Good Writing In The Wild

In a stack of papers called Writing.

  • Jan
  • 24
  • 2006

My girlfriend, also an English teacher at my high school, read a passage the other night that did exactly what she’s been trying to get her kids to do; it made good use of vocabulary to express a point. She printed the passage up on an overhead and presented it to her class:

Among the many traits that made Charles Darwin one of the greatest minds in science was his pertinacious personality. Facing a daunting problem in natural history, Darwin would obstinately chip away at it until its secrets relented. His apt description for this disposition came from an 1867 Anthony Trollope novel in which one of the characters opined: “There ain’t now a man can’t bear if he’ll only be dogged…It’s dogged as does it.” Darwin’s son Francis recalled his father’s temperament. “Doggedness expresses his frame of mind almost better than perseverance. Perseverance seems hardly to express his almost fierce desire to force the truth to reveal itself” (34).

Overhead Curriculum

This comes from “It’s Dogged as Does It” by Michael Shermer from the February 2006 Scientific American. Her point is that Shermer uses lots of different vocabulary for the word stubborn in order to indicate different shades of meaning.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a passage that I think would demonstrate a particular writing point well and I simply don’t copy it down for later use. Lost in the shuffle and disregarded because of time elapsed, the passage vanishes, never to be shown as an example of what I want students to do and what writing is capable of. If we create overheads of good writing to use every time we come across a cool passage, those overheads would rapidly evolve into a key component of a writing program.

What I like about this is seeing good writing, writing that serves as a good example of a particular technique, and sharing that writing with students as an example of what they can do. I’m finding that, given an assignment, students are willing to look at varied examples of how to write on a topic or in a genre. And, if the circumstances are right, students are willing to experiment with the way they put thoughts together though seeing different approaches and that’s a cool thing.

Strong Beginnings

For a long time, I’ve had in my mind that I’d post a big piece of poster paper on the wall and keep track of all the good opening sentences I read in stories or novels. It’d be a place for students to keep track of such things, too, and a place for students to go for inspiration of how to write. That’s what I’ve been doing this week with that opening sentence from Into Thin Air, a sentence that I enjoy and think is well written.

Sizing up my walls, student work stapled to every surface and not much room left for anything else, I know I need more space devoted to various announcements, see that an area for modeling writing is needed, and will work on clearing off an area to make these ideas reality.

The thing I like here is that this list would kill two birds with one stone: it’d be a list of effective ways to begin stories, but it’d also be a list of different sentence patterns to imitate, sentence patterns written by people paid for their talent with words. If each sentence was accompanied with a title and author, it could also be a recommended reading list generated by the class.

I have a piece of paper on my wall that is this beginning list, with about 20 different beginning sentences of short stories and novels. Large-font versions of those sentences should be on my ceiling tiles.

That list of beginning sentences could also become a writing assignment: pick a beginning sentence and write the rest of the story. I also find that I write a bunch of beginning sentences and never finish the tale, so there are a few sentences I could contribute to the list just to see what would happen.

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