New mini-lesson resource: 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing

This “new to me” book will be fun to try this fall

FullSizeRender (4)

A year or two ago, I found an effective paragraph that explained sentence variety perfectly. Read the post about it here.  I dug a little deeper about the author and eventually made my way to this book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, by Gary Provost.  Gary Provost was an author and writing instructor who died in 1995 right in the middle of his career.  In addition to his own books and articles, he produced a series of how-to writing books and seminars.

I ordered 100 Ways from Amazon last week and, after skimming through it, know I’ll be able to use several chapters in my language arts classes next year. I hope these short readings and the discussions they spark will make great mini-lessons to kick off a writing work day.

The book is divided into eleven chapters. Here are a few of them followed by one or two points discussed within each:

  • Five Ways to Write a Strong Beginning (Find a Slant, Set a Tone and Maintain It)
  • Twelve Ways to Give Your Words Power (Use Active Verbs, Be Specific, Use Statistics)
  • Ten Ways to Avoid Grammatical Errors (Do Not Change Tenses, Avoid Dangling Modifiers)
  • Six Ways to Avoid Punctuation Errors (How to Use Colons, Semicolons, Quotation Marks)
  • Twelve Ways to Avoid Making Your Reader Hate You (Avoid Clichés, Avoid Parentheses)
  • Seven Ways to Edit Yourself (Read Your Work Out Loud, Use Common Sense)
  • Nine Ways to Save Time and Energy (Use Transitions, Avoid Wordiness)

While the 158-page book deals with more technical topics, such as punctuation and grammar, the author also discusses the finer, more esoteric qualities of good writing. For example, in “Stop Writing When You Get to the End,” Provost writes,

When you have done what you came to do, stop. Do not linger at the door saying good-bye sixteen times.

How do you know when you have finished? Look at the last sentence and ask yourself, “What does the reader lose if I cross it out?” If the answer is “nothing” or “I don’t know,” then cross it out. Do the same thing with the next to last sentence, and so forth. When you get to the sentence  that you  must have, read it out loud. Is it a good closing sentence? Does it sound final? Is it pleasant to the ear? Does it leave the reader in the mood you intended? If so, you are done. If not, rewrite it so that it does. Then stop writing.

I like the tone of Provost’s writing. Concise. Clear. Practical. Warm. It’s an easy, friendly read, and has its share of funny writing snippets.

In addition, many chapters contain side-by-side examples of ineffective and effective writing. For instance, in the chapter entitled “Be Specific,” several examples of general and vague writing appear on the left-hand side across from their more specific counterpart on the right-hand side. Here’s one: The general “Various ethnic groups have settled in Worcester,” is shown alongside its more specific “Greeks, Italians, and Puerto Ricans have settled in Worcester.”

The book has a copyright date of 1972, so some of the examples used are outdated. I’ll just explain this to the kids, or pause while we read to explain obsolete terms. One I noticed was “word processing.” That term just isn’t used much anymore.

Some of the chapters overlap with existing lessons I already use; however, it never hurts to review the same concepts in different ways. This book will enable me to do that.

Check out this book by buying a single copy. I purchased a used copy on Amazon for about five dollars. That’s an inexpensive price for a potentially valuable new resource. Maybe a class set will be in my future.


Thanks for reading! Click like to help other readers find this post. Follow me for more similar articles on teaching middle school language arts.

 

 

Contest #7 That Works for My Students: Ozarks Writers League Youth Writing Contest

student-3038994_1920
Photo: Pixabay

Don’t forget to investigate any contest opportunities that may be available from a local writers group in your area. My principal received a flyer from a member of the Ozarks Writers League last fall. The flyer gave the basic details for the league’s annual youth writing contest. I’m always up for the extra motivation that contests provide for my students, so I added some projects to their “Writers Workshop” project list that could be entered in the OWL contest.

The contest had two categories, poetry and short story. Both of these categories are ones that I can always devote more time to, so I jumped at the chance to have students write poems and narratives.

Students could write on any topic, which really gets them excited to create! Of course, for some, that kind of leeway is overwhelming. For those kids, ideas will usually surface if we just have a conversation about their lives, families, hobbies, or memories.

As for poetry, there is a great poetry generator at PoeticPower.com. And to be honest, students will typically use the generator to get started, but will often veer from the templates once they get the juices flowing.

For the OWL contest, I copied off the flyer and kept several for kids to reference as needed. I also found some mentor texts and had those available as well. Those examples were not previous OWL entries (since we hadn’t entered it before and OWL doesn’t post winning entries), but merely mentor texts I just collected on my own.

Even though there were only two categories in which to enter, there were several awards given within those categories. Those categories were:

Short Story: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, Honorable Mention for Attribution, Honorable Mention for Characterization, Honorable Mention for Romance, Honorable Mention for Empathy, Honorable Mention for Humor.

Poetry: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 1st Honorable Mention, 2nd Honorable Mention

When the contest deadline came around, I had to pay extra attention to the small print in the guidelines. The league required paper copies of all entries. They also had a short list of basic identifying information to be attached to each entry. To make this easier, I made a slip with blanks for students to fill out that we then paper-clipped to their entry. By the time the entries were ready, I had a stack of stories and poems about two inches thick!

According to OWL members who I spoke with at the awards ceremony, not many area schools participate in the contest. That’s okay… it just left us with several opportunities to win.

FullSizeRender (20)
2018 Ozark Writers League Winners

Here are the winners! Gabby F. placed 3rd in Short Story for her work “Foster Child”; Brooke S. won Honorable Mention in Characterization for Short Story for her work “Anxiety”; Zack S. placed 3rd in Poetry for his work “Sometimes on a Boat in the Fog”; Cristina H. placed 1st Honorable Mention in Poetry for her work “This is My World”; Sara C. placed Honorable Mention for Romance for her work “The Hopeless Romantic.”

OWL held a brief awards ceremony in February. Students who were able to attend received a certificate and small cash prizes that ranged from $5 to $20. I hyped the results up by posting the winning entries on the wall outside my class and recognizing the kids at an end-of-the-week assembly.

I plan to have students enter the contest again next year. Contests provide motivation and build confidence. Those are reasons enough to enter any contest, even the small local ones. Do some internet research or inquire on social media to learn about any writing contests for students in your local area!


Thanks for reading!  Click “like,” leave a comment and check out my posts about other writing contests for middle school students. Find those by clicking “Writing Contest” in the list of categories in the sidebar on the right side of this page. 

Contest #6 That Works for My Students: Scholastic Art & Writing Awards

FullSizeRender (12)
Brooke and I show our “heavy medals” in May. Certificates and medals won at the national level are awarded to both the student winner and their teacher. Nice!

One of my goals during the 2017-18 school year was to finally enter a student’s work in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. And right before Christmas break, two of my students entered poetry.

Brooke S. entered four poems, Ally W. entered two. Brooke earned a Gold Key Award at the regional level, sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Writing Project with her poem entitled “Colors,” which then advanced to the national level. In March, we learned that she had won a Silver Key Award at nationals. This was such a thrill!

Despite the fact that she had really wanted to earn a Gold Key at nationals (because then she would have attended the award ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City!); she was excited with her national prize.  After all, more than 350,000 entries were submitted nationally; only 3,259 were awarded national prizes! This places her poem in the top one percent (less than that, actually) of all entered!

By the way, Ally’s poetry did not qualify for a regional prize, but knowing that I believed her work to be of the quality needed for Scholastic hopefully awarded her with more confidence in her work.

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards is arguably one of the most prestigious contests for young writers in the country. It’s definitely the longest-running contest of its caliber. I found out about this contest when I attended a regional writing conference during February 2016. I went to the regional awards ceremony during the conference and as student after student received awards, I thought, There is absolutely no reason I don’t have a student being recognized.

So during the next school year, I kept the contest in mind. However, it does have an early January entry deadline and because I didn’t begin the school year the previous August with the contest front and center in my mind, I lost track and simply didn’t get entries submitted. My bad.

So during the following year (this most recent, 2017-18), I picked up a promotional poster at a conference in the fall and began promoting the contest more with my students. I decided that our goal for entering would be before Christmas break. So, in December, I had Brooke enter her work, and then a week or two later, asked her to show Ally how to enter.

Who should enter:

  1. Students in grades 7-12.
  2. The student who especially finds joy or satisfaction or “release” in writing and even writes during their “off” time.
  3. The student who doesn’t recognize the value of their personal story and who writes those poems or stories that, even with grammar issues and revision needs, contain an idea or a story so arresting you are compelled you to sit down and just let the words wash over you.
  4. The student with the experiences that often go “untold.” Based on many of the winning entries I have read, Scholastic judges are seeking to promote writing from all students, not just the star writers. Judges want to promote stories about difficult circumstances, which often go untold.

How to be ready to enter:

  • Have students start saving work for entering in the contest as soon as school starts in August. Before school ended in May, I collected paper copies of some flash fiction my seventh-graders wrote during the last week of school. (The stories are also in their Google Drive accounts, but I kept hard copies… just in case.)
  • Don’t lose student writing! I have a file cabinet that students can use to keep hard copies of their work. If it’s important, it doesn’t leave the room, but stays in the cabinet (and therefore can’t “disappear” in the Google cloud).
  • Consider picking a category to focus on. Since there are several categories, it might be easier to manage and plan lessons (and for students to wrap their heads around) if there is a genre already selected. For example, I’ve already told my students that “flash fiction” will be our “focus category” for the 2018-19 contest.
    • Here are the categories:  Critical essay, dramatic script, flash fiction, humor, journalism, novel writing, personal essay and memoir, poetry, science fiction & fantasy, short story, plus a portfolio category for seniors only.
  • Know that any writing from 2018 may be entered into the 2018-19 contest.
IMG_6028 (1)
Brooke and I at the Write To Learn Conference in February, where she received her Gold Key Award from the Missouri Writing Region Awards. This qualified her for the national award level, where she won a Silver Key Award.

How to enter:

  • First, don’t put off entering. Go to www.artandwriting.org.  Click “How to Enter” in the upper left-hand corner. There is a process and it might look confusing at first sight. All the instructions are right there if you read carefully. Call or email your regional writing project chair, whose contact info will be provided, with questions.
  • To enter, students login, create an account, upload their work, pay fees, and include their teacher’s contact information, so you as their teacher, will be kept in the “loop” on their entries.
  • When your student enters, they will also be prompted to locate their regional writing project. This will include their work in the regional contest first.
  • About those fees… there is a $5 fee per entry uploaded. (Four poems can be entered for the $5 fee.) If your student receives free or reduced lunch, the fee is waived. You’ll just print out a form that verifies their status.
  • Students enter online, but must later mail in their fees or the fee waiver form.
  • For your first student who enters, consider having them enter on a computer in front of you so you can see what the process looks like. Teachers receive an email confirmation when an entry is received by Scholastic from one of their students.
  • Regional awards are announced in February after the January deadline. Teachers will receive an email if they have a winning student.
  • National awards are announced in March.
  • Here’s the link to the general entry guidelines.

Prizes:

At the regional level, students who won honorable mentions, silver, and gold keys are awarded pins and certificates. They also receive a journal and a copy of the Best of Teen Writing. At the national level, students receive a larger medal (it’s heavy!) and a certificate. Gold Key Award winners also receive an invitation to attend the award ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Put Scholastic Art & Writing Awards on your list of contests to investigate for school next year. Promote it to your students as the “creme de la creme” contest that everyone has a shot at. Follow “artandwriting” on your class Instagram, (here’s a post about mine) so students see it often. Then, keep an eye out for those pieces of student writing that make you set down your cup of coffee and re-read. You know the ones.


I quickly wrote this post, so if I think of more details or notes to add, I’ll update it. Please follow this blog to be aware of those changes. If you know of any great contests to enter, please comment! Writing contests for students are quickly becoming my specialty and  I’m interested in learning all I can so I can share it with you.