Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Home-School Writing: The Five Most Important Writing Skills

WritingImage by jjpacres via FlickrBy Daniel Yordy

In teaching your home-schooled teenager how to write well, what are the most important writing skills they need to learn? Different writers would likely produce different lists of skills, but here are five that I consider at least among the most important for effective writing.

1. Change weak verbs to action; omit useless words.

Although maybe not as important as my second on this list, I place action writing first because good writing begins with action writing. Action writing is simply the use of interesting action verbs as often as possible (at least half the time) without weak infinitives, weak participles, or weak linking verb/helping verb constructions.

Here's what I mean by a weak verb construction: "He may be going to get to go to the store." This weak verb construction includes a weak helping verb, a linking verb, a weak participle, and two weak infinitives. Yet I see this stuff regularly in student writing.

Interesting single action verbs in past tense include: "He catapulted out of bed." "Her face convinced me of my success." "The crow cawed its intentions."

2. Take your reader with you.

This skill includes many elements of good writing, but without it, your reader will stop reading - the ultimate failure of poor writing. This skill begins with focusing on the readers, being certain the tone and wording is appropriate to them. It includes using transition signals and defining terms so that your reader understands everything you say.

Taking your reader with you even includes skills 1, 3, and 4, that is, making the flow of thoughts interesting and thought-provoking. Finally, be sure that your readers are satisfied upon completion, that they finish your paper with some added benefit to their lives, whether by giving them curious information, or laughter, or some serious consideration, or just the joy of a beautiful world or the sorrow of some deep grief.

3. Develop elements of surprise and suspense in any form of writing.

Ideas are problems waiting to be solved. They are difficulties to conquer, snares to escape, or treasures to win. Good writing begins with a series of fascinating or entertaining or important ideas. It then weaves those ideas into a fabric like a web that captures readers. They read because they must know the answer to the questions you have raised.

One of my favorite opening lines of any book I have read is John Grisham's The Partner: "They found him." Those look like plain and dull words, but placed together as the opening lines - oh, the questions they raise. Who are they? Who is he? Why are they looking for him? What did he take? What will they do to him now that they have found him? And that's only for starters. With an opening like that, repeated several times in the first couple of pages, I am hooked. I must know what happens next.

All good writing includes surprise and suspense - the very thing that takes a reader forward.

4. Add sensory details to personalize and make vivid.

To make an idea interesting is to make it real to the five senses of your reader. Your reader must see and hear, taste, smell, or touch the elements of your topic. Your reader must know - and like - the characters in your story or the topics of your essay. Sensory details, imagery, dialogue, description, the right words in the right way, figurative language, all work together to make the picture you are presenting real to the reader.

Listen, these things apply even in an essay on chemical reactions in chemistry class. If your professor is fascinated by the picture you present and forgets that he's "grading" an assignment, you've won.

5. Revise, revise, and revise.

Effective writers - writers who are read - re-write and re-write many times. The best approach to re-writing, of course, is to find someone else, someone with a critical eye and a tough skin, to read and mark and criticize what you have written. Bear into that criticism. Change what is recommended. Alter your approach. Try it again. Revising and editing your work are half of the writing process.

If you lay out these five skills of effective writing for your teenagers, they will have a broad, but specific view of how to tackle the process of learning to write well.

Daniel Yordy is Your Editor at The Writing Conservatory. He has taught writing to students - and learned writing - for almost 30 years. His effective writing course has been hammered out inside of junior high, high school, and college classrooms.

Maybe you have a student homeschooling high school and you want to know that they can write effectively both in entering college and for life. Or maybe you want to learn to write (and teach writing) well. Check out http://www.thewritingconservatory.com/WritingCourse/index.php?page=IsetA Help yourself freely to anything you see.

Copyright 2012 by The Writing Conservatory. Freely use without changes, including links.

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