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College Writing 
Skills & Techniques Reviewed Spring 2007

The following skills and techniques were reviewed with the entire class to address patterns seen in a number of papers.  Individual papers have suggestions or corrections that pertain to that paper only.  Two excellent sources for grammar, usage, and mechanics questions are The JBHS Student Writing Tools and Reference Handbook of Grammar & Usage edited by Porter G.  Perrin (William Morrow & Company, Inc., New York, 1972).  Proofread all future papers for the following.

  Reviewed with the Writing Sample
Change "I could feel the cold wind trying to pierce through my skin" to " Cold wind pierced my skin."
Change "I saw several squirrels playing" to "Several squirrels played."
Change "There is an old man that shouts at the birds" to "An old man shouts at the birds."
 
Be Specific! Remember to focus on one incident or two incidents linked by a common idea.  Include specific sensory details to make the writing vivid to the reader.  Give characters names.  Show the scene occurring in a particular time and place.
Telling
"I loved my car.
Showing
"I brought her home and washed her, waxed and vacuumed her, carefully cleaned her windows.  Small imperfections appeared on closer examination - a small scratch on the hood, a paler green to her left rear fender, a pen-sized hole in her passenger seat - but they were the scars and freckles that made Vivian unique."


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Reviewed with the Personal Essay


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Reviewed with the "MoonJune Response" Position Paper



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 Reviewed with the Position Paper






Reviewed with the Self-Evaluation

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Potentially Repetitious
"Well?" she asked.
"I'm thinking," he said.
"Answer me." she said.
"Give me a minute," he said
More varied and vivid
Reviewed with the Feature Article2

"What'd ya say, sonny?" the old woman asked.  "D'ya think I'm deaf?"
"I'm sorry, Ma'am."  Ralph held his palms up in surrender.  "I didn't think you heard me."
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  • Planting Plot Details:  Be careful not to make to make the planting of important plot details too obvious.  Often they can best revealed through conversation or as a short description embedded in other description.  Often the plants are completely unnecessary.


  • Personal Anecdotes vs. Effective Fiction:  Readers or listeners have lower expectations for personal anecdotes.  They are told rather than shown with known characters and little description or interior monologue.  A short story needs more developed characters, a clear setting, an MDQ, a clear climax and some doubt to the outcome.  Also in "true" stories there is a great temptation to include information because it happened rather than because the story needs it.
  • Plot Twist ending vs. Character Development:  We have read and written a number of clever-plot-twist ending stories.  These are fun and entertaining but tend to be less valued than a character-driven story that shows a developed character making an important decision under pressure

  • Creating a Satisfying Short Story: It's often a fine line between what gives a satisfying glimpse into another world and what is not enough.  Sometimes it's just a matter of providing the telling details that make a world vivid, sometimes it's the uniqueness or dramatic pull of the conflict, sometimes it’s the clear but subtle change in the character(s) and sometimes it varies from audience to audience.  Trying a story out on different audiences is often the only way to tell how well the story works.  The line between a short story that works and one that has too much is often less fine.  Usually it's a matter of too many scenes, too many problems, or too much action movie or soap opera influence.  Finding the right balance is probably best achieved through practice; it is difficult to achieve in your first story.

  • The Importance of What Comes First:  The first few sentences (along with the last few sentences) have a greater weight with the reader.  Don’t waste them with trivial details.  The reader assumes that the first descriptions, characters, objects, etc. introduced will be very important to the story.

  • Indent Dialogue Like Any Other Paragraph: In fiction paragraph changes help the reader see a shift in time, place, or point of view.  Think of it like a change in cameras in a movie.  Make it clear for your reader.

  • Use Italics with Interior Monologue:  This can be a simple way to distinguish it from the dialogue and the rest of the text.



  • Creating a Satisfying Short Story: It's often a fine line between what gives a satisfying glimpse into another world and what is not enough.  Sometimes it's just a matter of providing the telling details that make a world vivid, sometimes it's the uniqueness or dramatic pull of the conflict and sometimes it varies from audience to audience.  Trying a story out on different audiences is often the only way to tell how well the story works.  The line between a short story that works and one that has too much is often less fine.  Usually it's a matter of too many scenes, too many problems, or too much of an action movie or soap opera influence.  Finding the right balance is probably best achieved through practice; it is difficult to achieve in your first story.
  • The Importance of What Comes First:  The first few sentences (along with the last few sentences) have a greater weight with the reader.  Don’t waste them with trivial details.  The reader assumes that the first descriptions, characters, objects, etc. introduced will be very important to the story.
  • Indent Dialogue Like Any Other Paragraph: In fiction paragraph changes help the reader see a shift in time, place, or point of view.  Think of it like a change in cameras in a movie.  Make it clear for your reader.
  • Use Italics with Interior Monologue:  This can be a simple way to distinguish it from the dialogue and the rest of the text.
  •  

    Other Common Feedback or Proofreading Errors




    Check Sentences for Parallel Construction:  Items in a sentence that are of equal importance should be expressed in parallel (or similar) forms.

  • Prepositions at the End of Sentences:  It used to be considered the rule to never end a sentence with a preposition.  This created some very awkward sounding sentences ("Of what are you so afraid?" vs. "What are you so afraid of?").  In general practice now you should double check prepositions at the end of the sentence to avoid repetition or awkwardness, but don't rewrite a sentence to create a more awkward alternative.

  • Attributions:  This is a fancy word for making clear to the reader who is speaking.  At the beginning of the story and at the beginning of long pieces of dialogue, identify the reader at the first natural pause.
  •    Confusing
              "Parents should sit down and talk to their children about what they hear on the radio."
                    Does "they" refer to what the children hear or what the parents hear?
         Clearer
              "Parents should sit down and talk to their children about what the children hear on the radio."

     
  • Check Pronoun Agreement: Make sure the pronouns and nouns agree.
  • Incorrect 
    "Everyone read their books."
    "Diagram the cells and its ..."
    Correct
    "Everyone read his or her book." 
    "Diagram the cells and their ...."

     "Do you have a pass?" the teacher asked.
    The Limits of Spellcheck:  Spellcheck can only check to see if your spelling fits a known word.  The spelling may match a homonym - a word (to. too & two; they're their & there; or wind and wined) with the same pronunciation but a different spelling and meaning.  If you know you are prone to make this type of error, have a good speller proofread all major papers.
  • Mom & my mom:  Capitalize words like mom, dad, uncle, grandmother, etc. only if they are used with a person's name or as a substitute for a person's name (not when they are preceded by a word like my, their, a, the, an, etc.) 
  • Be specific!:  Avoid overused "telling" words like beautiful, great, or interesting.  Instead show the reader describing the scene that is beautiful so the reader may see the beauty for herself.

  • Clarify Ambiguous or Vague Pronouns:  Make sure your he's, she's and it's are clear to the reader.  It is generally good to alternate using "he" or "she" and the person's name.  Avoid starting a sentence with "It" especially at the beginning of an essay or paragraph.  Also avoid starting sentences with "There are..." or "There is..."
     
  • Providing Analysis and a Clear Author's Viewpoint:  The feature articles were successful for being clear and respectful of the interviewee.  Perhaps they were too respectful.  Without being overbearing, you need to include your opinion on what is being said. Your viewpoint may also be made clear by the voice, style, or form you choose.

  • Run-on Sentences:  Check you papers for sentences with two (or too many) independent statements joined only by a comma.  You can either re-punctuate with a period, re-punctuate with a semi-colon, insert a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, yet) or rephrase it. If most of your sentences are very long, you may lose your reader; vary the sentence length for rhythm and effect.
  •  Run-on:  "Ralph left early he had to go to work."
     Repunctuate with a period:   "Ralph left early.  He had to go to work."
     Repunctuate with a semicolon:    "Ralph left early; he had to go to work."
     Insert a coordinating conjunction:  "Ralph left early for he had to go to work."
     Rephrase:  "Ralph left early to go to work."
  • Effect & Affect:  These words are most often confused when used as verbs -Effect  (to make or produce) is stronger than affect  (to influence).  When confused as a noun, the writer most often means Effect (result or consequence).
  •  "You can affect the outcome."
     "What effect will this have on me?"
    "George effected a reconciliation."

    • All the Pieces Must be Integrated into a Coherent Whole: A personal story or statistic mentioned at the beginning that is never mentioned again will seem tacked on.  You must return to it or integrate it throughout the whole paper.
    • Capitalize the Specific Name but not the Generic Title: Capitalize words like mom, dad, uncle, grandmother, etc. only if they are used with a person's name or as a substitute for a person's name (not when they are preceded by a word like my, their, a, the, an, etc.)  The same is true for Joel Barlow High School and high school