You Can Teach Writing

Here's a quick trick to teaching students

how to write a composition.

Any teacher who hopes to teach students how to write a composition that is well-developed but doesn't sound stale as a last-Christmas fruitcake needs to learn the trick of combining a solid writing plan with speed drafting.

Typical English class students haven't much interest in their writing topics to begin with.

If students have to revise a piece of expository writing (which they almost certainly will have to do if they don't plan well) they lose even what little interest they had.  The result is usually snoringly dull generalizations in lieu of ideas.

The key to teaching students how to write a composition that accomplishes the communications task it is meant to achieve is to keep students from trying to compose before they have done their preparatory work thoroughly.

Thorough preparation alone won't make novice writers submit simulating prose — these are beginning expository writing students, for pity sake, not Man Booker prize finalists — it should at least allow them to submit sensible prose.

Sensible is a good first step.

Seek improvements in the writing plan.

Students already have all the ideas that will be in their finished papers before they compose if they plan their writing strategically by:

  1. making a working thesis  
  2. making a writing skeleton™
  3. rippling to identify sources of evidence
  4. putting their sources and evidence into a complete plan.

What's more, you can usually get students to improve their ideas and/or their phrasing of those ideas while they are just entries in the complete plan template.

Since planning activities like drafting a thesis statement or a writing skeleton™ supporting point do not involve writing paragraphs, students regard such changes as just fixing something.

As long as it doesn't take too long, students don't mind fixing something. What they don't want to do is any rewriting or revising.

Encourage fixing things.

Composition builds on the complete plan

To turn their complete plans into compositions, writers add only four elements:

  • an introduction
  • an ending, often called the conclusion
  • supporting sentences inserted in body paragraphs using the evidence waltz strategy
  • linking devices and transitions throughout.

There's no law about how to write a composition that says what part of the composition the writer must draft first. Some folks find writing the body paragraphs first works best for them. Others don't feel comfortable unless they begin composition by writing their introductions.

Students should find the composition order feels best to them, But whichever composition order they choose, students should devote most of their time and attention to their body paragraphs.

Introductions introduce the writer's thesis statement.

Whatever students put in their introductions:

  • cannot be material marked for elsewhere in the paper, and
  • must direct attention toward the thesis.

Providing you emphasize those points to students, planning their body paragraphs well should protect students from the novice writers' composition mistake of putting evidence in the introduction.

Teaching tip: Until students are competent at writing body paragraphs, be satisfied with student texts in which the introductory paragraphs are mere tokens. It's more important for students to learn how to do the body paragraph writing tasks that don't change from document to document than to fret over introductory paragraphs.

The evidence waltz produces paragraph development.

The bones of the writing skeletonare the sentences supporting the writers' thesis statement — giving reasons for believing the thesis is true.

Those skeleton bones are also the topic sentences of the body paragraphs. Just as the thesis statement requires the topic sentences to give reasons why someone should believe it, the topic sentences of paragraphs require their own supporting sentences to show that the topic sentences are plausible.

Supporting sentences perform four functions for the topic sentence of their body paragraphs. They:

  • prepare the readers to receive the information,
  • identify the source and the source's credentials,
  • present the evidence, and
  • draw out the significance of the evidence.

Doing the evidence waltz prepares writers to provide sufficient supporting evidence clearly enough that readers will find the writer's argument reasonable.

Conclusions nod at their thesis statements.

The last thing students must add to create a finished composition is the conclusion or ending paragraph. Conclusions remind readers of the thesis that the writer has so ably proven and bring the text to an end as gracefully as possible.

Novice writers will do well to squeeze out two sentences. Don't fret about it. Beginning and ending paragraphs get better after students are confident about the body paragraphs.

Students should allow enough time during their composition session for a quick check for errors, even if that means having a wimpy ending paragraph. 

If they are typing their text, the quick check is to make sure they saved the document with an name they will remember and in a place where they can find it again. If students are handwriting a text, the quick check is to assure that they can decipher their writing when they come back to revise and edit.

Linking devices and transitions hold texts together

Besides needing a framework for presenting their evidence, students also need to have transitions and linking devices to transform their plans into prose paragraphs.

Nearly every English textbook has a section on transitional devices, but they are not nearly as important as linking devices. Linking devices are the glue that makes sentences into paragraphs.

A paragraph by a novice writer is likely to read like a collection of sentences. The sentences could be cut apart and moved around without any noticeable loss of meaning.

By contrast, the sentences of a competent writer work like links on a chain. Each sentence links into the one before and the one after it.

The standard pattern for information presentation in English sentences is
   known/given information at left ...... new information at right

Mature writers begin each sentence with a link to the known/given information established in the previous sentence before they present new information.

Common linking devices are

  • repeating words from the previous sentence.
  • using synonyms for words or phrases in the previous sentence.
  • using pronouns for words or phrases in the previous sentence.
  • using transition words or phrases.

People who grow up reading unconsciously absorb the normal sentence pattern of given information and new information. Your students who grew up without that reading experience need to be taught how to use the linking devices their well-read peers absorbed without thinking about it.

I recommend you begin teaching use of linking devices about the time students are answering their third formal writing prompt. That should be no later than the sixth week of a full-year writing course.

By then, parts of the writing process will be falling into place and students will be able to profit from help in how to write a composition that hangs together.  Even students who caught the content pattern from reading will profit from help with such things as pronoun-antecedent placement and agreement.

Require speed drafts.

The trick for showing students how to write a composition that is both well-planned and spontaneous is to force them to write the entire text of a short work in one hour-long sitting without referring to the comprehensive plan or any prepared notes

An hour is long enough for most teens and adults to concentrate on a complex intellectual task without a break.

Set the composition time a day after students have finished their plans and had some rest and relaxation, so they are not already frazzled.

Have students write in your classroom while you watch them. Telling students to speed draft at home until they have gotten used to speed drafting is a waste of breath.

Time pressure makes students focus their attention. The challenge of beating the deadline energizes the students' writing. As a result, their composition is fresher, more spontaneous, than writing that's been rewritten a couple of times.

You can suggest students begin their composition session by scratching a keyword outline. Chances are good that even if they are panicky and cannot recall something, once they begin to write they will remember.

Kindly remember this strategic teaching-learning activity aims at regaining spontaneity; it is not an essay test. When the speed drafting is done, the writing process isn't over yet.

Give students time to finish the writing process.

You may have students turn in their work so you can use it as a formative assessment, but you should give it back the next class so they can revise, correct, and edit their compositions. Unless students have the opportunity to revise, correct, and edit their compositions, you haven't allowed them to go through the entire writing process.

Students won't learn to do the entire writing process without practice. It's up to you to make sure they get that practice.

Having students do the revision and editing a day later helps to train students to take a break between writing and repairing. No writer can edit his/her own text well before it's had a chance to cool down.

Practice takes the terror out of writing under pressure.

You'll want to give students many experiences learning how to write a composition using speed drafting. Repeated exposure to informal writing is a good place to begin.

Even with that experience, however, some students will get shaky the first few times they have to write an entire composition in one session.

Whenever possible, I have students do all their composition work for an entire course during class time. The defined period lets students see improvement in their ability to handle timed writing.

After they've learned how to speed draft short texts, writers can speed draft longer works, like term papers, in sections. There, too, writers should limit themselves to working with an amount of material they can physically capture in an hour and write without without referring to their plan.

One final tip: don't teach how to write a composition.

Don't tell students they have to write a composition. That sounds like some dorky, English class thing.

 Instead have students:  

  • produce,
  • develop, or
  • draft
  • a text, or
  • a document, or
  • a response to an assignment.

Trust me on this: Your life will be much less stressful if you can teach students to write expository nonfiction without ever uttering the phrase how to write a composition.

What to read next

Speed drafting is the last writing strategy in the composition stage of the writing process. Next students move into the final repair stage, beginning with revising their texts to substantially match their plan.

The writing strategies (WS) for students use are best read in the order in which students use them. Begin with WS1, Make a working thesis.  The other writing strategies are WS2, Make a writing skeleton; WS3, Ripple for sources; WS4, Make a complete plan;  WS5, Speed draft the document; WS6, Do the evidence waltz; WS7, Revise to match the plan; WS8, Do single error editing.

Content on this page was published 2009-05-15 and updated 2011-12-14 by Linda Aragoni at you-can-teach-writing.com. She published it to yctwriting.com 2018-01-01.

Visitor comment on how to write a composition.

I can never remember, even in college, any professor explaining HOW to compose an essay (sad). ~ Becky W.