In order to teach students to write well, it requires that you get them to revise their sentences

Jostling me out of my grading groove this weekend was this item–another candidate for my collection of student sentences:

In order to be a successful advocate, it requires that you be extremely persistent.

I blogged about this type of sentence earlier: a moderately heavy modifier (“in order to…”) leads up to a maximally light subject (“it”). These elements, to my ears, beg to be tightened. The “it” cries out for elimination; the modifier, for incorporation into the main clause:

Being a successful advocate requires that you be extremely persistent.

(Or, taking it a step further: Being a successful advocate requires extreme persistence).

I’ve attributed the increase in such loose, wordy sentences, in part, to a decrease in how much students revise their papers. That’s not the full story—not everyone hears these sentences as excessively loose or wordy.  A student might re-read a paper full of them and not feel the slightest urge to revise anything.

But I’ve got other reasons for thinking that students aren’t casting their eyes back upwards—or leftwards–at what they’ve written. Consider the squiggly red lines that word processors generate under questionable word choices and grammatical errors. Even if students don’t notice the garbling of a sentence that begins one way and ends another, wouldn’t they at least notice a squiggly red line?

I certainly notice the red squiggles (and the green ones and the blue ones): they leap out to me as I marvel at why they’re still there. OK, it’s possible that students do notice the squiggles, and perhaps address some of them, but that they don’t care or don’t know how to fix all of them. For some reason, however, I prefer to think that their eyes simply never look back; that, as the spoken and written modes continue to merge (think text messaging), writers become like speakers in only worrying about what’s next. The past is over; there’s no sense in going back. If you have any corrections, make like Microsoft with its patches and simply tack them on to the end of what you’ve already said.

All the more reason—assuming we don’t want a complete merger between speech and writing–for teachers to step in and make students revise—and revise repeatedly. Doug Lemov has posted a great piece on this: he discusses both the virtues of assigning students frequent, multiple revisions, and the impracticality of teachers constantly reading and giving feedback on dozens of full-length papers. His solution? Focus on the sentence—the smallest unit of prose that lends itself to multiple revisions, and have students–guided by feedback–revise given sentences over and over.

I’m guessing that such practice would foster, among other things, refined ears for looseness and wordiness. And with that, a gradual reduction in “In order to X, it requires that..”, “In X’s book, it discusses…”, “From doing Y, it seems that…”, “For those people who do A, they also do B”—and a whole extended family of similar sentences that have sometimes offered me a perversely welcome distraction from grading.

3 thoughts on “In order to teach students to write well, it requires that you get them to revise their sentences

  1. The interesting thing about that sentence is that it’s modeled completely on how one speaks. Often I’ll think and say some sort of clause and realize along the way it needs an assertion! Oops, let’s tack one on.

    Which is fine for speaking! (And hopefully dashed off blog comments from a phone )

    But clearly, people aren’t going back and turning stream of consciousness into logically flowing ideas and arguments.


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