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Friday, April 9, 2010

Breaking All the Rules of Writing

In a recent post at my Teach with Picture Books blog, I mentioned the success my sixth graders had experienced with short story writing using a selected picture book as a mentor text. The fact is, our students can learn an awful lot about improving their writing by studying how the "real writers" (that is, the published writers) get the job done.

In analyzing mentor texts, my students never cease to be amazed when real writers break the rules of writing! Students, after all, are indoctrinated for years in the do's and do not's of writing. Then along comes a fantastic author like Andrew Clements who just ignores those rules and with great results. For example, check out these three paragraphs which end Chapter Two of Clements' upper elementary/middle grade novel Extra Credit. Sixth-grader Abby Carson, a passionate climber, reflects upon the one section of her school's rock wall which she's been unable to conquer after six attempts:
She gave it her full attention for two reasons. First, she wanted to make a better climb next time - a perfect climb. And second, thinking about the wall was much more fun than dreading all the math and science and reading and social studies she was going to have to endure for the next six hours. After first period gym class, Abby felt like the rest of the school day was zero fun - like a winter with no snow. Or a summer without sunshine. And these days, she was under a ton of extra pressure.

Because the truth was, Abby had never been a very good student. And during the first half of sixth grade, her academic problems had gone from bad to worse.

And then, about two weeks ago in February, her problems had moved beyond worse - all the way to rotten.
Incomplete sentences? Beginning sentences with And? Using hyphens instead of punctuation? Using "and" multiple times in a list, rather than commas? What about sentence variety? How many sentences can you possibly begin with And?

The fact is, Clements is a fabulous author. Earlier titles such as Frindle, The Janitor's Boy, The Landry News, The Report Card, and A Week in the Woods are student favorites. Extra Credit continues in the tradition of those books, offering up well-rounded, believable characters whose trials and triumphs are entirely engrossing. And although this book extends far beyond the simpler plots of his earlier titles, it's still Andrew Clements' style of writing that makes this story so accessible to students.

So if I were to ask a student in my sixth grade, "So what's up with his writing? Didn't the author ever go to school?" the answer I'd likely receive is this: "He writes the way that kids think." Which is absolutely correct, and helps to forgive all the sacred rules of writing that he breaks.

But Keith, can we really allow students to do the same? Well, read any magazine or newspaper article in which writers are expressing their opinions or straying just a bit from the facts, and you'll find the same style of writing. It's conversational. It grips the reader. Clements' writing in the above paragraph helps the writing gain momentum, and the reader is captured right up to the cliff-hanging moments of the chapter's end.

So yes, I think students can, and should, write like this. But it's our obligation as teachers to help them understand when their purpose and audience is right for this no-holds-barred style of writing. And that, of course, is another lesson altogether.


Tami Thompson said...

I saw Andrew Clements at a reading conference and he showed his 4th grade report card. He got a D in writing! He also told us that even after the success of Frindle, he had trouble getting his 2nd book published - Things Not Seen. He had to write more of the school books before publishers would look at his other work.

Keith Schoch said...

I guess success is the sweetest form of revenge, huh? I'll also have to go a bit easier on my D students; they might be caterpillars who haven't transformed to butterflies yet!

Thanks for the backstory!

Tracy said...

That is the wonderful thing about writing, despite the rules, they can be broken.

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