoughts.  They need to master standardized writing tests.  Problems with the five paragraph essay can be easily remedied.  For these reasons, the five paragraph essay should always be taught in schools. 

The previous essay is a good example of what happens when students are taught the five paragraph essay. The resulting writing becomes a little formulaic.  As a result, many teachers have sworn off the five paragraph format altogether. But that’s a big mistake.

 As we have said before, any good piece of communication needs to answer the following questions:

  •  What’s your point?
  • How do you back it up?
  • Why do we need to know it?

 These questions lend themselves extremely well to a five paragraph format:

  • Paragraph 1 (Introduction):   What is my point?
  • Paragraphs 2,3,4 (Body):      How do I back it up?
  • Paragraph 5 (Conclusion):    So what? 

It’s OK for a first draft to sound like it was written by a robot. Just make sure the second draft sounds like it was written by a human. So now, please bear with me as I review this first draft of my five paragraph essay about five paragraph essays.  Surely I can do better.

What is the point of my essay?  The point of my first draft seems to be that the five paragraph essay does not lead to boring writing, and so it should be taught in school.  But actually, the point I meant to make was that to master the five paragraph essay format is to take a major first step toward better writing.

How do I back it up? Now that I have refined my main point, I need to rethink what points I need to make to back it up. As I think about my argument more carefully, I think my three supporting points are:

  • Good writing requires good thinking, and this essay format helps students organize their thoughts.
  • The five paragraph format provides a simple, formulaic structure for beginning writers.  Only after they nail structure can they focus on developing an interesting style.
  • The five paragraph approach is easily expandable for longer writing assignments such as research papers.

Why do we need to know it? In my first draft I never really addressed this question. So let me do it here.  The take away point for my readers is this: To write well, you must write logically, and one of the easiest ways to learn to write logically is to master the five paragraph essay.

With that in mind, let me revise my five paragraph essay about five paragraph essays:

Once upon a time in America, teachers routinely taught their students how to write a five paragraph essay.  Beginning when students were in third or fourth grade and continuing through high school, teachers assigned topics for short essays and asked students to write them in a specific format:  an introductory paragraph that stated the main point, three body paragraphs, each of which gave an idea to support the main point, and a conclusion.   Students dutifully followed their teachers’ instructions, and most of them learned to write coherently.  But over time, people decided that five paragraph essays were too boring, so teachers stopped assigning them.  And that’s why students today often write whacky papers that make no sense.  To write well, you have to think well, and there are few tools as handy as the five paragraph essay to help you organize your thoughts. 

The great strength of the five paragraph essay format is that it provides students with an easy way to structure their writing.  Any well- written essay needs to answer three questions:  What’s your point?  How do you back it up?  Why do we need to know it? The five paragraph essay format reminds students to answer those questions; it provides the basis for a solid first draft.  For beginning writers, there is probably nothing more valuable than a formula for a coherent first draft.

Although no writer wants to be boring, it is better to be boring than unintelligible.  Any good writer knows that it is a lot easier to fix an essay that’s snoozy than one that is pointless and rambling.  Once you know how to make your point and back it up in a logical way, it’s actually pretty easy to jazz things up.   On the other hand, trying to revise an incoherent first draft is like trying to knit with a ball of yarn that has become impossibly knotted up — after wasting a lot of time unsuccessfully trying to unravel the mess, you conclude that it would be a lot easier to chuck it all  and start over.

Another really great thing about the five paragraph essay is that it’s easy to build on.  Let’s say you are assigned a ten page paper.  Yikes!  Where do you start?  Well, a fine place to start is with a five paragraph essay that summarizes what your paper will be about.  As you develop your ideas and weave in supporting research, your introductory paragraph will become your paper’s page-long introduction that sets forth what your paper is about.  Your first supporting paragraph becomes a two or three page section that focuses on the first supporting idea you have to back up your main point. Get the picture?

 As writing guru William Zinsser observes, “Writing is thinking on paper.” To write well, you must write logically.  So practice the five paragraph essay often.  Structure your thoughts before you try to make them sound interesting. But once you’ve structured your thoughts please do make them sound interesting.  Remember, it’s OK for an essay to sound robotic –as long as it’s only a first draft.