National Writing Project

The Best Way to Teach Good Writing Is One Step at a Time

By: Randy Koch
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: Randy Koch, director of the Writing Center at Texas A&M International University, shares some of what he's learned about revisions strategies after twelve years of teaching writing. In this article, he recounts ways to prod students into adding rich details to their drafts.

 

During the first five to six weeks of the semester, I use several strategies to help students expand and enrich the quality of their prose. Below is a draft of a student paragraph and subsequent revisions that illustrate the way we work. While the initial draft focuses on a specific situation and contributes to the point of the student's essay, it's gradually improved by applying several simple techniques, each of which is taught and practiced in class.

Student's original draft:

The lady was pushing her cart forward, and I could hear its wheels making an irritating noise on the floor. She would immediately take all her groceries and place them on the belt taking up all the space. There was someone behind her carrying some items and looking at her sternly, yet she would stand undisturbed by his stare. I greeted her and asked her if she wanted the item of the week, but she sarcastically said that she didn't.

Revision 1: Revised by giving things and people the dignity of their own names.

Mrs. Sanchez was pushing her cart forward, and I could hear its wheels making an irritating noise on the waxed tile. She would immediately take her Delicious apples, Roma pears, Dole bananas, a dozen eggs, five boxes of Ensure strawberry-flavored shakes, two pounds of pinto beans, People magazine, and several other items from the cart and place them on the conveyor belt taking up all the space. A young man behind her carrying a 24-pack of Budweiser, a large bag of charcoal, and a package of T-bone steaks would be looking at her sternly, yet she would stand undisturbed by his stare. I greeted her and asked her if she wanted the W.O.W. item of the week—the Colgate toothpaste—but she sarcastically said that she didn't.

Revision 2: Revised by avoiding weak helping and linking verbs and instead using specific, interesting action verbs.

Mrs. Sanchez pushed her cart forward, and I heard its wheels squealing on the waxed tile. She immediately took her Delicious apples, Roma pears, Dole bananas, a dozen eggs, five boxes of Ensure strawberry-flavored shakes, two pounds of pinto beans, People magazine, and several other items from the cart and placed them on the conveyor belt taking up all the space. There was a young man behind her carrying a 24-pack of Budweiser, a large bag of charcoal, and a package of T-bone steaks who frowned at her, yet she stood undisturbed by his stare. I greeted her and asked her if she wanted the W.O.W. item of the week—the Colgate toothpaste—but she sarcastically said that she didn't.

Revision 3: Revised by using specific, concrete details that appeal to the reader's senses.

Mrs. Sanchez, her frizzy hair tied up in a messy ponytail and a hairy mole right between her stuffy eyebrows, pushed her cart forward, and I heard its wheels squealing on the waxed tile. She immediately took her red Delicious apples, Roma pears, Dole bananas, a dozen brown eggs, five boxes of Ensure strawberry-flavored shakes, two pounds of pinto beans, People magazine, and several other items and placed them on the conveyor belt taking up all the space. There was a stocky, blond young man behind her carrying a 24-pack of Budweiser, a large bag of charcoal, and a package of T-bone steaks who frowned at her, yet she stood undisturbed by his stare. I greeted her and asked her if she wanted the W.O.W. item of the week—the Colgate toothpaste—but she sarcastically said that she didn't.

Revision 4: Revised by showing rather than telling, particularly by using dialogue.

Mrs. Sanchez, her frizzy hair tied up in a messy ponytail and a hairy mole right between her stuffy eyebrows, pushed her cart forward, and I heard its wheels squealing on the waxed tile. She immediately took her red Delicious apples, Roma pears, Dole bananas, a dozen brown eggs, five boxes of Ensure strawberry-flavored shakes, two pounds of pinto beans, People magazine, and several other items and placed them on the conveyor belt taking up all the space. There was a stocky, blond young man behind her carrying a 24-pack of Budweiser, a large bag of charcoal, and a package of T-bone steaks who frowned at her, yet she stood undisturbed by his stare.

"Good evening, Mrs. Sanchez," I greeted her.

She pushed her wobbly, turkey-like chin up. "Oh, hello," she replied.

"Are you interested in purchasing our W.O.W. item of the week—the Colgate toothpaste?" I inquired.

"No. Look at my teeth. Does it look like I need it?" she exclaimed.

Revision 5: Revised by cutting clutter.

Mrs. Sanchez, her frizzy hair tied up in a messy ponytail and a hairy mole right between her stuffy eyebrows, pushed her cart forward, and its wheels squealed on the waxed tile. She placed her red Delicious apples, Roma pears, Dole bananas, a dozen brown eggs, five boxes of Ensure strawberry-flavored shakes, two pounds of pinto beans, People magazine, and several other items on the conveyor belt taking up all the space. A stocky, blond young man behind her carrying a 24-pack of Budweiser, a large bag of charcoal, and a package of T-bone steaks frowned at her, yet she stood undisturbed by his stare.

"Good evening, Mrs. Sanchez," I said, trying to smile.

She pushed her wobbly turkey-like chin up. "Oh, hello," she replied.

"Are you interested in purchasing our W.O.W. item of the week—the Colgate toothpaste?" I inquired.

"No. Look at my teeth. Does it look like I need it?" she exclaimed.

Revision 6: Revised by varying sentence structure and length.

Mrs. Sanchez, her frizzy hair tied up in a messy ponytail and a hairy mole right between her stuffy eyebrows, pushed her cart forward, its wheels squealing on the waxed tile. On the conveyor belt she placed her red Delicious apples, Roma pears, Dole bananas, a dozen brown eggs, five boxes of Ensure strawberry-flavored shakes, two pounds of pinto beans, People magazine, and several other items, taking up all the space. A stocky, blond young man frowned behind her as he shifted in his arms a 24-pack of Budweiser, a large bag of charcoal, and a package of T-bone steaks; however, she stood undisturbed by his stare.

"Good evening, Mrs. Sanchez," I said, trying to smile.

She pushed her wobbly turkey-like chin up. "Oh, hello," she replied.

"Are you interested in purchasing our W.O.W. item of the week—the Colgate toothpaste?" I inquired.

"No!" she exclaimed. "Look at my teeth! Does it look like I need it?"

When my students and I take things step-by-step, they see the effect of using these techniques, and I gradually see the improvement in their writing.

In practice, this sequence will never come off as neatly as it appears here in black and white. The teaching of writing, like writing itself, is a combination of art and science, and what one does in the classroom depends to some degree on one's personality, instincts, and experience with writing. However, by observing effective teachers and through trial and error, I've committed myself to teaching writing one step at a time rather than overwhelming students with several things at once. While what I do in the classroom continually changes, I don't foresee altering this attitude any time soon.

About the Author Randy Koch directs the Writing Center at Texas A&M International University, writes a monthly column called "On Writing" for LareDOS: A Journal of the Borderlands, and is a teacher-consultant with the South Texas Writing Project in Laredo, Texas.

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