Here’s my method:
Step One: Motivate them. Show them why they should care—because you can’t write skillfully if you don’t care enough to work at it. (This is important and shouldn’t be short-changed. The students who improve the most are those who take the class seriously and give it their best effort. Those who don’t… don’t improve much.)
Step Two: Teach them to see that some sentences have problems. Develop their ability to detect serious weaknesses in the sentences they read and write.
Step Three: Teach them strategies for improving problem sentences.
Step Four: Teach a few simple ways to write more clearly and gracefully.
Step Five: Show them the most common mistakes in grammar and punctuation, and train them to avoid making these mistakes.
Let them practice each new skill as they learn it. Have them write sentences using the concept—in class, for homework, and in the next class.
That’s it! Not so complicated, right?
At each class meeting, I try to include most of the following activities:
- I share brief examples of excellent writing, and point out why I admire each one. Sometimes the example illustrates the technique I’ll be teaching that day; other examples are meant to inspire.
- After we discuss the essay, story, or poem they’ve read for homework (or sometimes before), they write for five to ten minutes in response to a question. I try to devise questions that challenge them to think, but that don’t intimidate or paralyze them.
- I ask them to distill the main idea of their in-class writing into one sentence, and then polish it to the best of their ability.
- They post these sentences online (anonymously, if they prefer) and I project the page so they can see what others wrote. We then discuss these sentences: which ones seem to work best, how others could be improved, etc.
- I also teach one brief lesson about style or grammar in every class, and have them practice the skill in sentences of their own afterwards. For homework, I have them read a handout about that skill and practice using it again.
When they hand in essays, I copy edit the first half-page of text—with as light a touch as I can manage—and mark a few of the most glaring problems on the remaining pages, if necessary. The point is to show them a few possible improvements, not to traumatize them.
And that’s the whole method.
- There’s never enough time for everything. No matter what gets omitted, though, I try to have them write for five minutes at every class meeting, and polish one sentence. Some students have said the in-class writing helped more than any other part of the class, because they learned to write without anxiety.
- The core insight: students have to start paying attention to the quality of their sentences. Have they expressed the idea they meant to express? Is each sentence clearly written, or does the reader have to work hard to find the meaning of the words?
- Getting better at this requires that they look at what they’ve written, preferably after at least a day has passed, and see it with the eyes of a reader. I assume that the students who improve are the ones who take revision seriously. Those who hand in work that obviously hasn’t been proofread tend to make the least progress.
- Learning these concepts doesn’t have to induce misery. I try to make the lessons short and entertaining. Many students have told me they appreciated my lessons, because they had never learned these things before. They’ve also said they enjoyed seeing their classmates’ work, and learned from it.