One Sentence

I tend not to talk too much about the job where I make the majority of my living, which is teaching.

Even now, I think that I have just gotten started in the profession but just including the years that I have been teaching full-time but I’m now in my 12th year of full-time teaching. During that time, I have been teaching writing, sometimes more than others.

I currently am teaching seventh through 10th grades. I notice that there a similarity among those who are really starting to learn about writing. When I ask them where they need improvement on their writing, what they usually mention to me is how they need to work on their spelling, how to use punctuation marks correctly, and perhaps writing in complete sentences.

I think all of those things are absolutely important. I certainly feel that I shouldn’t get an essay with numerous grammatical errors, and they certainly shouldn’t be turning in a manuscript to an editor or publisher with them, either. But, that’s not the main focus of my teaching. Nearly any word processing program allows users to fix spelling and grammatical errors as you see them, and they won’t catch everything, but they’ll catch enough that grammar won’t be a massive issue for them.

What I always ask my students is a simple question: What is this essay that you have been writing supposed to be about? Tell me in a single sentence.

For my middle school students, this has been the first time that they’ve had to tackle writing involving critical thinking. Usually, the type of writing they have been doing are answers for writing prompts or simple paragraphs. For them, the art of writing is very much a work in progress.

However, I’ve noticed that it works the same for older learning writers as it is for younger learning writers. If they’re not able to tell me in one sentence what it is that they’re trying to write about, I know for sure that they are lost and confused. I mean, usually I can tell by a quick glance at what they’ve written, but that conversation with the learning writer usually confirms it beyond a doubt.

Usually, such a sentence is called a thesis statement or a main idea sentence. (To paraphrase Bruce Lee, everyone has their own system of kung fu, but everyone has the same number of arms and legs.) The idea behind this sentence is that it represents both what you are discussing (topic), why your are discussing it (purpose), and what message that you wish to convey. Again, it should usually only take a single sentence.

It can be frustrating to have a student actually write a thesis statement and then proceed to write something that might have something to do with the topic but hardly anything to do with the purpose. For example, maybe the purpose of an essay is an analysis of how a writer used descriptive details or figurative language in a book, but what they produce ends up being simply a book report rather than what they started out to do.

To me, that is something that can derail a writer much more than a couple of run-on sentences. If I can get a prospective writer to keep their thesis in mind throughout their writing, it not only helps them get focused on their message, but it also has other knock-on effects. They tend to choose good supporting information because they have a better idea of what type of information they need to find, They tend to have a better grasp of how to organize that information as well. And if they manage to have all three of those elements relatively solid in their rough drafts, they are well on their way to producing some good writing.

I should also say that you need to be able to have this one sentence in your mind when it comes to fiction, even though it might not be written out as it often is done in essay form. However, there has to be an essential idea behind the story and some idea of theme. For example, this new book I have planned for release next year, The Yank Striker, came from a thought experiment I had while watching the US Men’s National (Soccer) Team playing one day – what would the American Lionel Messi look like? I started constructing a main character around that idea, and that idea evolved into a character, without being too spoilery, that was very comfortable in his home environment but faced many new challenges when he was out of that comfort zone. That also evolved into a theme, of a athletic superstar still developing his skills and confidence. One of the beta readers for that project reminded me early in the process that it would get boring for this guy to be a winner all the time. That sort of character is a lot more interesting.

All this is well and good, but I often have to remind myself that the vast majority of my students don’t have the passion for writing as I do. For them, it’s just one more class they have to tick off before they get their high-school diploma, just like geometry and Algebra II were like for me. (How I ever passed Algebra II is still a mystery to me, but I think my father, a chemical engineer by trade, had the biggest hand in that). However, being able to better express themselves through writing helps develop communication skills and critical thinking skills that will come in useful later, so I openly sympathize with those who don’t like to write.

In the end, we wind up getting through it together. Now that sounds like a halfway decent thesis statement for my classroom.

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