Monday, January 2, 2017

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5 Modern Steps to Effective Writing

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As the Director of a Learning Center which services K-12 students, adult learners and college students, I am afforded the opportunity to see many different approaches to writing and composition. During my time as an educator, I have overseen the work of many students in diverse age groups, as well as spent a bulk of my career personally tutoring children and young adults in various academic programs. Yet, no matter where I teach, from the college classroom to private learning institutions, it always amazes me when I hear some of the things teachers tell students, and the "advice" they give on writing. Even worse, I cringe when I hear some of the "rules" teachers have laid down over the years in their attempts to create better writers in their classrooms.

  Simply put, in modern writing there are very few rules. As we transition from the old guard to the younger generation of English teachers, the Writing and Composition advice given to American students needs to be taken with a grain of How long ago did you learn that? salt.

 What do I mean? Let's take the concept of rough drafts, for example. I interact with teachers who demand that students write rough drafts on paper in their own handwriting. This is an antiquated practice for an infinite amount of reasons, which I won't fully get into, but in short; its a teaching tool that should have gone the way of the Woolly Mammoth.

Why? Today's writer does not write by hand. He or she writes on a word processor, such as google docs, microsoft word, or even the text app on his or her cell phone. Thus, when composing one's thoughts, today's writer does not have to encounter the obligatory task of "writing in order" for any reason other than it being the way we've always done it. 

For instance, just yesterday I helped a High School Senior write his college entrance essay for an Ivy League school. We toiled for 85 minutes trying to figure out what to do with this very important piece of personal writing (that may make or break his chances at getting into one of the land's finest institutions). In the end, the solution was one that Mr or Mrs. "write it by hand" would have never accomplished. The ingenious solution was to flip flop the intro and conclusion. I copied and pasted the last paragraph, switched it with the first, and magic happened as the body of the entire essay made it so that they made more sense in their new positions, rather than the other way around.My student then took 2 sentences, which seemed slightly out of context after the switch, and peppered them throughout the body paragraph of his essay, making it seem as if they had been there the entire time.

     The essential lesson here is not about this one incident, or "miracle" as my student called it. Rather, the most important takeaway, is that MODERN WRITING is not a linear process.

    I openly admit, that it is important to teach the 4 and 5 paragraph essay, in order to facilitate structure in a young student's writing experiences. It is also important to practice top to bottom writing to ensure understanding of said practice as well, and to give the student a background on the way writing has progressed to its current state. However, it is by no means necessary, or even always best practice, to compose things in order. As a professional tutor and director of academic programs, I prefer to teach both advanced and struggling students alike, a method of writing that is more reminiscent of movie editing than "traditional writing."

  Just like a film editor, I teach students to find the best clips of writing with an idea in mind of what sequence will be necessary to tell the story or narrative they intend. A writer can use these bullet points or clips to start a research paper or a creative piece.

      This is useful because students that struggle with the concept of how to formulate a paper know that the "old school" top to bottom approach is usually not the best method. In turn, when teaching professionally, my writing focus is to show our students the intricate relationship between comprehension and composition.  In an academic setting, a student is very rarely going to face a writing assignment that has not been discussed in the classroom, or at the very least, in daily homework assignments. We take those classroom discussions and turn them into checkpoints that need to be touched upon in the paper. In turn, because we are not beholden to the "order of things" we already have a good chunk of the research work done. This alleviates a lot of the frustration and tension of where to start and can be helpful if a writer is stuck in the mud on a piece as well.

For the majority of writing assignments that come from work or school, discussion points should be in notes, books, and handouts. Once those discussion points are acquired, we have most of what is needed for the body of a paper or report.  When taking on a writing assignment, or research paper for example, one must keep in mind how to formulate thoughts which piggy-back on the concepts that are being learned in the classroom. When a student is working with a tutor, it is easier to accomplish a streamlined method of writing, as the tutor will be able to help the student to decipher the meaning of the question(s) being asked, and the proper way to answer said question within the guidelines of that assignment. But that still leaves us with HOW DO WE START? WHAT GOES FIRST? and so on...

Essentially, the answer is simple, here are five modern steps to effective writing

1) Start with what you've been handed.
Start with the notes. Start with the class readings. Start with the memos handed out at the meeting you attended. Start with the things that are given to you, and make them into bullet points or some other tangible display on paper. Take these points and list them directly on your doc. This is done so that there is a map of the various points that need to be touched upon in your writing (or presentation) and use them as guidelines for your attempts to connect each of those points within the context of the assignment or project. Think of a "treatment" for a movie plot, and begin by emphasizing the "Main scenes" of your project first, connect the dots later. In a classroom or work setting, there will always be material given which is pertinent to the assignment you are expected to complete. This also means looking at the parameters of the assignment, and being informed of the requirements that need to be fulfilled as well as the rules that govern that process in your work/school environment.

2) FORGET ABOUT THE ORDER, for now. 
As is stated above, it is very important to know how to organize one's thoughts, and display them in an interesting and coherent manner. Yet, when you begin to put your thoughts on paper, and make those thoughts into statements, it is okay to create a few mini paragraphs around the key points, and to intersect them, rearrange them etc. It is important to reorganize your work when presenting it to others, and eventually find one's way back into Intro, Body, Conclusion format, in order to create semblance and harmony in the writing. However, that can be infused by creating effective transitions and bridge paragraphs between your "bullet points" and developed through a study of the overlapping facts, which will lead to overlapping concepts etc.

3) Read what others have written on the subject
It is essential to good research and integral to the art of writing to have read what others have written on the subject. Distinguish between your primary and secondary sources, and accompany your research of the subject you are approaching with supplemental writings and alternate perspectives which have come before you. It is important to know your peers when developing the ability to display counterpoint and to present the most objective and logical arguments possible. Good writers must quote others with due reference, but there's nothing wrong with being influenced by someone else's analysis. You could say that #3 is an extension of #1, but beyond the surface level.

4) An Understanding of Grammar is the key to strong writing. 
When one is informed of the proper arrangement of words, and the relationship between the written and spoken word, the writer becomes capable of capturing incredible complexities within simple sentences, and of elaborating immense depth of thought through the English Language. Knowing the proper parts of speech, methods of phrasing, and mid to upper level grammatical principles is imperative when discussing becoming a more effective writer in any forum. Strong grammar creates the pathways for expansive vocabulary and its proper use.

5) Learn from a mentor. 
Writing is often a "trial and error" learning process. The more writing a person can do, the better he or she will become. However, just like a sport, playing with a higher level of competition and learning from those more experienced, will undoubtedly expedite progress in all learning processes. This is most especially true with writing. The written word is an ART FORM. It is one which deserves style, inventiveness and personality. In order to master your own particular approach to writing, it would be wise to learn from someone else who has gone further on that journey.

As a writing tutor and teacher with over a decade of experience, I too still submit my work (including this piece) to more seasoned writers, whose experience trumps my own in many areas. This rule of learning is what inspired our "round table" approach at Think Tank, as we have always aimed to offer our clients the most variety in our explanations of concepts, and encourage students to bounce ideas off of our entire staff. This process is created to help our students and teachers learn from their collective experiences and discuss the best methods of approach in open forum. 

If you follow these practices, you are bound to become a better writer. Our 5 Step method is a modern writing style that possesses enough elasticity to apply to many different genres of writing and conceptualizing. If you are having trouble with your writing, you must find a way to push through the creative wall and to get the words on the page. This method will help you to accomplish just that and will open the door to a lot more.


- Blake 

EMAIL ME: ThinkTankAcademics@gmail.com 

Blake X. Curry M.A.L.S. 
Director 
Think Tank Academic Group

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