Category: Principles of Writing Instruction (page 2 of 5)

How to Teach Editing Using COW In Five Amazing Steps

In an earlier blog post, the importance of editing in the writing process was highlighted.  COW provides an “Edit Mode” which can be a valuable tool for teachers in teaching their students some rudimentary skills in the fine art of editing.

Step 1- Give Them a Reason for Editing

Give students a reason for embarking on the process of editing. Have them choose one piece of writing in COW they would like to have published in a class anthology, printed out to take home, handed in for evaluation, or some other reason to revisit  their writing and improve upon it.

Step 2– Look Back at the Stats Page

After the students have chosen the piece of writing in COW they would like to edit, have them open the story and look at the stats page.

Step 3– Choose Three Areas for Improvement

Examine the stats page carefully, and look for areas which would improve the writing.  In looking at the stats, they may want to ask the following questions:

a.  Do I need more variety in sentence length?

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b.  Do I need more variety in the words I use as sentence starters?

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c.  Do I need more adjectives?  Do I need more or fewer adverbs?

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d.  Do I need to add more descriptions using the five senses?

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e.  Do I overuse some words?  Should I replace some of these with other words?

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f.  Was my writing consistent in terms of tense (past, present, future)?

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Have students choose no more than three areas to improve in their writing.

Step 4-  Rework the Story in Edit Mode

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Step 5– Examine the New Stats Page

Once the students have edited their work, have them re-run the stats page.  They can then examine the new stats for their revised writing and actually see whether their editing has resulted in changes to the stats in a positive way.

The fine art of editing goes way beyond these areas of consideration in writing.  However, it will benefit students greatly to see their efforts in editing returned to them in vivid statistical feedback.  From this quantitative measure of editing success, they can see how revisiting their writing and paying attention to specific details can result in greatly improved writing.

The Challenges of Editing Taking Student Writing to the Next Level

Thomas Edison said that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. This rule certainly holds true when it comes to writing. The reality is that most professional writers spend the vast majority of their time editing an initial draft, bringing it to a final, polished product.

When it comes to writing instruction, it would be difficult to find an area more challenging than teaching students the fine art of editing. Often, students will dash off a very inspired first draft and declare their work “Perfect!.” The thrill of creating the initial first draft may be gone, but much work is still needed to refine the work. Convincing students of the need for editing can be a tremendous challenge.

Certainly, the ability to generate ideas and express them in words (writing fluency) is a fundamental part of the writing process. However, enabling students to hone their skills to take their writing to the next level of refinement through editing is of vital importance.

To many students, editing means correcting spelling, capitalization, grammar and other technical aspects of the conventions of writing.

Editing is much more than this.

Editing involves cutting, moving, adding, and rearranging text to make the writing more effective in conveying the intentions of the author whatever the genre of writing may be. The ability to critically analyze one’s own work takes specific skills which are incredibly challenging to teach. Throw in the logistical challenges of helping thirty or more students in a class with editing a wide range of idiosyncratic writing styles, and logistical complications increase greatly.

In developing COW, we’ve recognized the importance of editing in the writing process. With this in mind, we have created the “Edit Mode” within COW, giving students and teachers a valuable tool for refining their writing.

Stay tuned for a future post in which we’ll show you how to make the most of COW’s “Edit Mode” in teaching those elusive skills of editing, while keeping your students motivated to improve their writing.

Developing the Habits of Outstanding Writers How COW enables students to develop effective sentence construction

There is no singular set of rules for becoming an outstanding writer.  There are, however, a number of habits writers acquire which become second nature in the creation of effective writing.  These include an awareness of sentence construction. 

Two critical aspects of sentence construction for outstanding writing include:

1.  A variety of sentence length.

2.  A variety of sentence openings.

Among the feedback students receive after each writing session with COW is a graph of sentence lengths.

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By examining this graph, students receive a comprehensive view of the variety of sentence length in their composition.  The length of their longest sentence is also indicated, giving an immediate “heads up!” to the dreaded run-on sentence.

Another graph that reveals an important aspect of student writing is “Sentence Starters.” 

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This graphs shows students how many times they have used specific words to start sentences in their composition.  Overusing certain words to start sentences, such as “The” or “I” becomes immediately apparent with a quick glance of the “Sentence Starters” graph. 

By giving students feedback on these important aspects of sentence construction on a continual basis, they can become much more mindful of these important compositional aspects during the writing process. 

In the end, they’ll be better writers.

The Contentious Adverb To adverb or not to adverb?

Look up the use of adverbs in writing, and the response you’ll get from many editors and writers is an uncategorical, “AVOID THEM!”

One would think that the adverb might have a status right up there with the adjective as an untouchable, revered aspect of descriptive writing. Apparently not.

Just look and see what Stephen King has to say in The Adverb is Not Your Friend.

Elmore Leonard, the New York Times writer, wrote, “To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.”

Have a look here to see some of the reasons why so many writers are anti-adverb.  (Apparently, J.K. Rowling isn’t one of them.)

Whether you are on the pro-adverb or anti-adverb side, the text analysis tools provided by COW (Creative Online Writing) will prove useful.

I’m sure if Stephen King wrote a story in COW, he would be very happy with a stats report showing an adverb goose-egg.

The Daily Routines of Great Writers How swimming, napping, and running errands contribute to the creative process

Further to the blog post of July 9th, I stumbled over another great article that didn’t carve any rules into stone.  Rather, The Daily Routines of Great Writers culls from a series of interviews the daily habits of a number of legendary writers.  The fascinating aspect, to me, is that these routines don’t just focus on when and where they write, but also illuminates how the rest of the day serves their creative endeavours.

Discover Your Weird Writing Habit Individuality in the creative process

There are no definitive rules for how to ignite the creative process that work for everyone.  This certainly applies to writing.  The process of becoming a writer involves discovering which approaches to the writing process actually work for you. 

For example, some writers begin by spending a great amount of time developing characters and outlining plots before even writing one word of a story.   Conversely, some writers fly by the seat of their proverbial pants, inventing characters and developing the plot as they write.  For many writers, their approach falls somewhere between these two extremes.

Rather than attempt to come up with a definitive list of “Seven Steps to Becoming a Great Writer,” it’s helpful to examine habits and approaches of other writers.  As an emerging writer, it’s worth trying some of these approaches out to discover what works or doesn’t work for you.

Here is a wonderful article titled, “9 Weird Habits That Famous Writers Formed to Write Better.”  You may want to try some of these habits out.  Some of the habits are pretty quirky . . . but then, many writers are considered quirky people.  Who said quirkiness is a bad thing?

Traps to Avoid When Writing a First Draft How COW can save you from an attack of Writer's Block

COW has been carefully designed to provide an environment which encourages fluency in writing.  Fluency is the ability of a writer to generate ideas, then express them in words on the page.  The opposite of Writing Fluency is Writer’s Block. 

Writer’s Block can arise for a number of reasons.  Here are some of the primary reasons from my personal experience and those of the students I’ve taught:

1.  Obsessing with Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar

Many times, I’ve seen students hunched over the page, head in hands, just plain stuck.  When I asked them how it was going, they’d often reply with, “I don’t know how to spell __________.”  A word they were unable to spell was like a giant boulder that had suddenly landed in the middle of the highway of their writing, providing an insurmountable barrier.  Spelling, punctuation and grammar should live in the domain of editing.  Conversely, a first draft is meant to be a wild outpouring of ideas.  Mistakes can be fixed later.  With spelling, do your best, then move on.  You can come back and fix it later.  COW does not provide a spell checker or grammar checker for a reason.  We want writers to focus upon fluent writing.

2.  Trying to Come Up with a Title

We’ll come back to the student hunched over a page, only this time, it’s completely blank.  “I can’t think of a title,” they say.  When creating a piece of writing, a title is one of the last things you’ll want to think about.  I always wait until I’ve finished a story before I even bother to think of a title.  That’s because often, when I’m writing, stories take bizarre twists and turns, heading off in unexpected directions.  I have to wait until the dust settles to see what story I’ve got, and then begin to think of an appropriate title.  That’s why, with COW, we ask students to give their story a title after they have finished writing.

3.  Perfectionism

Oh, yes.  That dreaded monster called Perfectionism.  Certainly, perfectionism has its place.  Personally, I’m happy that the individual flying the airplane I’m riding in or the person filling a cavity in my tooth is a perfectionist.  However, perfectionism can be a creativity killer.  Overly analyzing each and every sentence as it eeks out of the imagination can only lead to a stifling of the creative flow of ideas and words.  Keep in mind that the first draft is a very messy, absolutely imperfect piece of writing that possesses one thing and one thing only– potential.  Perfectionism enters the picture during the revision process.  COW provides a revision mode, allowing writers to revisit their stories and revise to their heart’s content.

4.  Fear

If you are worried about the validity of your writing, whether your ideas are any good, and if others will like your writing, your primary focus is not upon the process of writing.  Fear can extinguish the creative urge with an overwhelming paralysis of self-consciousness.  When you write a draft, write fearlessly.  It’s kind of like singing in the shower or dancing when you think no one’s watching.

When writing a first draft, it’s very important to keep in mind that whatever you write is not your final product.  It’s merely one version along a very long road of versions of your story.  There’s nothing permanent about what you’re writing, so just fly at it, take chances, and always remember than anything you write can be chopped or drastically altered through the process of revision.

Banned Words #4 Suddenly!

Along with all of the other banned words on our list so far, I’ve been guilty of using “suddenly,” quite often. As a writer, you feel that using ‘suddenly’ is like lighting a match to gasoline. In a flash, your story takes a dramatic turn. Your hope in using ‘suddenly’ is to tell your reader that your story has taken a dramatic, unexpected turn.

So, what’s wrong with using ‘suddenly’?

If you want to surprise your reader with a dramatic, unexpected turn in your story, by using ‘suddenly,’ you are essentially warning them that something dramatic and unexpected is about to happen. 

Why do you want to warn your reader? Why not just tell them about the next moment in the story, and let them fully experience the ‘suddenness’ of the unexpected and dramatic turn of events.

Here’s the true test of whether you should use ‘suddenly.’ Go through your story and cut every occurrence of ‘suddenly.’ Chances are, you’ll find your story will draw the reader in with surprising twists and turns, rather than warning them something big is about to happen.

Suddenly, the door opened, and there stood my arch enemy.

The door opened, and there stood my arch enemy.

So, in summary, our list of banned words so far includes:

  1. Literally
  2. Very
  3. Really
  4. Suddenly

Suddenly, you’ll realize that you literally don’t need to use these very over-used words that really don’t add anything to your writing.

Banned Words #2 and #3 "Very" and "Really"

It would be a very, very good idea to ban the word “very,” for very many reasons.  It would also be a really good idea to ban the word “really,” because it really doesn’t help your writing become really descriptive. 

I could give you all kinds of reasons why these words should be avoided in writing. Instead, I’ll give you one simple test to show why these words should be banished.

It would be good idea to ban the word “very” for many reasons. It would also be a good idea to ban the word “really,” because it doesn’t help your writing become more descriptive.

Sorry, “very,” and “really.”  When you’re gone, you aren’t missed. In fact, including you in a sentence only serves to water down the description.

When a writer resorts to pulling out “very” or “really,” and adds them to a description, the intent is to amplify that description: 

It’s not just loud. It’s very loud. 

It’s not just cold. It’s really cold.

Rather than resort to the crutches of ‘very’ and ‘really’ to amplify descriptions, think of more specific, concrete ways of describing something.

It was so loud, the fillings in my teeth were rattling loose.

It was so cold, the hairs in my nostrils froze solid.

During the revision process, go through your writing and remove ‘very’ and ‘really,’ and see if these two words are really necessary. I think you’ll find they’ll soon be forgotten.

So, in summary, our list of “Banned Words,” so far includes:

  1. Literally
  2. Very
  3. Really

Literally, it would be a very good idea to really avoid all of these words in your writing if you can. Really. I’m very serious about this!


Banned Words! Not the kind you may think, however.

When I talk about banning words in student writing here, I’m not talking here about those words that, if used, get students sent down to the principal’s office or result in a soapy mouthwash.

No. These are other words. Some of them do have four letters, but that’s just a coincidence.

The banned words I would like to put forth are words which lead a writer down that path of poor writing.

The first word I’d like to nominate is literally. Yes, I literally mean it! I was prompted to nominate literally after reading this article, “On Behalf of ‘Literally’,” by Courtney Kirchoff.

Unlike other words I will later nominate for banishment, the banning of literally should only be a temporary measure until everyone learns to use it properly. And I literally mean that!

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