Essay Writing Tips from a Pro
by Dr. Rosette Liberman, cooperhillstylebook.com
Teaching writing is the hardest part of an English curriculum. These tips from an award-wining veteran teacher provide a road map to success for both teachers and students.
Make revision a rule
The first draft teaches students about their topic, but it’s the revised final draft that teaches them to write. It is a truism that learning occurs when people realize their mistakes and practice repairing them. Revision is where that realization and practice occur. Over a half a century in the classroom has taught me that if students don’t have to revise their first drafts, they don’t learn from their mistakes — they look only at the grade, not at the comments that I spent so much time writing.
The crucial question is what technique to use in making those comments?
Don’t correct student errors!
Don’t correct student errors! It sounds absurd, doesn’t it, which is why as a teacher, you’re constantly tempted to break this rule. Picture the following scenarios.
Correcting pen in hand, you’re at your desk reviewing a student essay. How easy at that moment simply to add a serial comma, or insert a perfect tense. But if you yield to the impulse, you will fail to teach the student, and you will exponentially multiply your work load because you’ll be making those corrections for the rest of the school year.
Or, you’re conferring with a student about your comments on her first draft. Eager to do well she says, “So how do you want me to fix this? How should I say it?” How easy just to give her the answers and relieve her anxiety! But if you do, she will leave your class never having learned to revise her essays independently.
Refusing to correct errors is crucial to student learning. When we correct student errors, we’re the ones who are learning — not the students. When we correct student errors, we’re not being teachers, we’re being copy editors.
Point out student errors
Instead of correcting errors, we need to point them out to students. So how do you point out an error without being too specific or too general? On the one hand, if you’re too specific, you’re just giving away the answer, and the student misses a chance to learn. On the other hand, you might circle a sentence to indicate that it contains an error. This method is too general. It frustrates the student who wastes a lot of time examining each word and testing each possible punctuation mark.
The trick is to point out the errors precisely without giving away the answer and without unnecessary waste of either student or teacher time. I call it The Golden Mean of Correcting.
The Golden Mean of Correcting
This Golden Mean treads the path between teacher comments that are either too general or too specific. Such comments identify the type of problem without revealing the specific answer. To use this system, you must have grammatical mastery of at least the twenty or thirty most common errors, mastery that many teachers may lack. In addition, this method is very time-consuming.
Think of the hours it takes to write in margins: non-parallel, pronoun-antecedent agreement, use past perfect, too wordy, incorrect use of quotation, fragment, subject-verb agreement, wrong pronoun case, argument illogical, etc. Then, all too often, when you return the papers for revision, students ask for an explanation of these comments and for directions in making corrections. The only solution is an excellent stylebook or handbook.
An Ideal Stylebook/Handbook
What does the ideal modern stylebook provide?
- E-book format
Kids no longer need to lug about heavy books. Tablets and laptops are becoming more the rule than the exception in high school. The Search function makes navigating through the book instantaneous. And kids prefer to click their way through books.
- User-friendly language
Avoid books that use a lot of grammatical jargon. Choose straightforward simple language: not Errors with third person singular pronouns, but Errors with he or she.
- Frequently asked questions (faqs) at the start of each topic
If a chapter is about pronoun-antecedent agreement, it should begin with a faq that explains the terms.
- Many examples that illustrate the explanations
The Cooper Hill Stylebook, for example, contains nearly 1500 such examples, each one followed by an explanation.
Each example is drawn from current sports, literature, pop culture, music, and other topics relevant to student experience.
- Extensive exercises at the end of each chapter for plenty of practice
The Cooper Hill Stylebook contains over 1000 exercises.
- Answers and explanations to the exercises
While a few handbooks provide answers, they fail to explain the grammar behind the answers. Students need to
know why one construction is correct while another is not. That’s why I made sure that The Cooper Hill Stylebook contains clear and thorough answers and explanations for every single exercise.
- A summary of the Table of Contents, and a quick list of the most frequent errors
Such a list provides a reliable correcting menu even for teachers who are not expert grammarians.
- The topics should be listed by chapters and sub-chapters.
For example, if Placement of modifiers is chapter 9, then Misplaced modifiers might be 9a,
Dangling modifiers might be 9b, etc. Instead of writing out the entire comment, the teacher needs only to
jot down a quick 9a or 9b. It’s up to the student to search out 9a or 9b in the Stylebook, read about it, examine the examples, and maybe do a couple of practice exercises.
With the teacher’s comments in hand and with a Stylebook on his laptop or on a library computer, the student can no longer ask, “What do you mean? How do you want me to fix this?” If he does, you can respond: “Did you type 9a into the Search window? Did you read the explanation and study the examples? Did you do some of the exercises? Did you check the answers? So, what is it you don’t understand?” This student is now equipped with all the knowledge he/she needs to write a polished final draft of the essay. This student has become an independent writer. R.L.