As a teacher of both English and French over the years, I have often been reading a student’s writing and suddenly asked myself, “Does this sentence even go here?” And quite often, upon further inspection, the answer has been “no.” The truth is, this is a question that pops up when I edit my own writing as well, whether for a personal blog article or a letter to the parents of my students. When we write, we’re turning ideas into words and words into sentences and paragraphs, a very complex process which inevitably includes drifting off-topic, failing to show our readers the connections between our thoughts, and in general losing the thread of our ideas. But the beautiful thing about writing is that it is a process; it is cyclical and even forgiving as long as we give our thoughts and words the time they deserve.
While the most essential means of improving as a writer are simply to write often and to read good writing, there are also specific steps we can take to polish our rough drafts into shining, unified, cohesive pieces. This starts with making sure all the sentences belong where they are and that they all belong together. Then, there are four other key strategies that can help polish almost any academic writing assignment (and many non-academic ones as well). My hope is that students (and parents guiding them) can use all five of these on their next paragraph or essay assignment, with the goal of producing a focused, meaningful, and communicative piece of writing.
Let’s assume you have already done some brainstorming and prewriting on a paragraph or essay assignment and that you have then proceeded to write your rough draft. Here are your next steps:
- Do the sentence-by-sentence check. Whether it’s the topic sentence of a paragraph assignment or the thesis of an essay, this check helps you ensure that all the sentences in your piece support its controlling idea. Read each sentence independently to make sure that it is relevant to and supports this central thought. If a sentence does not seem to be tied to your focus, either that sentence does not belong in your piece or the focus needs to be modified. Check also that each sentence is clear, conveying what you meant to communicate. We often have so many ideas that we get side-tracked, confusing our readers about the central truth we originally hoped to share with them.
- Seek fresh feedback. Find a trusted friend, classmate, parent, or sibling whose writing and thinking you admire. Ask them to read your piece, but also tell them what kind of feedback you want. I like to start by requesting their thoughts on overall meaning and clarity. Then, I ask for a second read-through that focuses more on grammar and mechanics (spelling, capitalization, and punctuation). Even as an adult English teacher, I ask for feedback on my poems and blog articles from my husband, mom, and brother. They give me constructive criticism and fresh perspectives. While my mom is the best at identifying grammar mistakes, my brother gives suggestions regarding artistry and craft, and my husband has a talent for identifying words and passages that are superfluous or irrelevant and therefore need to be deleted. All three of them have insightful responses and suggestions for my ideas and language. You might not know who your best editors are yet, but start with a trusted friend or relative, and I think you’ll receive some valuable suggestions that help you consider your writing with new eyes.
- Edit backwards. This method may feel awkward at first, but it is helpful to read your writing backwards (starting with the last sentence and ending with the first). This can slow your brain down enough that instead of glossing over errors as you read, you notice those errors and can consequently fix them. At this step, look for spelling and word choice mistakes and for letters requiring capitalization. In addition to mechanical elements, check for grammatically appropriate punctuation and complete sentences. The most common mistakes I see are run-on and fragment errors (linked videos by Khan Academy). So watch out for these, and make sure that your sentences are complete. The second most common error I see is probably apostrophe usage. Check all your apostrophes. I recommend never using “it’s” in an academic writing assignment, as it can always be replaced with “its” or “it is.” If you meant to show possession, use “its” (no apostrophe), and if you meant to communicate “it is,” just write out those two little words instead of using a contraction.
- Elevate your writing with transitions and variety. Once your piece has unity and clarity (it supports your central idea using correct English), you can take it to the next level through the use of transitions and variety. Transitional words and phrases show the relationships between ideas (such as similarity, example, or cause and effect). Consider the logical connection between the ideas in your sentences to select a transition to best facilitate that. For example, visit this page by The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Writing Center. As for variety, use different types of sentences (article from Owl at Purdue), a mixture of shorter and longer sentences, and sentences with varying word order. When every sentence starts with a subject followed quickly by a verb, the reading can feel monotonous. Mixed and inverted word order, as well as prepositional and adverbial phrases in key places, can break up the pattern to keep your reader engaged. Remember that variety can apply to word choice as well. While using a word correctly is most important, using a variety of words adds nuance to your writing and makes it more interesting.
- Read it aloud and repeat steps one and two. For school assignments, writing is more cyclical than we often treat it. Every so often while implementing these techniques, read it aloud to hear how it sounds. And once you have done each of the steps, go back to the sentence-by-sentence check to make sure that your writing still supports the idea(s) you wanted to communicate. Finally, share it again with trusted readers. Your writing has changed, so new observations and adjustments to strengthen your writing will pop up.
I hope these are helpful to you as you continue to develop your writing skills. Remember, there can be no polishing of a paragraph/essay until there is a paragraph/essay to polish. The essential actions that precede the five listed above are, of course, to think, brainstorm, plan, and draft. But when you dive into a writing exercise knowing your first draft will not be your last, you feel free to let go and just write during those beginning stages. You give your ideas permission to become words without fretting about structure and grammar and spelling, trusting that the process of polishing (later) will work out the inevitable impediments to communication that we all exhibit in our first drafts. The formula is not “write, then publish.” The best writers write and rewrite, delete and write some more, and they repeat this process several times before finalizing their work. We are not seeking perfection but continual growth in our pursuit of effective, interesting, and purposeful communication.
Make sure to check out Language Arts Bridge with Elise Fair!
Elise Fair is a lover of language and story who is blessed to be able to teach and learn from young people. Originally from Ohio, she has an English and French degree with teaching certification from Harding University, located in Arkansas. She taught both English and French at a Texas public high school for five years, and during that time, she was also a club sponsor and team leader. Elise led international student trips to France and Spain, provided professional development for other teachers, and served as a campus instructional coach (helping teachers in various disciplines grow and improve).Teaching multiple grade levels has given her experience with students of widely varying skill levels, and being a teacher of both English and French gives her deeper insight into the nature and structure of language.