You Can Teach Writing

Build supporting sentences on evidence waltz strategy.

Novice writers' expository paragraphs are often underdeveloped because, even if students have topic sentences for their body paragraphs (in many cases they don't), when they sit down to write students don't know how to build supporting sentences.  

Building sentences that support a paragraph's topic sentence is what we mean by paragraph development.

You can teach even middle school students to develop the topic sentences in their expository paragraphs by doing the evidence waltz, which is a writing strategy for building the sentences that support the topic sentence of a body paragraph.

The best time to teach the evidence waltz strategy is during stage 1 of the writing process as you are teaching students to plan their documents.  If you teach it then, the evidence waltz becomes:

  • a tool for body paragraph writing later when students actually compose their documents, and
  • a revision checklist when students repair their speed-drafted documents. 

Here's how to teach the evidence waltz.

1. Teach the working thesis statement as the main point writers hope to prove.

2. Teach that the writing skeleton's 3-5 bones are reasons for believing the thesis statement is true. Another name for the skeleton's bones is body paragraph topic sentences.

3. Teach students to identify credible sources of evidence using ripple strategy.

4. Teach students to put that evidence into a complete plan as a summary accompanied by a note of the sources' credentials on the writers' topic.

5. Show students how those four planning activities will fit together into body paragraph development when the actually sit down to compose their documents.

1, 2, 3. Feel the rhythm. 1, 2, 3.

The evidence waltz steps are:

  1. Prepare the reader to receive the evidence.
  2. Present the evidence.
  3. Explain the significance of the evidence to the reader.

You need to explain to students exactly what each of those steps means and how to perform each of them. More importantly, you need to give students feedback during supervised practice sessions for weeks. Many weeks.  

For the time being we're going to concern ourselves with third party evidence: It's the least familiar to students and it's the type of evidence they will most frequently need to use in academic and business communications.

Step 1: Prepare the reader.

Paragraph development includes preparing readers to recognize the supporting sentences with which the writers plan to convince those readers that they have good and sufficient reasons for believing a body paragraph's topic sentence is true.

In the short documents students need to write in order to get enough writing practice to become competent at expository writing, the preparation for the evidence will probably will require just one sentence.

Writers need to:

  • alert readers to the fact that they are about to present evidence,
  • suggest what the readers can expect in the evidence.

They will say things such as:

The first study to show the need for paint box turtles to use lead-free paints was done in 1954.

After alerting readers that evidence is coming, integrating sources isn't difficult even for struggling writers in the class. They just need to

  • tell the name of the source of the information and
  • present the source's credentials before they present the source's evidence.

A source may be a person or a group of people (such as the American Medical Association or the University of Alaska). The source can also be a term that refers to a person or group,  such as Capitol Hill, meaning Congress, or the Oval Office, meaning the president of the United States.

By credentials, we mean what makes the source an expert on the topic under discussion. For example, is the source an expert because she is president of the International League of Latin Teachers or is she an expert because she had her first oratorio produced at Carnegie hall when she was 7?

Integrating sources doesn't take much time or effort. In a short document or a literature review in a term paper, it is OK to take as much as a full sentence to establish the source's credentials; taking more space than that feels like the writer is padding the text.

Evaluation of experts' credentials is a crucial skill.

It is particularly important that students know how to find and evaluate an individual's qualifications to be treated as an expert on a subject. If you aren't teaching those skills, you need to be.

Because someone is on TV or has a podcast doesn't necessarily make that individual an expert on mental health, South Korea's nuclear program, STEM teaching, or childhood vaccinations.

Step 2: Present the evidence.

Expository writers usually handle integrating sources in an almost invisible way. They usually slip the source's credentials into their expository paragraph by writing the credentials in the same sentence with the expert's name.

Below are some examples of how to do that. I put the credentials in boldface so they stand out:

Maybell Muttonhead, 16-term mayor of Mudflats, said ...
Cliff Clench, 1957 Montana state wresting champ, said ...
Dried Pea Collectors League of North America President Chick Legume said ...

The actual evidence is what the writer puts after said. The evidence is one (or more) of the supporting sentences for the topic sentence of the body paragraph in which it appears.

Writers should summarize what their sources said.

In business and academic writing evidence is almost always presented as a summary.  Paraphrase and quotation of more than a sentence are frowned on.

I recommend you require students to summarize evidence when they gather it. Students won't be able to summarize information without understanding it.

When students are writing on authentic class topics, you do want them to understand the material, don't you?

The outline template has a box reserved for a single sentence summary of the source's information.  Even if students pluck their summaries from their complete plans, they won't slide into plagiarism as those who copy source information or paraphrase it are all too frequently do.

Also, if students summarize their evidence when they put it into their outline templates, when it's time to put the evidence into their exposition, they will probably remember the gist of the source's evidence.

Present the evidence in conversational order.

The standard way of presenting evidence in expository writing is the same way we present evidence when we talk, integrating sources before presenting their evidence. There's nothing exotic about that model for presenting evidence. It's a three-step process familiar from everyday conversation: Source said that .... 

In grammatical terms, it is simply subject, verb, object.

Using the standard way of presenting evidence is far more important in written exposition than in oral exposition.

In written exposition, we are crafting supporting sentences for a body paragraph's topic sentence.  In turn, those topic sentences are the supporting sentences for the document's working thesis statement.

If readers don't notice the evidence in a body paragraph (which happens if it's not introduced properly) or don't recognize its significance, the entire document may collapse. That's why making sure the supporting sentences are recognizable is such a vital part of paragraph development.

Follow the Said Only rule.

In business and academic writing, the only word used to convey the meaning said is said. When they are doing expository writing, students should not use avowed, sighed, crowed, lisped, exclaimed, drawled, opined or any other descriptive word.

Those descriptive verbs should be reserved for situations where they are appropriate: nonfiction narratives, fiction, and poetry.

(The only possible exception to the Said Only rule I can think of is when summarizing something that President Donald Trump posted on Twitter.)

Students also shouldn't use adverbs in business or academic writing to tell how the source said the information. No loudly, sharply, or thoughtfully.

And students should never, ever reverse the normal subject-verb order: "Said Jones" is pretentious and slows it down reading.

Step 3: Show the evidence's significance.

Beginning writers of all ages overlook the third step of the evidence waltz, which is explaining to readers how the evidence supports the topic sentence of its body paragraph.

Writers must explain how a specific bit of evidence represents is a credible expert's opinion bolstering the writer's option that the  topic sentence is true.

Supporting sentences provide support only if readers recognize the significance of the evidence. In a conversation where all parties know the context, a listener may be able to figure out the significance of evidence without help. Expository writers, however, need to explain the significance in case readers lack the background information and context the writer has.

Follow a conversational pattern to show significance.

Most of us have no trouble pulling out the significance of evidence when we talk. For example, I say to my walking partner, "The weather forecaster says it will rain all day Thursday, so I guess we'd better not plan to walk that afternoon."

The evidence — the predicted rain —  has the significance that conditions for walking won't be pleasant.

I could just as well find some other significance in my evidence. I might say, "The weather forecaster says it will rain all day Thursday, so that might be a good day for us to go see the new baby."

Teach waltzing early and often.

Don't expect students be able to build supporting sentences for their body paragraph's topic sentences after you've presented the idea once; they'll need lots of time to practice, and lots of supporting feedback from you as they practice.

What to read next

Students do the evidence waltz as they compose the first drafts of documents that respond to formal writing prompts. Read next about my strategy for composing those drafts, which I call speed drafting.

The writing strategies (WS) are best read in the order in which they are used: WS1, make a working thesis; WS2, make a writing skeleton™; WS3, ripple for sources; WS4, make a complete plan; WS5, speed draft the text; 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.


Teach the evidence waltz with stage 1 planning strategies.

Even though students won't deploy the evidence waltz strategy until they are speed drafting their compositions, they'll learn it best and use it best if you teach it in a package with the planning strategies.

Taught at that point, it shows students how what they are learning is going to be useful.  Also, it's easier to see how the bits of information from the writing skeleton, complete plan, and evidence waltz come fit together if students aren't simultaneously trying to speed draft a text in an hour.