In English classes, we spend a lot of time determining what writers say, but unfortunately, much less time examining how they say it. When students read texts with an eye toward how the essay is built, they begin to see the importance of how arrangement contributes to the meaning. How does like link up with like? Why does this follow that?
Reading to exhume an essay’s internal structure takes some practice. The goal of this kind of work is to help students analyze how professional writers put their ideas together and then absorb some of those professional techniques.
As they read, it’s important for students to get in the habit of asking not what, what, what, but why and how. Why did the author make these choices and not those? How did the author settle on this framework and not another? I want students to see every piece of writing as an artifact of someone’s decision-making.
To start this process, I hand students a copy of an essay and some highlighters, and I instruct them to get in there and root around. Dismember the sections, look for patterns and arrangements, figure out how the composition was composed. It’s a very open-ended activity, but I do offer students some questions to guide them:
- Are there facts? Why does the writer use these facts?
- Is there a story? Why does the writer use this story?
- Are there connections between the facts and the story? How does the writer arrange that connection?
- Why does this section follow that section? How does the writer take the reader along?
- How does the writer use transitions to create cohesion? Why those transitions?
- How does the writer blend information and argument? Why does the writer use those techniques?
- How does the writer begin and end the essay? Why does this beginning or ending work or not work?
- How does the writer move between information and narrative? Why do you think they choose to move when they do?
- How does the writer carry the reader with them?
There are no definite answers to any of these questions. I often tell my students if we had the author sitting right here next to us, they might not know the answer to any of these questions either. But they are important questions to ask. They remind students that all writing is a series of choices, and those choices determine the effectiveness of the work.
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Liz Prather is a writing teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, a gifted arts program at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A classroom teacher with 21years of experience teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level, Liz is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin.
Liz is the author of Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, and Story Matters: Teaching Teens to Use the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform. Find her on Twitter at @PratherLiz