Replacing Overused Words: Just a Band-Aid
A quick Internet check offers a plethora of activities and suggestions for making writing "sizzle," but I can't help but notice how this attempt at "correcting" writing has gone wrong. Call it what you'd like: putting said to bed; million dollar words; sizzle words; worn out words; snazzy synonyms; graveyard words. The list goes on. But the reality is this- replacing "She was sad," with "She was depressed," doesn't push our students to new levels of writing proficiency. It is only a band-aid to a larger goal at hand.
Where Descriptive Words Have Gone Wrong
So, I am handed a pile of writing prompts to grade using our state rubric. It's part of a district-wide requirement that occurs three times a year. I sit down to read over the set of prompts for scoring. After just a few pieces I grunt and push the pile aside. I literally had to take a break from it all. The writing was so rigid-so forced- so formulaic. It was amazing to think anyone, let alone a prompt grader, was going to enjoy hours of this scripted stuff. It was as if the students had been taught good writing consists of strong descriptive words and figurative language. Lots of it. I imagine the message may have sounded like this before the prompt was shared, "Make sure you put plenty of descriptive words and similes/metaphors in your writing. You need to do this to earn a higher score." They sure did listen; it sure was bad. Descriptive writing can get double fried with the wrong focus.
Take the Focus off Overused Words. Replace it with Show Not Tell/ Writing Small Moments
I think it is through the focus of show not tell that we can naturally assist our writers with being descriptive without an isolated attempt at pumping up our sentences with replacement words.
Let's take the example of the girl who is sad. We can write that she is sad. We can say she feels melancholy even. But most writers will not tell you a character is sad. They will show it. And that is where the real talent is. I go back to Calkins who shared a piece from a child she conferred with at her workshop.
"When I came home from school yesterday, I found my fish in the trash can. I was very sad. I wish he was still alive."
With a focus on show not tell and writing about small moments, this is what this event could sound like (although my version is not as poignant as hers was):
"I walk over to the trash can. I press the pedal down- the lid moved up. I lean over and notice something orange and wet. My eyes zoom in like a microscope, not believing what I saw. There, buried in some coffee grinds, is my fish, Goldie. I blink my eyes several times and feel a hardness in my chest. I reach down, and without thinking, I pick him up in my hands. I flick the coffee grinds off him with one hand and stare at his weak, lifeless body. My best friend- gone. I bit my lip and nervously call out, 'Dad?' "
The truth is, no amount of replacement words is going to fix the first writing piece. Replacing some words is just a band-aid. Adding in words is a band-aid as well. It's like worrying about the gutters of a house, when the house is on fire. And if that cliche doesn't work for you, how about this- it's like putting lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig. Same concept.
The larger goal at hand has to be helping students write in a way that mimics real-life writing. Writing that is descriptive through showing and descriptive through slowing down events through a series of small moments...this naturally assists students to have "million dollar" writing with "million dollar" words. And we do this through author after author, lesson after lesson, throughout the year.
Taking a Peek Inside Our Classroom
So, want to step into our classroom for a lesson? I do have a reason why I recorded myself, but I will spare you the details. For now, at least. This comes from our fiction writing unit and supports the concept of writing/thinking descriptively about possible characters in our writing.
Lesson Summary: We discuss where fiction ideas come from. Do they come from the clouds or from small snippets of our observations and real-life? This is lesson two of our unit and writing partner talks have been edited for viewing purposes. It is longer than a typical lesson and focuses in on character traits and struggles. Length-15 minutes.
Lesson corrections: The story referred to in our discussion is "Slower Than the Rest" by Cynthia Rylant. It comes from Every Living Thing, a series of short fiction pieces.
A Writing Conference with Sarah
Summary: Sarah grasps grade-level conventions and generally writes in length daily. In this conference, we focus on developing her character, Sammy, who is battling self-esteem issues through baseball and adjusting to a living with mom after a divorce. This conference comes the day after the lesson posted above. The following day, we discuss what it is our characters really want (e.g. acceptance, love, etc.) and what is getting in the way. Sarah quickly answers these questions about her character, due in part, to our conference.
Author's Share Time
Summary: As our lesson starts off with an example of Katelin's recollection of saving a turtle from being run over, here is an example of how she works with this information to possibly place in a future fiction piece.
Here are some of the anchor charts used to support the lessons, conferences, and writing. The first three come from U of S, and the last one comes from Ralph Fletcher's Craft Study with the premise being that if you develop a character well enough you can place them in a series of events and then decide how to piece them together. I also carry a small set of laminated index cards now that restates the anchor chart points. It is a helpful resource for students that need extra support.
P.S. I was not at school 5:30 as the clock on the wall states. It's broken. It does, however, tell the right time twice a day.
To learn more about our class, visit us at: http://www.bar.rcs.k12.tn.us.teachers/bunyia/bunyihome.html