Pixar’s Secrets

Posted: June 3, 2013

Emma Coates gives us her secrets!

Source: themetapicture.com via Natalie on Pinterest

Creative Writing Prompts

Posted: May 13, 2013


Poets & Writers has a collection of great writing prompts on their website. They include poetry, fiction, and — hooray! — nonfiction (my personal favorite).

Browse through online newspapers for stories that took place on the same day at least ten years apart. Write an imaginative essay based on…

The Awesome Appositive

Posted: January 25, 2013

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I became a mean teacher this week. I told my seventh graders that, from now on, if someone turns in a paper without a name, or an assignment that isn’t stapled, it will be placed in my “circular file.” None of them knew what that meant. When I enlightened them and explained that  assignments that go in the “circular file” get an automatic zero, they objected, finding the new policy draconian.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

“But there are 20 of you,” I explained. “Your class always has more than one assignment to turn in. Assignments often take up more than one piece of paper. That means this class is sometimes giving me 60 pieces of paper at once! It takes forever to figure out who the nameless papers belong to and to match up pieces of paper correctly.”

I told them that naming papers and stapling assignments is a way of taking someone else into consideration, namely – me, their (formerly beloved) Ms. Scribbles!

It is a learning opportunity. Children are naturally self-centered. Becoming aware of other people and taking their needs into account is just a natural part of growing up. We call this “putting ourselves in other people’s shoes.”

This is a mental habit that is especially important for a writer. Young writers often write as if other people share their same brain, their same past, their same experiences, and their same body of knowledge. By “putting yourself in the reader’s shoes,” you begin to anticipate what a reader might need to fully understand what you are trying to say.

Providing helpful information, in the form of background or context, is almost always necessary, but it’s sometimes difficult to do. It can “bog down” the paper if it’s not done in a clean way. Appositives can be one of the most helpful tools when it comes to injecting a piece of writing with helpful information.

Dorothy, a farm girl who dreams of a better life, finds herself in a mysterious land called Oz.

I met her while I was traveling in Tunisia, a small country in North Africa.

Despite having very different backgrounds, Ron and Hermione both end up at Hogwarts, a school for witchcraft and wizardy.

Appositives allow the reader to get a toehold without wading through a whole paragraph of isolated background information. Use them liberally!

What is a detail?

Posted: January 5, 2013


Details are important for all kinds of writing: creative, persuasive, and expository. We tell young writers that good writing “has a lot of details.” When you ask someone why they liked a certain book, they often say things like “because it was very detailed” and “it made it feel like you were there.” But what does that mean? What is a detail? As a writing teacher would say, “Could you be more specific?”

One thing you can do is explain to young writers that “details” fall into four main categories: description, definition, explanation, and information. Spend some time talking about each one and why and how each one can be important or effective. Show some examples of each . Once they begin to see that there are different kinds of details, they can start asking themselves which kind might be needed, useful, or effective in a certain paragraph or piece of writing.

I have a couple of students working on short stories right now. They had great ideas and some good characters in mind. They started off with a bang! A couple of weeks later, though, they find themselves stuck in the danger zone. The beginning of the story has been written, but they have stalled out somewhere in the middle.

Coincidentally, both of them emailed me, saying: “I ran out of ideas for my story. Can we set it aside for now and work on something else?”

Well, that’s not a terrible plan (sometimes your ideas need time to incubate), but you do have to be careful. Setting aside stories can turn into a bad habit. You tell yourself it’s only temporary, but then you never really get back to working on those stories. Life is full of shiny distractions!

In both cases I wrote back and said, “Why don’t you skip ahead and write the end of the story?” Both students were excited by the idea. For some reason, they thought that you had to write a story from beginning to end, in the same way you would read one. No way! Sometimes you can start with a great ending and work your way back. This freed up their imaginations. Once they started working on endings, they found more ideas were coming to them about what could happen in the middle.

If you think about it, this makes sense. Imagine yourself in the middle of a big field laying down a railroad track. At every moment, you have to think, “Where does it go from here?” If, on the other hand, you walk across the field to the other side, and start laying down track over there, then you know that, somehow, you are going to have to connect the two. Now, you are thinking, “How do I get from here to there?” The answers start coming more easily, because it’s a matter of connecting the dots.

So, next time you are tempted to set aside a whole story (or an essay for that matter), don’t! Try skipping ahead or working on a different part.

Img credit: seine/harbour productions

That pesky “I”

Posted: April 13, 2012


Today, two students sent me two different papers, and I gave them opposite advice.

To student A, I wrote: Please get rid of that “I!”

To student B, I wrote: This is good, but it would be better if you used “I.”


How do you know when it is okay to use “I,” in other words to refer to yourself in a paper? This is a question that comes up a lot in the workshop. The answer is (as always): It depends on what you are writing, why you are writing (purpose), and who you are writing for (audience).

Student A was writing an informative paper on Ulysses S. Grant. This is how she started:

Ulysses S. Grant was more than just a general; he was a hero, family man, a smart man and a leader. Grant fought in the Civil War and was a great victor, but there’s more to him than the wars he fought and the men he led to victory. I’ve had the privilege to learn about his background, personal life, married life, his time in the war, his thoughts on slavery and his accomplishments.

Because this is an informative essay on a topic that has nothing to do with the writer’s personal life, it is best to leave out the “I.” This would be a good replacement for that last line:

To get a complete picture of the man, one must consider his background, personal life, married life, and thoughts on slavery, in addition to his accomplishments in the military.

Student B, on the other hand, was writing a personal essay about why it is wonderful to grow up with sisters. (The writer has four.) She started her paper like this:

“What would you like for your birthday, sweetie?” Mom asked little Joy. “Mom, there’s something that I want more than anything in the world,” Joy replied. “I want a sister.” Have you ever wanted a sister to share things with, someone other than annoying boys, and someone to be your best friend? No matter where they are, sisters are always best friends, and are always there when you need them. Some of the best things about having an “all-of-a-kind” family will be explained today.

One rule of thumb is that if you are writing a personal essay (the purpose of which is to express your thoughts and feelings), then it is almost always okay to use the word “I.” Moreover, using the word “I” in this case helps the writer to establish credibility with the reader. If the reader knows that the writer has had personal experience with the topic at hand, then he is more likely to listen to the writer’s thoughts on that topic! A good revision would look something like this:

“What would you like for your birthday, sweetie?” Mom asked little Joy.  “Mom, there’s something that I want more than anything in the world,” Joy replied. “I want a sister.” Have you ever wanted a sister to share things with, someone other than annoying boys, and someone to be your best friend? Well, I can’t blame you for that! I have four sisters, and I can say that growing up in a family full of girls is a wonderful blessing. No matter where they are, sisters are always best friends and are always there when you need them.

So, in one case we take out an “I”; in the other case we add one in. Just another day in Ms. Scribbles Workshop!

Thanks to the students who let me share their work. I am looking forward to seeing your revisions!

Img credit: www.flickriver.com