Since September I ‘ve been teaching high school seniors the art of college essay writing. This unit offers diverse challenges because every student is writing a unique, personal narrative that’s a reflective presentation of themselves.
But for me, the biggest challenge lies in encouraging high school students to break away from the rigidness of “school writing”. For years students have grown accustomed to writing formulaic responses that fit neatly into a five paragraph mold. Responses that pair well with rubrics and are easy to grade. I understand, the five pargraph model teaches the basics of writing but the problem lies when high school seniors cling to the writing model that earned them A’s in sixth grade and are afraid to let go. Though these essays maybe well- organized the responses often lack voice and personality.
Now there are many great tips out there for injecting voice into writing. But discovering voice take practice and dedication to the craft– something novice writers who are writing under the constraints of deadline don’t often have. So to help students break out of this elementary mold, I instruct them to examine their sentence structure.
Look you could be recounting an absolute biblical experience… lets say your wading in shark infested waters with your pet sea lion Buddy… but if your sentences follow the subject +verb+ preposition model that your 6th grade teacher taught you, your story essay will die as quickly as… you get the idea.
Here’s some advice…take your writing and count the number of words you have in each sentence.( I recommend doing this editing exercise in small chunks 4 – 5 sentences. Trying to edit an entire essay may make you wish you were swimming in shark infested waters.) Mark the end of each sentence with a number count. Look at your numbers. How similar are they?
Make sure that the numbers are varied. I often suggest to students that they vary their words by 5. In good writing, the sentences dance and shift and keep the reader on their toes. Varying sentence length is a simple way to create a unique voice while keeping your writing unpredictable and dangerous…like swimming with a sea lion in shark infested waters.