I’m well over 100 posts now. If this were a tv show, I ‘d be syndicated, and you’d be seeing reruns at 10:30 after the Seinfeld reruns. I’ve only done one repeat so far, but today we started talking about the writing technique called Show not Tell. I always like to start the year teaching them this one, because it makes their writing much more interesting to read for the rest of the year. Last year’s entry (9/22/08) about this says most of what I have to say, but I’ll come back at the end to add a couple of things.
Here we go, from last September, with…
“Don’t tell us the old lady screamed…”
“…Bring her on, and let her scream.” –Mark Twain.
For most middle schoolers, one of the biggest problems they have with writing is being specific. Everything is weird or cool or disgusting or fun. Especially weird or disgusting. There are no details, just general opinions. (Oh how seventh graders love to give unsolicited opinions…) I like to start the year introducing them to the idea of Show not Tell. The first assignment is always to “show” me the messiest, most disgusting room possible…without using any of those kinds of opinion words. I encourage them to really go for it and try to disgust me. (“Keep it PG! Not PG 13.”) “Use all five senses: I want to hear the shlupe shlupe shlupe as you traverse the soggy, fetid marsh that is your carpet. I want to be brushing away flies and squinting through the greenish fog. I want to hear the muffled cries of your brother trapped under the mountain of gym clothes and mildewed socks.” And etc. I get all that (some of it exactly as I suggested it) and a lot more. Seventh graders love this one. They get to be gross, and talk about diapers, and…oh my, they get into it. So much so that something like 80% of them gave me 400+ words…ALL IN ONE PARAGRAPH.
I gave the papers back the other day, showed some examples on the overhead (both good and bad – “Don’t do this!”), and translated my chicken-scratch comments (“WDILL means What Does It Look Like? It means you are still telling me instead of showing me. Eww is a compliment. That’s a 16. Ummm, that says Start Here; it means you need to eliminate the first 5 sentences; they’re just padding.”)
“For the most part, you guys did great, but it looks like most of us need to work on paragraphing. I got some papers that were 3 page paragraphs. That’s just too much all at once, too big a chunk.”
“That’s why we cut and chew our food. So we can digest it. The same goes for reading and writing. Our eyes, let alone our brains, can’t focus on such huge blocks of text. They need to be chopped up into manageable chunks.” (Since we were talking grossness…) “You know when your dog gets excited, and swallows the can of dogfood whole and then, very soon, the food comes back in almost the exact same shape, with even the indentations of the can intact?” Ewwwww…tinged with fascination.
Of course that unleashes a torrent of unsolicited stories of “what the dog ate.” (Well, sort of unsolicited.)
“Let’s work on paragraphing so we don’t choke. Let’s cut up your writing into digestible chunks.”
Dunno if the metaphor was exactly apt, but it sure got them going on, and they’re ready to tackle paragraphing practice and, with any luck, they better understand the power of being specific and descriptive.
Back to now: Another way I like to try to get them to understand this idea is the CircleK example: “Let’s pretend that you, God forbid, flunk seventh grade English, and it’s 10 years later and you’re doomed to work the graveyard shift at CircleK. One night you get robbed, and you call the police. The nice officer asks you to describe the man who held you up, and you say,
“He was weird looking, ummm… kinda short, with dark, short hair. He had on a green shirt. He was sort of ugly.”
“The nice police officer will tell you that he can’t help you, because that ‘describes’ 1/4 of the human race. You’ve all seen cop shows with the sketch artist guy? What’s he going to do with, ‘he was weird and ugly’? Did he have a scar? Green teeth? A tattoo? Grease in his hair? What?”
This year’s batch of “Messy Rooms” is due Friday. Maybe, I’ll bust a sample.