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Looking for Quality
in Student Writing

Learning to See the Things Kids Can Do So  We Can
Teach Them to Do the Things They Can't

by Steve Peha

Logical and Effective Organization

Ideas don’t make much sense if they aren’t arranged in some way. Something has to come first, something has to go last, and several things usually end up in the middle, one after another, in a logical sequence. To determine that sequence, think of a piece as being divided into parts, one for each group of ideas the writer is working with. To come up with a beginning, think about the best way to introduce these groups of ideas so that readers will be interested in them and want to find out more. Then, arrange the groups so that each one leads naturally into the next in a way that is interesting, entertaining, and consistent with the reader’s expectations. Finally, come up with an ending that feels finished and gives the reader something to think about.

A Beginning That catches Your Attention and Makes You Want to Read More.

How do you catch a reader’s attention? What makes readers want to read more of something they just started? That probably differs from reader to reader and piece to piece. Some beginnings are clearly better than others. Common beginnings, the ones we hear all the time, or those that lack emotion, discourage readers from continuing. More original and unusual beginnings, especially those with strong feelings, make readers take notice and prepare them for the ideas to come.

How well does the beginning of Chores work? It’s certainly full of strong feelings: “Chores! Chores! Chores! Chores are boring! Scrubbing toilets, cleaning sinks, and washing bathtubs take up a lot of my time and are not fun at all.” Repeating three exclamations, followed by a clear and simple sentence, leaves no doubt that this writer is fired up about her topic. The topic itself is interesting, too. I haven’t read many pieces written by 9-year-olds about the distasteful nature of housework. That’s usually something adults complain about. I’m interested already; I want to know more about what this writer has to say.

An Ending That Feels Finished and Makes You Think

To make a piece feel truly finished, writers have to satisfy their readers and give them a little something to think about after they’ve read the last word. In Chores, even though the ending is only a single sentence in length, it seems basically satisfying, at least to me. The writer has chosen one big idea (“Chores aren’t the worst but they’re definitely not the best.”) which expresses a broad opinion of the topic. But does it make us think about anything?

The first time I read this piece, I thought about my own opinion of chores at this point. I tend to agree with this writer that chores are not the most terrible thing I’ve ever had to deal with but they’re certainly not any fun. So I guess the ending worked for me. Other readers who might have different opinions about doing chores might have different opinions about the success of this ending.

My overall judgment is that, while the piece ends in a way that makes sense, the ending is fine but not nearly as good as the rest of the piece. For one thing, it’s just too short. It probably should have been at least a paragraph long, like the beginning. Single sentence endings usually feel too abrupt, as though the piece ended before the reader was ready. That’s the way I feel here. The piece definitely has an ending, and that ending makes sense, but it doesn’t quite match my expectations based on what has come before.

Parts are Arranged in the Best Order

Every piece can be separated into parts where each part contains a group of ideas that go together. The trick is to put the parts in the best order so the reader will be entertained and will easily be able to understand how each part relates to the next and how all parts relate to the piece as a whole. To figure this out, it’s helpful to name the different parts of a piece.

In Chores, we could name the parts like this: (1) Introduction, (2) Toilets, (3) Sinks, (4) Bathtubs, (5) Boring Chores, (6) Conclusion.


    Chores! Chores! Chores! Chores are boring! Scrubbing toilets, cleaning sinks, and washing bathtubs take up a lot of my time and are not fun at all.
    Toilets! When you’re scrubbing toilets make sure they are not stinky. I’ve scrubbed one before and I was lucky it didn’t stink. I think toilets are one of the hardest things to scrub in the bathroom because it is hard to get up around the rim.
    Sinks are one of the easiest things to clean in the bathroom because they have no rims and they are small. I have cleaned one before and it was pretty easy.
    Bathtubs, ever washed one? They are big, they are deep, and it is hard to get up around the sides. The bathtub is the hardest, I think, to wash in the bathroom.
    All chores are boring, especially making my bed. Cleaning my room is OK because I have to organize, and I like organizing. Dusting is the worst: dust, set down, pick up, dust, set down. There are so many things to dust, and it’s no fun.
    Chores aren’t the worst but they’re definitely not the best!

In this short piece, each part is a paragraph. (This usually isn’t the case in longer pieces but here it works out nicely.) I have given each part a name based on what I think it’s about.

So, are the parts arranged in the best possible order? The “Introduction” obviously has to come first, the “Conclusion” last. The “Toilets,” “Sinks,” and “Bathtubs” parts all start out the same way: by naming the thing the author has to clean. It makes sense for them to go together in order just as they do although it probably doesn’t matter much which part comes first, second, or third, they seem interchangeable, although it is nice that their order in the body of the piece mirrors their order in the introduction.

The “Boring Chores” part starts out with “All chores are boring,...” It’s different from the previous three parts. That means it could either go second, right after the “Introduction,” or second to last, right before the “Conclusion,” where it is now. Personally, I like it right where it is. If it came right after the “Introduction,” I’m not sure it would feel right because the phrase “All chores are boring” sounds like some kind of conclusion the author is drawing from previously stated information.

Spends the Right Amount of Time Spent on Each Part

How much time does it take to read each part? Do some parts take more or less time than others? Does the writer spend more time on more important parts and less time on less important parts? These are the questions we ask when we talk about the “pace” of a piece of writing. Pacing is the art of controlling how much time readers spend on each group of ideas. In general, the more important something is in a piece, the more time the writer should spend on it.

In the case of Chores, each part is just about the same length, and no one part seems much more important than any other, so the pacing is very even and that seems to work pretty well in this case (even pacing is fine in short pieces; in longer pieces, the pacing needs to be more varied). The only problem is the ending. It’s too short, so the pacing is too fast. It’s over before we know it. And that doesn’t feel quite right given what we’ve come to expect from the lengths of all the other parts.

Easy to Follow From Part to Part

When we talk about how writers move from part to part in a piece, we usually talk about transitional phrases. These are single words or small groups of words like “First,” “Next,” “Then,” “Finally,” “After a while,” “Later that day,” and so on, that serve to introduce the next part in the sequence. But Chores doesn’t use any of these transitions. And yet it seems very easy to follow. How does the writer do it?

In this piece, the writer doesn’t need transitional phrases because it’s so well organized that each part follows logically from the one before it. Instead of using phrases for her transitions, she’s using logic instead, each new part follows so naturally from the previous part that transitional words are not needed. This is the ideal way to move from part to part. The best writers don't use transition words and phrases, they use the optimal flow of their ideas and a knowledge of the reader's needs and expectations.

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