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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Focus on a Skill: Elaboration

So often student writing efforts are what I call "bare bones." Student writing lacks muscle and flesh and features, due to a paucity of specific verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Students often have also not had instruction in showing versus telling.

The best remedy for this, of course, is for students to examine excellent writing. As students read exemplary passages, they need to ask:
  • What's happening here that's not happening in my own writing?
  • What choices has the author made?
  • What has been included to provide me with a picture of what's happening?
  • What has the author deliberately left out for the reader to piece together?
Sometimes the missing piece of the puzzle is simply word choice. When teaching my students the importance of using alternatives to "said," for example, I assigned pairs of students two chapters from Gordon Korman's Swindle. Korman is a master at crafting realistic dialogue, and in one chapter alone a student found thirty speaking words other than said, and the word said itself was used just five times (and most often with an adverb). (Using just a portion of a novel like this to examine craft absolutely works! You can use online book trailers to fill in the missing information, or to give a complete picture of the story line).

At other times, the details which are important and of interest to the reader simply aren't fleshed out. If you need a wonderful example for this skill of elaboration, I recommend Daniel Boone's Great Escape, written by Michael P. Spradlin and illustrated by Ard Hoyt. This book, filled with action and suspense, and described with strong verbs and vivid details, is inspired by just a single line in Boone's diary!

A great extension would have students choose historical events from their typically brief descriptions in textbooks and "blow them up." Will some imagination be involved? Yes. Will some "liberties be taken"? Yes. But I think if we resign ourselves to those concessions, and rightfully call our pieces historical fiction, we can then focus on the craft of elaboration.

Need a couple more books for ideas? Check out the extremely descriptive language of The Scarlet Stockings Spy, written by Trinka Hakes Noble and illustrated by Robert Papp, or the humorous, fictional retellings of great lives in Lane Smith's John, Paul, George and Ben. Both books are described in a previous post on The American Revolution.

For upper elementary and middle school writers, see more suggestions for improving elaboration in my post Narrative Writing that Makes a Point.


Theresa Milstein said...

As a teacher, I always reminded my students to pay attention to word tags, use vivid verbs, and incorporate the five senses to add details.

As a writer, I have to be mindful of that as well. I need to refrain from committing the sin of show and not tell. I always look to good books as models.

Thank you for the great book resources to aid writers of all ages.

Playing by the book said...

This all sounds useful for me as a blogger trying to improve my own writing!