Declutter your brain to improve your writing skills?

Christopher Paolini was 15 when he started writing Eragon, the first book in his bestselling fantasy series.

About 3/4 of employers are looking for candidates with strong written communication skills.

Harvard Business School describes how reading good writing actually impacts the circuits of our brains.

It’s easy to see how strong writing skills can open doors for people, even those who don’t plan to write for a living. But did you know that writing can help a student learn more right now? Reflective writing is a tool for laying out and examining one’s thinking. It can be helpful early in the learning process for capturing our thoughts and questions. Writing is also beneficial along the way as we start to make connections between ideas we are learning and things we have learned before. And after we master an area of learning, writing about it can help us clarify and solidify our knowledge. For this reason, writing skills are essential learning skills.

I would go so far as to say that writing can do for your thinking what a closet cleanout can do for your wardrobe.

Photo of a cluttered clothing closet with many items hanging close together. There are hat boxes on the shelf above, and other items hanging on the walls to the side.

No, wait, hear me out!

Why a closet cleanout?

I compare writing to learn to cleaning out your closet because they both involve taking things that already belong to you (sweaters or thoughts about Shakespeare), examining them, discarding the ones that don’t really work, and putting it all back together more neatly. And both processes can help you notice which things hanging around your closet/brain are useful, which need mending, and which are ready to be replaced with something new.

Oh, and both tasks can be totally overwhelming! So it helps to have help. If I don’t plan carefully, a closet cleanout could result in me turning the whole house upside down. I do my best cleaning when I have a partner, or when someone gives me a checklist to follow. One way to quickly improve writing is to give students some tools or structure. Knowing how to do the task makes it a lot easier to focus on what to write.

Examining your “wardrobe” of ideas

We think of learning as the process of taking in information. But learning is not passive. We use our existing knowledge to understand new ideas and form links between concepts. If we just keep adding new facts without organizing and connecting them, they aren’t very useful. It’s like your closet: Some old favorite items get worn all the time, but things can get shoved to the back, or buried under your winter coat. If you take some time and look at all of it, you may find some surprises!

By helping students develop strong writing skills, we give them tools to get their own thinking organized independently in the future.

One writing activity that can help us to clarify our understanding, or find out what we think about a topic, is a freewrite. In freewriting, you set a timer or other goal and write everything you can about the topic at hand. It may be short phrases instead of sentences. It may be repetitive. It may be missing details. Part of it might be a sketch or a diagram. But the purpose of a freewrite is to brainstorm all the things that are floating around your brain about the topic, and get them all together in one place.

I find that students can be rather stingy with their ideas in a freewrite. At first, they avoid writing things that aren’t “good.” I encourage them to write down all the bad ideas first, as quickly as possible, to get them out of the way and make room for the good ideas. We don’t have to worry about running out of ideas when freewriting. Learning when to write quickly and when to write slowly and carefully is an important writing skill that helps students prepare for a variety of writing tasks.

By laying out all the ideas in nice neat piles (I mean, paragraphs), you can see what still fits, what you have too much of, and what you might need to put on the shopping list.

Some things don’t fit

One hard truth of cleaning out the closet is that sometimes we have to let go of clothes that don’t fit right, even if we love the items!

The same is true for writing. Writing ideas about a topic makes it easier to see which ideas don’t fit in. Students might see that some details don’t fit the topic. Others might turn out to be ideas that are too small to get their own sentences. Some ideas can be combined into more complex sentences, and other ideas can be discarded. Knowing when to edit out weak ideas is one of the writing skills that takes time to develop. Deleting sentences they worked hard on can be difficult for students, but with practice they will see that it helps the best sentences stand out.

Some things are nice, but not useful

Getting rid of the clothes you like but don’t wear can be the stressful part of a closet cleanout.

In writing, getting rid of useless but lovely ideas is hard work! Maybe it’s something you thought was true, but when you look at it with the other facts, it doesn’t work anymore. Maybe it’s an idea for another time and place, better suited to a letter to the editor than a history essay. Or maybe you just don’t need to write that one idea 4 different ways. Just like your closet, your writing will work better if it’s not full of duplicates. (Except sweatshirts. One can never have too many hoodies!)

Go shopping!

There comes a point in most closet cleanouts where you say, “If those clothes won’t work, then what am I going to wear tomorrow?” If you are writing to clarify your thinking, you have to collect enough information to work with. If you try to write about something and realize you can’t explain it, it’s time to go back to your notes, or the original text, or your teacher, and learn more. For some students, audiobooks and text-to-speech technology can make this much easier. If your students need it, it is quick to set up tools to help.

It’s easy to think we understand what we’re learning when we are listening to someone else explain it. It all sounds great, and we don’t feel confused. When we sit down and try to write the explanation ourselves, we can see gaps in our understanding that we still need to fill. We fill the gaps with more learning. When you reread, or seek out new sources, you can ask more specific questions based on what you already know. You shop for more information discerningly, looking for new ideas that match, or complement, your knowledge wardrobe.

Putting together outfits

One really cool thing about a closet cleanout is it’s a chance to see different pieces of clothing together. Maybe you’ll get inspired to wear a different outfit!

In writing, placing ideas next to each other can reveal discoveries, metaphors, and sometimes glaring errors. Laying out our ideas, even in a quick, informal way, lets writers try out different combinations and connections. One way to create this type of writing opportunity for students is to use an open-ended writing prompt as a warm-up or closing activity.

Before a group discussion, writing can help students rehearse ideas and come up with examples to share later. After a discussion, students can capture their best ideas, including those they didn’t get a turn to say out loud. They can also adopt ideas they hear in the discussion and connect them to their own in new ways. Each type of writing has its own goals, and its own “rules” for structure. Students benefit from lots of practice with different writing skills within different parts of their day.

Why we write

We often think of a writing assignment as an alternative to a quiz or test, a way for teachers to collect information about what students know and evaluate them. But that’s not all it can be! Writing can be a valuable learning activity any time. Instead of thinking of writing as a final product, consider it a form of thinking. And, hopefully, we are thinking and learning every day, not just when it’s time to write an essay.

Writing for different purposes, throughout the learning process, can be instrumental in helping students develop bigger ideas and explain them more fully. For all those reasons, being able to write efficiently can make students better learners.

Want some checklists to help your child revise and edit their writing at home? I have those! Request them below.

The best “recipe” for writing assignment help

Nothing is more frustrating than thinking you have taught a child to do something, only to watch the skills fall apart when they try it independently. I see this with writing instruction quite often. Students that could plug away and create a paragraph in class one day seem to forget everything when they tackle their music history homework the next night.

Often, we teach children to follow a process for writing, like: brainstorm, draft, revise, publish. We might even give them checklists or writing graphic organizers to do all the steps without skipping anything. But if what we have taught is “follow the list,” they may be lost if the list isn’t there. As an online writing tutor, the best solution I have found for that problem is an approach called self-regulated strategy development.

What is SRSD?

Self-Regulated Strategy Development, or SRSD, is an approach to writing instruction that was developed by Karen Harris and Steve Graham way back in the 90s. Originally, it was used with students with learning disabilities, and with struggling students. These days, many teachers are using these approaches with their whole classes, with impressive results.

There have been many research studies and articles and more articles written about using the SRSD writing approach with different students in different settings for different purposes.

Here is why I like it: I often teach students writing in individual tutoring sessions. I rely on them to tell me what they are working on in class, or what their teacher has said about writing expectations. If I layer on another graphic organizer, and it doesn’t match what the teacher wants, the student can end up more confused than before. The same can happen when different teachers, or different grade levels, use different graphic organizers.

Instead of handing them a tool and reminding them to use it, SRSD involves teaching the students why the tool is useful, describing how it works, modeling the process, supporting students as they practice until, finally, they move on to independent use of the strategies. In other words, over time, students need less help from me, and write better on their own.

Using a systematic approach to writing tutoring, like SRSD, helps students in a few ways.

  1. Motivation – with a coaching approach, we aim to build student’s self-efficacy, their belief in their own capability.
  2. Skill – Kids who aren’t skilled writers have trouble recognizing (and imitating!) good writing. They don’t know what to look for, or how to do it themselves, until they get some expereince and practice.
  3. Independence – One probelm with a graphic organizer is that if it has 3 spaces for important details, but the topic has 4 important details, the student has to decide. Do I squeeze the 4th idea on the side? Do I leave out one important detail? Do I smush them both into one box and hope I remember they don’t go together? With SRSD, students internalize a flexible approach to planning. At first, they may follow the steps very closely, but with practice they can learn to vary their plan to make the writing better.

How do we use it?

The cool thing about SRSD is it doesn’t require specialized materials or a specific workbook. We can use SRSD techniques to produce writing for any class. While it might vary from teacher to teacher, here’s my approach.

  1. Show them the process of putting together a paragraph using the SRSD tool you choose. I usually start with [TBEAR] for middle and high school, and [TREE] for younger students. I ask for their input, but I give as many prompts and suggestions as I need to to keep this process quick. I need students to see how quickly we can get from the dreaded blank page to something.
  2. Over the course of our meetings, we usually divide the time between writing and reading. First we read and talk about some mildly challenging, interesting reading. Some students come to me specifically because they have difficult schoolwork, so sometimes we reread or discuss their assigned reading.
  3. As we read, we use a few different comprehension strategies for making sense of the text. These vary by student and change over time, but one key step is asking students to predict what they think will happen in what they are about to read, or what a certain section will be about. Student-generated questions are also a very useful tool for developing an understanding of difficult reading.
  4. After we have read the text and I have modeled some ways to take notes (highlighting, notes in the margin, post-it notes, etc.), we practice writing about the reading, using the tool we have been practicing.
  5. Over a series of sessions, the student needs fewer and fewer reminders and reminders from me. They begin to talk themselves through the process of using the tool. That’s the “self-regulated” part and it can make the differnece between a child staring at a blank page helplessly and the same child finding a starting point and beginning to plan their writing.
  6. At a certain point, students don’t really need me to be there while they write their paragraphs. At that exciting point in their writing development, sometimes we change our schedule from weekly meetings to less frequent check-ins. Some students come back to see me again when they face a new writing challenge, like college application essays or college level classes. Others ask to meet when they have a first draft to show me, and I can give them feedback that they implement on their own. SRSD fosters independence because it includes steps to take when stuck. It’s pretty cool to see students take on the role of their own writing coach!

Does it take a long time?

That depends. Sorry.

I have taught a class of 3rd graders with dyslexia and other learning disabilities to use SRSD. They completed their first independent paragraph after maybe 2 or 3 hours of class time, over a week or so.

When I introduce SRSD strategies to some middle and high school writers, they take to them much more quickly. By the end of our first or second session, I provide the SRSD strategy and remind them of the steps, and they generate a whole paragraph on their own.

Other students, especially those who have complex learning needs – multiple learning disabilities, speech and language deficits, ADHD, autism, etc. – may need more practice with a higher level of support. And SRSD is an approach that allows flexible planning! It’s not a curriculum to follow page by page, so if we’re ready to try a new tool after 2 lessons, we do! If the student needs extra practice to gain confidence, it’s as simple as choosing a new article or short story together, and working through the read-discuss-plan-write sequence a few more times, until the student is taking the lead.

Who can help?

Teachers

Our local school has made SRSD their common approach to writing through the elementary grades. As a result, my son has been learning to write using specific details from his reading and a consistent paragraph structure since first grade. As he grows, the class’s approach to writing grows, too. But they started with a foundation of the basics, and they have common background to build on.

I highly recommend training in the SRSD approach for any teachers, K-12, who are in any way responsible for their students’ writing development. While there are lots of comprehensive profesxional development options available, these tools are simple to understand and teachers and students can get better at them together! No need to wait.

Tutors

If you are a parent seeking a writing tutor near you who can help your child develop their writing with SRSD, it can be challenging to know where to look. Although a tutor may not advertise that self-regulated strategy development is what they use, you can look for some key points in their description:

  • scaffolding/gradual release of responsibility/independence/self-efficacy – a good writing tutor understands that when they succeed, they are out of a job! The goal of writing tutoring is to help students master the writing skills that they will use to succeed on their own.
  • evidence-based – there has been a lot of discussion of the Science of Reading in recent years, much of it spurred by Emily Hanford’s reporting [link] about the state of literacy instruction around the United States. While the Science of Writing isn’t as widely mentioned, it exists. An experienced tutor gathers data from observing their own students, but they should also teach in a way that aligns with what we know from research. Ask them for some links and recommendations if you want to learn more about how they approach writing.

Parents

If tutoring is not in the budget right now, or if you need help on tonight’s assignment, you can help your child learn this, too! If you can follow a recipe, or build Ikea furniture, or follow driving directions, you can talk your kids through this process. Remember, it’s all about helping them to help themselves. You will model that naturally as you read a step, puzzle over it, and then figure it out together!

There are many free examples and tools online if you hunt around, but many of them are explained only briefly, and some are not clear enough for non-teachers. That’s why I put together my online course, the Academic Writing Lifeline for Parents. This course is designed to help you get your child past the confusion and fear of a writing assignment, and into a step-by-step process that will show them the light at the end of the writing tunnel.

To get you started as you help your child with writing at home, grab my free Revision and Editing checklists to walk you and your child through improving their writing one step at a time.

Writing Homework: Paragraph Ideas

There are few things I dread more than staring at a blanking page with a flashing cursor. There are just too many possibilities. Too many decisions. Too much potential. Too many ways it could go wrong. When your child has writing homework, getting some stuff on that blank page as quickly as possible can jumpstart their writing and build some momentum.

The other problem I see often is writing that gets started quickly and finished quickly. So quickly that it is brief and leaves the reader with many questions. That can be challenging too, because once some students believe they are done, there is little we can do to change their minds! So if you are trying to help your child find enough ideas for their writing, or ideas to expand their writing, read on!

I like to do this before they have tried to write a draft. If they tend towards short or undetailed writing, it helps to do this process before they write.

Here’s what I tell my students.

Content, not filler

Start by listing as many different ideas as you can about your topic.

If you have to identify a character’s traits, think of every word that might describe the character, or something she did. Hint: Google a list of character traits and see what sounds good.

If you’re writing about the causes of the Civil War think about each group involved (Union army, Confederate army, enslaved people, Abraham Lincoln) and try to list causes from different perspectives.

The important thing at this stage is to write down a lot of very, very bad ideas. Go for quantity here. You want as many ideas as you can because when you throw out the stinkers you will hopefully find some treasure! This also stops writers from using the first couple of ideas that come to mind, when there might be a much better idea in there somewhere.

If you are a parent helping a child with this process, you can help by offering to write notes while they brainstorm. You can also seed the list with some ideas of your own (but try to give your child time to come up with some the best ideas for themselves).

The list can be typed or written, but my brain has better storms on paper. Your mileage may vary. Post-it notes are nice for students who need help chunking information into individual facts or ideas, or for students who like to physically move information around to organize it.

Where do ideas come from?

Use the text you’re writing about (book, story, poem, movie, etc) to come up with ideas. If you’ve been taking notes while you read, flip through the text and read those notes. Anything important?

If you come up empty handed, how about your class notes? Did the teacher mention this topic? What seemed important?

Dangerous places to get ideas

The internet is also called “the information superhighway.” And just like an interstate highway, it can take you just about anywhere you choose to go. There is an unimaginable amount of information out there, including pages for people just like you who need more ideas for a paragraph. Stay away from:

Essay mills. There are lots of essay services that will sell you a finished essay for a price. Some even offer “free” help in the form of things you can download. This is a dangerous road to go down. It leads to plagiarism. Remember, if you can find these essays online, so can your teachers. Instead of spending your time looking for a way to not do the writing, just keep reading and we’ll help you get started!

AI. There are lots of options for artificial intelligence that will do your writing for you. Magical, right? Except, have you ever heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out”? ChatGPT can do some impressive things, from rhyming to generating sentences, or even a whole outline! But it also “hallucinates,” a term for when AI makes things up (including references with links that don’t go anywhere!) in response to a question.

ChatGPT or other AI writing tools can be useful brainstorming tools, though. I like to ask AI for a “list of essay topics about” whatever I’m thinking about. Or you can ask for examples, like “sentences using prepositional phrases” or something else you need ideas for. But please, please, rewrite any ideas you get from AI in your own words, and fact check any information it gives you.

Narrow it down

If you followed my plan, you now have a list of more ideas for a paragraph than you can possibly use. Now it’s time to narrow it down.

The first part of this is pretty easy. Remember those really bad ideas I told you to write down? If they are still the worst ones, cross them out!

Get your list down to 2-3 main ideas or pieces of evidence that you are going to use in your writing assignment. Sometimes your best ideas will jump right out at you. Other times, you will need to closely compare 2 ideas (which one has more evidence?). You might also combine two related but wimpy ideas into one MEGA-IDEA (what do they have in common?).

Then take your best ideas and organize them into a paragraph. You can use a simple paragraph structure, like:

  • Main idea, 3 important details, conclusion
  • TBEAR for writing with text evidence

Keep it up!

Once you have picked out your best ideas and identified the main idea that connects them, you are more than halfway there. If your paragraph still looks too short, read each idea in your paragraph. After each one, ask yourself “So what?” or “And then what?” to see where you might be able to expand or add detail.

Once you’ve got your ideas organized into a paragraph, don’t forget to revise and edit. Download my revision and editing checklists below.

How long is a paragraph?

Here’s the scenario. It’s a regular weekday evening until your child says, “They said I have to write a paragraph for homework.” This is new territory. Sure, you’ve written paragraphs, and so has she, but you’ve never seen your child do it. All her writing has happened in the classroom, until now! Buckle up! With your support, she can write this paragraph! ….but how long is a paragraph supposed to be?

How long should it be?

Many things can affect the length of a paragraph: the writer’s age, audience, topic, purpose, context, and the teacher’s preference. Here are my general guidelines:

Grades 3-5: 5-7 sentences. Often a predictable structure like main idea, 3 details, and a conclusion.

Grades 6-8: 6-8 sentences. Often asking for evidence from a text, source or learning.

High school: 6-10 sentences. Almost always using some kind of evidence. Often asking students to compare or reconcile multiple perspectives or sources. Assignments increasingly call for multiple paragraphs, or even pages, on a topic.

Purposes for writing

Text Analysis

  • This type of writing is a staple of middle and high school ELA classes. Assignments calling for close reading, or analyzing details from the text, are common as homework assignments as well as on-demand writing assessments. They are often used to respond to assigned reading.
  • Teachers are often looking for specific points they have taught, such as properly introducing a quote or using transition phrases. Because of that requirement, they are often formal writing.

Reflection

  • Reflection writing seems to be universally challenging for young writers. To reflect, kids need to be able to think about two things at the same time: their experience and their thinking about their experience. That’s not easy.
  • Adolescent writers tend to go wrong in two main ways: not personal enough, or not relevant enough to the text. In either case, it helps to plan out the major ideas before writing. Make sure to match each detail of the experience (I saw, I heard, I felt, I read…) with a reflective statement (phrases like: made me think about, I realized, grow/change/different/learn).

Knowledge reporting

  • Call this expository writing, or a research report, or an essay question on a science test. The goal for students to report what they know in an organized and detailed way.
  • A question that asks us to describe, compare, identify, or list some information fits well with that classic “main idea and 3 important details” paragraph students learn early on.
  • If the question asks “why” or “how” something happens, you might need a different paragraph format, like the TBEAR.

Why writing matters

Writing has become a greater focus across the whole curriculum in recent years. This is reflected in the Common Core State Standards, which are the basis for many states’ standards. These standards call for more writing, and writing in more settings, for more purposes. And with good reason!

Reading a student’s writing can show a teacher how much they know about the topic, what vocabulary they are able to use, how they manage the complexities of sentence structure, spelling, and attention to mechanics like capitalization and punctuation. A single piece of writing can tell the teacher many different things about his students, so writing is a valuable use of instructional time.

As students grow older and their thoughts become more complex, their writing will become longer and more complex, too. A paragraph is the basic building block of all kinds of writing!

But even better, I think, is what the writing process does for the writer. When we write about our thinking, we are forced to clarify our thoughts and put them into words. We have to get very specific about the relationships between ideas (cause and effect? what happened first?) and we have to choose precise vocabulary that conveys our ideas. We ask students to write because writing helps them consolidate what they have learned and organize the information in their minds.

So as challenging as this writing assignment may be, learning to take on different kinds of writing prompts will set your child up for success in school and beyond!

To help your child revise and edit their paragraph, once they get it on paper, grab my free Editing and Revising checklists!

Make a paragraph longer in 30 minutes with better writing skills

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Dr. Seuss told the story of the home-invading Cat in the Hat in just 1,626 words. So how can the English teacher expect a 300-word essay on something as brief and simple as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech? If you find your child staring at a blank screen when they have writing homework, or if you know the pain of eking out a paragraph one sentence fragment at a time, you may be wondering what to do to make a paragraph longer. Let’s help your child boost their writing skills and make their paragraph longer, and more complete!

Why it’s hard to make a paragraph longer

Many of us know all the tricks. You can use a slightly bigger font (12.5? 13?), add adjectives (very, really, and unfortunately are three common and particularly tired ones) and replace words with longer synonyms (use becomes utilize, tried is now endeavored). Once in college, a guy tried to impress me (yikes!) by telling me you can just make the punctuation font larger. Professors can spot an essay with large print or wide spacing, but are they measuring your punctuation!?

OK, but all these goofy hacks don’t make a paragraph better, only very slightly longer. They ignore the fact that (hopefully!) the teacher is reading this paragraph and looking for important ideas or particular writing skills. The real problem when writing is too short is that it doesn’t have enough ideas in it!

Teachers give a word count with a writing assignment because, in their assessment, that is the number of words needed to express the ideas that they want to see students write about. It’s actually a giant clue from the teacher about the kind of writing they want to see. “Write a paragraph about the causes of the Civil War” will get a very different kind of answer from “Write a 5-8 page report about the causes of the Civil War.”

What may start as a quest to make a paragraph longer will hopefully lead to making a paragraph more interesting, more detailed, and more clear.

Who cares if it’s 300 words exactly?

Let me tell you a secret. If you turn in a crisp paragraph with a clear thesis statement and relevant examples, explained thoroughly, the teacher is not going to take points off your 300-word assignment if it has 275 or 325 words.

If you turn in a paragraph that has the same idea three times, or if your details aren’t related to each other, the teacher isn’t going to use your word count to decide the grade, either. When a paragraph is too short, it’s usually because the student ran out of ideas.

That means that instead of focusing your attention on adding word and visual tricks to make your writing longer and longer, you need to focus on your writing skills and the content if you want to make your paragraph longer.

Writing skills to make a paragraph longer

OK, OK, so any way we measure it, your paragraph isn’t long enough yet. Check and make sure it has all its parts:

  • Main idea/topic sentence
  • Examples/supporting details
  • Quotes or examples from the reading, if needed
  • Your own words about the topic (not just quotes, in other words)
  • A conclusion that reminds readers of your main point

Once you have the basic parts in place, you can make your paragraph longer by adding more (related, important) ideas to your paragraph. Here’s how.

Ask yourself “Why?”

Many sentences can be improved by adding a “because.” It is also a great way to put more of your own words into a paragraph that has too many quotes. Hamlet said, “To be or not to be.” OK, sure. Hamlet said, “To be or not to be,” because he was struggling to understand the meaning of life. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Other sentence extenders

One of my favorite writing exercises is called “because, but, so.” I got it from the excellent book The Writing Revolution and I use it with students from grade 2 up through high school. You can try this to figure out the right way to expand an idea in your paragraph.

First, pick, or write, a short sentence about the topic.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative because the founding fathers wanted a system of checks and balances among the powers.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative but many decisionmakers disagree about exactly which powers should be held by which branch, which leads to conflict.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative so no one person or group has the power to make decisions affecting the whole country on their own.

Would you look at that?!

Each of those extended sentencers is at least DOUBLE the length of the basic sentence. So make your paragraph longer by finding several places to add because, but, so, or another conjunction, to more fully explain your ideas.

Still not happy with your paragraph?

If this kind of writing is new to you, or if you find that you think you’re writing everything, only to get feedback that your writing is unclear or disorganized, I have a tool for you.

My Editing and Revising checklists will take you through the steps of clarifying and expanding your thoughts, and catching spelling and punctuation errors, too. Oh! And they’re free. Grab them below!