Archive for the ‘Machete Mechanics’ Category

One Writing Project Per Month

One writing project per month

Brave Writer philosophy suggests that you only tackle one writing project per month, per kid. That’s right. One a month. I figure you’ll get sidetracked by Thanksgiving or surgery or a ski trip during a couple of those months meaning, you may not complete the project slated for that month. Therefore, if you have ten projects slated and get 6-7 of them through the revision process in a school year, be happy! You’ve done good work!

But wait, how does this work? you ask. I understand. It sounds like so little output. So let me give you some guidelines for why writing less equals more value.

Let’s look at the four week process for writing any piece (paragraph, letter, essay, poem, article, story).

Week One: Saturation

During the first week, you aren’t writing. You’re reading, talking, watching videos, looking stuff up on the Internet. You might also be doing the thing you will write about. If the topic is Native American basket weaving, perhaps you will even try to weave a basket! No writing comes forth without saturation in the topic/subject matter. This is why we always recommend that your kids write about what they know well. They’ll have richer vocabulary and a deeper grasp of the topic. If the topic is new-ish to your student, you need more time to absorb the material before becoming saturated. Might take two weeks or three. Don’t rush it. Writing is the result of an overflow of knowledge about a topic. You can’t read a paragraph about Columbus and then require your child write a paragraph about Columbus. The sane response from a child is: But didn’t we just read about Columbus?

Week Two: Freewriting

The second week is when you put pen to page. This is the time to get words from the guts upchucked onto paper. We do this in any way we can. We use freewriting to help catalyze that process. You can do several freewrites over a period of days. There’s no law in the writing world that says the first draft is the only draft. You can select parts of the topic to write about and do those over two or three days with breaks in between. During the freewriting (or drafting) week, the goal is to get as much raw writing to work with as possible. Think of a specific aspect of the topic (gathering materials for basket weaving) and write about it. Then on another day focus on another aspect (patterns in basket weaving). Break it up! Makes life so much happier.

Week Three: Revision

Revision is not the same thing as editing (when I use the term). Revision is injecting new vision into the raw writing. It’s re-imagining the piece so that it springs to life. During revision, you want to focus on content, not mechanics. That means you’ll read the freewrites and look at places you can narrow the focus and expand the writing. Perhaps your child wrote, “Basket weaving is hard work.” You can look at that sentence and ask for more! What does he mean by “hard work”? Can he describe the process? And so on. You might want to rewrite the opening line (I always recommend that). Make it pop, surprise, sizzle. Draw the reader right in. Revision can take many days or short bursts of energy tackling a little bit at a time. Don’t do it all in one day. Don’t fatigue your young writer. Revise two or three important content related items and leave the rest alone. (Psst. I promise anything you don’t correct in this piece will magically reappear in another for you to address at a later date.)

Week Four: Mechanics Mop-up

Now you edit. Editing is simply cleaning up all the stuff that makes the paper hard to read: misspellings, missing punctuation, grammar errors, typos, indentations. Have your child look over his or her work first. Let the student find as many errors as possible. You only make the additional changes once the child has taken a whack at it. Never complain about something he or she missed. Make a mental note that you need to address the semi-colon in copywork or dictation. Let what they miss be information to guide you in teaching; don’t use it as a way to shame your child. Print and share with readers.

Once you work through this process, you’ll have had a rich experience of how writing is supposed to work. Believe me, doing this 5-6 times in a year is a huge amount of teaching! Far superior to cranking out contrived paragraphs based on tedious writing prompts in a workbook. Give your kids the chance to experience what writers actually do. They saturate and incubate. They mess around with words, getting their ideas onto the page or computer screen however they might. They revise those words once they get a little distance to make them more compelling and interesting. Then they mop up the mistakes and share it with readers! Your kids get to do that too. For more information on how to do this process, see The Writer’s Jungle.

Freewriting Prompts

Bet you can read this

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe.

Are you reassured at all that a few spelling errors aren’t necessarily a barrier to written communication? I am. 🙂

While on a walk

Somehow my best educational conversations happen while walking the dog. My son, Liam (11), asked me if I would help him with spelling. This is how it went down:

“Why do you want help with spelling?”

“Because I want to be good at spelling.”

“I thought you were a good speller.”

“Well, not for all words. And plus I don’t know how to use semi-colons.”

“Oh, do you mean punctuation?”

“Yeah, that too.”

“Well for spelling and punctuation, copywork and dictation work best.”

“Well, I won’t do those.”

“Okay, how about we do a spelling bee while throwing a lacrosse ball?”

“Yeah, that would be great.”

“And for punctuation, we could do reverse dictation… how about that?”

“Oh that would be awesome.

We got home and I started throwing the ball with him calling out words like “convenient” and “loquacious.” He needs no work on spelling, we discovered. 🙂 But he sure enjoyed the challenge!

Then that night, at about 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, we began reverse dictation (a process by which I type up a passage from a book without any capitals or punctuation and he has to edit/correct the copy). Yes, this is how it works in my house – weekends, middle of the night kind of stuff.

We did two passages together from Harry Potter and he so enjoyed them, he is begging to do more. We covered more grammar and punctuation during his hour of real interest and enthusiasm than we have in the last four years of home education.

Finally I had to ask. “Why the sudden interest?”

“Well, my online gaming community did a recent survey and found out that only 49% of the users spell correctly most of the time. I want to start spelling right. And no one uses punctuation, but it seems like a good idea.”

And there you go. I swear this child’s entire education is coming from computer games. 🙂

Run on Sentences

A run-on sentence is a sentence that just keeps going and the writer uses words like and to keep it going so that she can get all those thoughts onto the screen or page as quickly as possible and not write that dreaded period because it feels like she is losing her train of thought, so she just sticks in a few commas, and connecting words and thinks that those will be enough to keep the reader reading at the same pace she is writing and therefore those periods won’t be missed and she’s okay not using them and didn’t she write so much good stuff???….


Okay, so now you know how a run-on looks and reads.

How do you fix them?

Start by reading the run-on sentence aloud. I usually take in a huge draught of air first. Then I start reading with my voice racing to the end of the sentence in that one breath. Then I collapse on the couch in exhaustion when I get to the end. (I am, after all, also an acting teacher. :))

Usually this little stunt will alert the writer to the fact that some punctuation is missing.

Once you’ve established that there is a run-on sentence (and the writer can see that the sentence is one), it’s time to decide how to punctuate it so that it says the same thing (with the same energy) but isn’t so cumbersome and long.

There are a few punctuation marks to try out.

  • The period.
    The period is the most obvious choice. When you come to the end of a complete thought, instead of using “and” to illegally join the next thought to it, put a period and a captial. Sometimes rearrange a couple of words to tighten the sentences.

    Original: He surfed a ten foot wave and crashed on the sand and bruised his hip and got salt water up his nose.

    Revised: He surfed a ten foot wave. He crashed on the sand, bruising his hip. Salt water went up his nose.

  • The semi-colon.
    Occasionally, the two sentences illegally joined are related to one another. You can keep the momentum going by using a semi-colon instead of a period and capital.

    She didn’t want me to braid her hair; she preferred wearing it in one big rat’s nest.

  • The conjunction.
    You can use “and” but try to reserve it for the middle of a sentence, not as the first word. Additionally, if you use “and” in a sentence, be sure to use a comma before it if what follows is a complete sentence. If the “and” only joins two nouns, there is no need for the comma:

    We ate our Belgian fries with mayonnaise and mustard.

    We ate our Belgian fries, and we took a walk in the nearby garden.

Struturing Chaos

So your kids have been freewriting for months now, you are taking the risk to let your kids express all those random thoughts while you find words and ideas to praise… so now what?

I like to recommend eight weeks of freewriting before you revise any of the pieces of writing. Keep the eight freewrites in a manila folder and don’t even bother to read them unless your child wants to read them to you (let her decide).

Then when the eight weeks are over, take the folder from the shelf (on the ninth week) and lay the freewrites out on the table. Suggest your child pick one that she likes and that you will revise together.

The word “revision” often strikes fear into the heart of the child/student (particularly if writing practice has mostly consisted of correcting errors in the past). To avoid the clash of egos (Writer versus Editor), talk about expanding the piece of writing (not revising it). Let your child know that the goal is to take the raw writing, find the gems in it and then shine them up by adding detail and bringing the original to life.

Here’s how:

  • Read the piece aloud.
  • Give a colored pen to your child so that she makes the editorial changes and notes.
  • Together, identify the main idea. (Ask, What’s this piece about? Pick one main idea. If the piece meanders between cooking and soccer, choose one.) Cross out sentences that don’t support that idea.
  • Circle vague terms. Vague terms include “amazing, great, awesome, lousy, totally rad, cool, the bomb, nice, special, red, boring, long, short, hard, complicated, dangerous” and so on. These are hiding experiences so dig a bit deeper.
  • On a new sheet of paper, expand the content of the vague sentences. Pick two to start. Then ask, “How was scoring that goal amazing? Show me. Tell me about the experience of scoring the goal.” Then write a few more sentences about that experience. These will replace or expand the weak content. You can do this over a period of several days, doing only one or two at a time. Don’t do all of them. Pick ones that hold more detail in your child’s imagination. Don’t work on those that create anxiety or frustration.
  • Type up the piece (with new expanded sections) triple spaced, one sentence at a time. Print. Cut the sentences up and lay them out on the table. Now move them around until there is a pleasing order. Staple in the new order onto a piece of paper.
  • Look for lapses in sequence or missing details. Add those now on another sheet of paper.
  • Add a new opening. Almost everyone starts with a boring sentence. Write a new opening that draws on personal experience, an anecdote, a question or an interesting, little known fact.
  • Put it all together on the computer, print it up and read it to someone you love!

For more detail about all of these steps, see your copy of The Writer’s Jungle.

Remember, you don’t have to fix everything. Fix a few things and then be done.