Posts Tagged ‘essay writing’

Struggling With an Essay: Why academic writing doesn’t come naturally

Academic Writing

Our kids don’t read academic writing consequently they aren’t absorbing the rhythms and organization that are the essence of academic writing forms. Additionally, as you’ve experienced with freewriting, kids tend to follow their thoughts where they lead. That means that their writing is often a rampage through a set of disorganized thoughts.

You’ll find some internal coherence within those freewrites (whole sections that are logically ordered or sequential) but you might also find just as often that the writer begins with the end and circles back to the beginning while getting to the middle of the experience or thought only to run out of steam.

The wonder of freewriting is that the writer is not required to get it all straight and organized before writing. That’s why freewriting is powerful in aiding blocked writers and skilled writers alike. Freewriting opens the flow of language and ideas so that they can get out of the head and onto the page. Once on the page, they can be sorted out and rearranged, modified and enhanced.

As I shared in the last blog, some of your kids are already following certain formats to a greater or lesser degree based on their attempts to mimic what they’ve read or heard. By the time they are high school aged, they will be ready to take the next step in ordering their writing. Academic writing formats are tricky and intimidating precisely because most of us never read an essay before we had to write one.

To your kids, essay writing is like learning a brand new sport while playing the game.

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This experience of blind learning reminds me of my oldest son who took up lacrosse a couple years ago. The first game he ever watched was from on the field… as an attacker! He had to learn the game while he played it. Let me tell you. He had a hard time.

My son had never played a team sport in his life before lacrosse. He didn’t play recreational soccer or baseball or basketball. He had been an indoor rock climber and skateboarder. When he got to the lacrosse field, he was completely at sea! His first week of conditioning nearly killed him.

He wasn’t the only new guy on the team. However most of the other kids had played soccer or football. Even though they had to learn the game of lacrosse as they went, these guys had athletic team experience and were in good physical shape which in turn helped them adapt to a new set of rules and skills. They made quicker progress because team sports were familiar to them.

Essay writing is like learning a brand new sport while playing the game. There are steps to take that make the process less daunting and that will prepare your kids to be successful with less stress. The actual format itself is not difficult to teach or understand. Learning how to bend the essay to the writer’s purpose, to make the essay form work for the writer instead of against him is something all together different.

Kids who write well and freely will find that the essay is an unfamiliar format that uses the writing skills they’ve already developed, but in a new way.

If your kids have not developed their writing voices,

have not learned how to get their jumbled thoughts onto paper,

have not had the pleasure of rearranging their words so that they say just what the writer intends,

if they have not narrated the contents of the books they read,
the movies they view,
the games they play,

and have not enjoyed the sound of language,
the play of words,
the power of description
and vivid details,

and have never thought about why they think what they think
or how to get their point of view across so someone else understands and accepts it

learning to use the essay format will be unnecessarily torturous…

…a bit like the two week conditioning my son Noah went through after 15 years of never running farther than down the block.

We’ll talk more about the essay in the coming weeks. For now, I want you to chew on some of what I’ve shared here. Really take it in.


Expository Essay Class

Image of father and son by OakleyOriginals (cc cropped and text added)

Writing for Exams


The SAT/ACT is now including an essay portion. I just taught an online course to help students with preparation for that test. I love timed essays, believe it or not. I took all kinds of essay tests in college and they were my favorites. I had an advanced composition teacher in high school who made us write fifty minute essays for six weeks straight, every single day. I got a C on my first and by the end was easily earning As. I “got” it through practice and some guidance.

For those of you who follow the Brave Writer philosophy, you are already ahead of many of your homeschooled peers with respect to timed writing. Can you think why? Because you’ve been freewriting with a timer for years. That timer has taught your kids how to face the blank page and dive into writing. Their freewrites will develop into more and more complex tangles of thoughts if they are in the freewriting habit and learn how to think and discuss and develop their thinking through all the things we do in Brave Writer. Some of your teens will become good at expressing their ideas in live journals and blogs.

To hone these raw thoughts into an essay format without the benefit of revision is the tricky part. Of course. And it’s also a bit ridiculous from my perspective. There is no other time of life that judges your writing without reference materials, revision opportunities and the eye of an editor. But, this is the method of choice for college (and end of the year exams for younger kids) so we press forward.

The plan

The key to timed writing, then, (after learning how to freewrite comfortably) is to have a plan. I tell my students:

“Make a plan, follow your plan, stick to your plan.”

The plan is your quick outline that you write before you start answering the question. To make a plan, think three.

You should have one clear point you want to make that responds to the question (we call that “the thesis”). But then you need three examples that will support the point.

For instance, if the question asks what you will put in a time capsule for children 100 years from now (like last Friday’s freewrite prompt), the child will think about what areas she’d like to reveal to those in the future: popular music, big news events, famous movie stars. Then she will write an essay that goes through each of those one at a time, explaining her choices.

Let’s say the question asks for whether or not the student agrees that failure leads to success. The student will need to decide if he agrees or not with that assertion (the thesis) and then will choose three examples to support that viewpoint.

For a simple way to come up with three examples, tell your kids to mine their knowledge base. What do they know the most about? Look for a subject area that is personal and deep (basketball, Lord of the Rings, Jane Austen books, origami, Eagle Scouts, raising chickens, WWII, computer programming…) and then try to find three examples within that subject area.

Don’t fall into the trap of most teens, using cliched examples from history or pop culture (such as the Wright brothers, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Hitler and so on). If one of these is of personal interest to your teen and he’s studied it because he cares about it, then he can use the example because it will reveal a deeper knowledge of the topic than the typical trite facts associated with it.

Essay structure

The basic structure of the timed essay is one paragraph to get in (include a personal anecdote that shows why you feel connected to the topic, why you care about it, and state your thesis and what your examples will be), three paragraphs to develop the thesis using your plan (and examples), include transitions, and one paragraph to get out (sum up the point you were trying to make and offer a comment on the subject).

Your child’s initial essays will be rough and ragged. That’s normal. Practice is the key.

The key to timed writing: make a plan, follow your plan, stick to your plan.

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I remind students to make a plan, follow the plan and stick to the plan because initially it is tempting to run off after some mental flurry of activity and think that is the same as good writing. It usually isn’t. Clarity and organization trump flights of fancy in timed assessment essay writing.


Online MLA Essay Class

Image by Kiran Foster (cc cropped, dry brush, text added)

Writing with Teens: How to Prepare for an Expository Essay

Girl in Blue(1)

I’ve been talking about writing with teens. We’ve looked at the power of exploring ideas, of opening our lives up to multiple viewpoints, to examining the opposition sympathetically so that we really know and understand a point of view that differs from our own.

Then I spoke about the value of essay writing. You may already be convinced of its value, but I hoped to also convey the role essays play in a person’s life. It’s not enough to just think about essays as a way to succeed so that your child will get into college, will succeed in college. Essays have intrinsic value. They train the brain to think in an ordered fashion, then enable the writer to look at holes in her own argument. They give the writer a way to organize and manage research so that she may draw conclusions and make sense of her learning.

Get comfortable reading the ways other people fashion their arguments or talk about the topic you love.

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Without an essay guide, you might feel you can’t even begin to teach your students to write them. Hogwash. Let’s look at some ways that you can start essay training right now.

1. Collect arguments

If your teen has a particular interest: car engines, laptop computers, software, Lord of the Rings paraphernalia, ballet, acting, theology, astronomy, quilt-making… begin to collect information that relates to these topics with a view to the inherent controversies within these fields. This may seem ridiculous on a first read. You might think: what is controversial about ballet, for heaven’s sake? But there are lots of controversies about ballet. One discussion involves at what age girls should be made to go up on pointe. Another is the tendency of ballerinas to have to binge and purge to keep their weight under control. Another is about the teaching methodology for young women, and so on.

If your child is a big LOTR fan, you might discover the huge undercurrent of controversy involving whether or not loving the movies constitutes being a “true” fan.

Every subject area has within it passionate people who are arguing about it, arguing to make it better, to expose its shames, to change its current form, to expand its use, to uncover its power… find the arguments. The easiest way to find arguments is to look inside the area you care the most about. You already know something of the topic. So now you need to find the places people argue about it.

Once you see that there are some controversies in the topics you care about (Shakespeare never wrote his plays… He didn’t? Who did? Why do you say that?), you can keep a list. Or you can simply bookmark the pages on the computer that have people arguing.

2. Join the fight

If your family has Internet access, the easiest way to grow as an expository writer is to join the arguments. Find the forums where people are discussing what you care about. There may be Yahoo groups, there may be forums (my daughter was on a fan site for Elijah Woods where she’s made lots of international friends and learned about vegetarianism, the European perspective on the war in Iraq and what made LOTR so great around the world, and my 13 year old son reads and posts on forums for astronomy and LOTR, my 17 year old son is a part of an online community that works on created languages like Klingon and Esperanto), there may be friends they meet through Live Journals who share their interests.

If the Internet is not your thing (like it is ours), you can look for groups in your community. Jacob has a connection to the observatory, my two older kids are connected to the Shakespeare company in town, I am a part of a theology series of lectures. Get to the places where people are actively promoting and discussing the area of interest you have so that you can enter into that discussion.

We call this the “Great Conversation.” Find out where the chat is happening and get in on it. Get comfortable reading the ways other people fashion their arguments or talk about the topic you love.

And of course, the library will provide you with books on your topic or magazine articles. I like the Internet because of its immediacy. But you can go these other routes if you want to.

3. Identify points of view in other writing.

Before your teen can write an essay, it helps if he’s read one. Seriously. Essays are the one format that schools demand their students write even though these same students have never read an essay in their lives. To write well, we need saturation, both with content for writing and in the format we plan to use. Kids write fiction more easily than non-fiction because they read so much fiction. For the essay, we find it difficult to obtain models. Because most essay writing is bland and for school purposes, you just don’t find books filled with examples of good essays.

There are two sources, however, that most students can read that are easily obtained and work as an introduction to how real writers craft an argument. Send your teens online to find reviews. They can read reviews of movies, video games or music. The New York Times has elaborate movie reviews (probably too long for our purposes, but the writing is so good). Still, Rotten Tomatoes is a great website for finding movie reviews in the dozens. Pick a favorite movie and read, read, read.

Be sure to read both favorable reviews (those with the bright red tomatoes next to them) and the flops (with the green splats next to them). Identify the arguments. How can one reviewer claim that the movie was visually stunning and directed with subtlety while another reviewer says the same movie crawled forward and had campy dialog? On what grounds do they support their viewpoints? If you’ve seen the movie they review, who do you agree with and why? How can you discredit the opposing viewpoint?

Do all this orally. The idea is to get into the art of arguing using support. Your teen can do some reading of reviews, can watch the movie and then can do a Friday Freewrite evaluating the the arguments of two to four reviews. Don’t worry about organization at this point. Help your teen get inside the thoughts/arguments of the reviewer. That’s the goal. The writing will go all over the place. It’s the thoughts you want to see. Did she use part of the story to show her point or did she make vague assertions like, “It was really good because the actor was amazing.” Ask her what about the acting amazed her. Can she show you instead of tell you?

If movies aren’t your teen’s thing, then music is the next best place to read reviews. Use Google, pick a band’s album and search it with the word “reviews.” Find two reviews that disagree and follow a similar process. The same can be done with video games, a favorite novel, plays, auto engines, computer software… anything that is performed or for purchase.

Once you’ve identified the controversy in your favorite topics, have found places where people are talking about them and then are reading writing that is crafted to argue a position, you are on your way to becoming an expository writer. Your teens can do this. If they spend time thinking in these ways, teaching the actual essay format will be a snap.

Need more help? Try out Brave Writer’s online classes:



Also, check out Brave Writer’s:

Help for High School

It’s a self-directed writing program for teens that both teaches rhetorical thinking in writing, as well as the academic essay formats for high school and college. Teens work independently of their parents, however rubrics for feedback are included, as well.

Image of girl reading by Dayna Barron (cc) / Blue background by Meg Stewart (cc cropped and text added)

Writing with Teens: Learning How to Write an Essay is More than College-Prep

Homework text added

The most common format for academic writing in high school and college is the expository essay. There are lots of styles of essays (argumentative, exploratory, persuasive, compare and contrast, personal, etc.), but the overarching term is the “expository essay.”

The word essay means “to try.” It comes from the Latin root. (In French, the word “essayer” is the verb “to try, to attempt.”) I think it helps to remember that an essay is an attempt, it’s your “best shot” at looking at the materials and giving a reaction (sometimes a strong opinion, sometimes an exploration of the issues, sometimes how that material relates to your life and background, your experiences and beliefs).

The word essay means “to try.” An essay is an attempt, a “best shot” at looking at the materials and giving a reaction.

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When we think about academic writing, we do it a disservice if we think about it as a gateway to college. When writing is seen as a portal or a turnkey to another experience rather than as an act that serves the writer, it becomes more difficult to write. Let me reassure you. If you don’t successfully teach the essay while your children are in high school, they will be taught how to write the essay again in their freshman English class.

So now that you know that your kids (who freewrite and read, who chat and debate ideas, who keep online journals and go to plays) will eventually learn the academic writing form called the essay in college, you can relax a bit. Anything they learn now will be helpful (and they will be glad to have learned the essay before college). But you don’t have to fret about it, if you don’t feel confident that you know how to teach it. (The SAT/ACT essay test is a slightly different animal and does need some preparation.)

3 reasons why it’s good to know how to write an essay:

1. Essays teach how to structure an argument
When my oldest was 15, he wanted very much to play video games called “First Person Shooters.” I found the idea of “playing” as a villain who shoots people pretty disturbing. I wanted to be sure that if this was an activity he engaged in, it wasn’t going to be damaging to him. Noah’s dad agreed with me. So we asked Noah to write an essay. I told him I needed to see support for his viewpoint and that we’d use his argument to make a decision.

This was a real decision for us to make. And his work really would help us decide.

So I helped him do research, showed him the format, taught him how to take his freewriting and put it into the structure of an essay and so on. His final product was certainly not the well-honed argument and highly crafted piece that I would expect of a college student. However, for a first effort, he did a good job. Through the research he and I did together, we were able to look at the issues.

Instead of the typical teen-parent impassioned fight over what is allowed or not in the home, Noah entered into a process where he had to think about what arguments supported his viewpoint and what ones contradicted his viewpoint. Could those be overcome? Were they too big?

In the end, the essay form allowed us to look at the question he posed and then find out whether or not there was any support for his contention. He had to create his argument within a structure, not just from emotion.

Essays train you to think clearly and to see through poor thinking and weak arguments.

2. Essays offer a format for rhetorical thinking.
The essay form is flexible and fun to use because it gives you a way to contain all that rhetorical thinking that you are doing as a teen or academic. Now maybe you don’t remember having fun using the essay format when you were in high school or college. That is most likely because a) you were never taught to write one but were expected to know how to use the form anyway, or b) you were taught to use the form but never cared about what you wrote.

If you were taught how to use the essay format and were allowed to write about something that created passion in you, then most likely, you enjoyed writing essays. They enable you to put your research into a manageable length and shape so that you can see what you have learned, so you can determine where the holes are in your thinking, so that you are able to quantify and codify your learning.

3. Essays give professors a way to evaluate large numbers of students
Because we homeschool, we have a better idea of what our kids are retaining and what they aren’t when they read a book or study a subject. But in most classrooms, there is one teacher and a minimum of twenty students. At UCLA (where I went), I was in lecture halls with 300 other kids! Essays help teachers to see the thinking of their students close-up. For many of us, that is the only contact we ever have with a professor.

Learning to express oneself with confidence and competence is the key to a good education.

My favorite two books for essay writing are:

The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing (6th Edition): I love the book so much that I use it when I teach the essay. It is far too long for most homeschooling mothers and too detailed for high school students. I have pared it down considerably and use many of their wonderful exercises in my essay classes. If you are the kind of mom who loves writing or majored in English or feels motivated to tackle writing with a college text, this is the book for you. Brave Writer’s manual Help for High School is built in part from this text (I’ve retooled some of the exercises to fit Brave Writer philosophy and to speak to high school students).

Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process by Peter Elbow: This book isn’t written to show you the form of the essay, but it does go a long way in helping students learn how to write academically without losing or compromising their voices. There’s a marvelous section in the book about “writing for teachers” and lots of help in how to dig deeply into a topic and explore it for all it’s worth. Peter Elbow is my writing mentor.


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