Taming the Cluttered Writing Monster
IT’S that time of year again, when your student hands you the writing assignment he supposedly worked on for the past month. Visions of triumph swirl through your head—this will be the crowning writing project of the school year, the showpiece for grandparents’ open house night. Yet now, as you stare down at the jumbled sentences, you see only a disorganized, cluttered mess.
This may seem like the perfect time for a homeschooling mama to panic or retreat. But before you do either, take heart! Your kids have a bunch of words and bright ideas to share with the world. They probably just need a little more guidance and instruction. Arm yourselves against the Cluttered Writing Monster, and let the battle begin!
Cluttered Writing Problem #1: Too Many Topics
Imagine that your 10-year-old’s book summary includes a paragraph like this:
The ship captain was a mean man. He never smiled. Every morning, the captain ate his hot breakfast in his cabin on the ship. The captain’s teeth were crooked. The food always tasted bad on the ship, because the cook was a runaway blacksmith. The cabin boy was the one who always brought the captain’s breakfast. The cabin boy liked to look at the maps in the captain’s cabin. The walls smelled musty, but the maps smelled like faraway places. The cabin boy didn’t want to run away.
Often, students think a “summary” means writing down as many facts as they can remember. But as you know, a one- to three-page summary should focus on a few important topics, not a boatload of trivia. If you want to stop cluttered writing in its tracks, help your child organize his thoughts out loud. Here’s one way to do this:
You: Who is the main character?
Child: The cabin boy.
You: What are four of the most important qualities about this character?
Child: He’s obedient, he loves exploring, he makes friends with everyone on the ship, and he keeps his promises.
You: Where does the story take place?
Child: On the ship.
You: Can you describe the ship in a few sentences?
Child: It has three masts, but one falls down and gets repaired. It has a captain’s cabin full of maps for distant islands. It has a galley full of smelly food and funny music from the cook’s harmonica. The ship was designed to sail quickly and to carry light loads.
Young writers can easily get bogged down with too many ideas. A simple conversation with your child can quickly narrow down the main character, setting, and supporting sentence ideas. Don’t forget to make notes together on a white board or notebook paper. Soon, your child will be able to take a sword to his own papers, cutting right to the point.
Cluttered Writing Problem #2: Too Many Words
Does your teenage daughter use flowery, pretentious writing, also known as purple prose? Consider this overdone paragraph:
Like a brood of vipers, Natalie’s ebony locks hung thickly on her hunched, crooked shoulders like the awful blackness of night. With shifty eyes and a sneaky manner, she furtively glanced at the dark, foreboding, overgrown forest behind her. Oh! How desperately she longed and dreamed and schemed for the day when she and she alone would vanquish the evil queen’s army and defeat every last law-abiding soldier who stood between her and the sweet taste of retribution and victory.
Though such writing would thrill a young Anne of Green Gables, teen writers—especially girls—may need to learn that bigger words and longer sentences don’t make them look smarter. Finding the one right word, and using it wisely, is the mark of a true wordsmith. Help your student cut down the towering monster of wordiness with the sword of concise writing.
Many factors can contribute to cluttered writing. In addition to disorganization and wordiness, spelling, grammar, and handwriting mistakes may be the problems that plague a child’s papers. Some of these will require intensive one-on-one training, while others may diminish over time.
If paragraph organization, word choice, or sentence style are among your children’s foes, look no further! WriteShop offers a host of writing curriculum for different grade levels. As you reevaluate your homeschool writing materials, you may want to consider one of these programs next year to help your kids tame the Cluttered Writing Monster!
Daniella Dautrich is a WriteShop alumna and a graduate of Hillsdale College. She and her husband fill their home with books on writing, literature, and computer science. Daniella blogs at www.waterlilywriter.wordpress.com.
Photo: mdubinko, courtesy of Creative Commons.