An Idea’s Best Friend: “In other words,”

Idea development depends on this transition phrase

This week, my junior classes worked on their theme analysis essays. These essays serve as a final flourish to our unit on James Thurber’s short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and the 2013 movie by the same name.

Marilyn Yung of ELA Brave and True holds a sign that says "What's in this post:"

A link to my free “In other words” handout on TpT

The skinny on how I used this in class last week

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty 2013 movie image

Each day last week, I started class with a mini-lesson on a specific focus area. On Thursday, we discussed idea development. For students to effectively and thoroughly flesh out ideas in writing, it’s helpful if they know concrete ways to do just that. Explicitly offering students this phrase is akin to methodology from the Writing Revolution, where other phrases such as specificallyfor instance, and for example, help students add detail to their writing.

My best and easiest-way-ever tip that encourages students to more thoroughly discuss their ideas?

In other words,

Yep, that’s right. Nothing fancy here.

But it’s also a sure-fire phrase that, as I tell students, will automatically prompt them to elaborate and flesh out their ideas. It’s the catalyst that will help them stay at the scene of their evidence and interpret, elaborate, explain, reiterate, reinforce, and develop that idea to the moon and back.

Here’s a photo of a handout I made that we read in class:

English class handout that explains how student writers can improve their writing with the transition, "In other words,..."
Download a free PDF of this file here.

Again, it’s nothing fancy. Just a little handout to serve as a reminder that “In other words,” placed after a quote or paraphrase from a text will provide some breathing space for that idea so the writer can dwell on it, amplify it, get to the heart of it.

Click here to download this free handout from TpT.

I pulled a quote from James Swanson’s Chasing Lincoln’s Killer to create this example for the handout, which shows some interpretation sparked by the sentence that begins, “In other words,…”

Swanson also investigates and questions the notion of security in his historical novel. It’s an interesting idea to think about, especially for today’s young readers who have grown up in an America with a pre-existing Dept. of Homeland Security — a world navigated with metal detectors, checkpoints, and smart I.D.’s. In the late 1800s, this was not always the case. Swanson writes, “Incredibly, presidential security was very weak in that era. Almost anyone could walk into the Executive Mansion without being searched and request a brief meeting with the president. It was a miracle that no one had yet tried to murder Lincoln in his own office.” In other words, perhaps luck had been on Lincoln’s side during those final days of the Civil War. It was luck, not procedures, that had prevented a presidential assassination. Destiny,  not security personnel, had been the president’s saving grace.

Note that the quote is supported first by the sentence that begins “In other words,…”, which then prompts two additional sentences that build on, expound, and reinforce the idea of the quote.

And of course, there are alternatives to “In other words,…”. As shown on the handout, there are these options:

  • This passage reveals…
  • To phrase it simply,…
  • In simpler terms, one could also say…
  • The author’s point is that…
  • Worded differently,…

Again, it’s fairly straightforward, but for students, it’s easy to overlook.

High school student working on computer

Perhaps they think they’re being redundant, or needlessly explanatory. I always tell them, you can never be too obvious when you develop and support your ideas. When you think you’ve said too much to explain yourself, go ahead and write a little more. You can always edit it down later.

And true, the best writing says the most with the fewest words. But for high school students (mine anyway), there’s a presumption that the reader will follow along and fill in the blanks.

My response to that is: Why leave any blanks? Why assume the reader will want to work to figure out what you’re trying to say?

Why potentially lose the reader to the confusion or distraction that results when they fail to follow your train of thought?

It’s better to never confuse, distract, or otherwise lose the reader at all.

“In other words,…” will help you do just that.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for two weeks from now when I plan to share some resources for my Walter Mitty unit. I start the unit right before Christmas break and then extend it well into January. It’s an awesome way to start the new year!

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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