The trick to finding the balance

Writing includes three main elements: content, style, and mechanics. The content, of course, is the heart of the composition—the story, main message, or thesis. Style is the way the writer communicates the content through word choice, sentence variation, etc. Mechanics includes all those tricky little rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling that govern how the words actually appear on paper.

Mechanical Errors Make the Most Noise

When it comes to giving our children feedback on their papers, many of us are in a muddle. Sometimes the “noise” of a zillion grammatical errors drowns out the content as we zoom in on each misspelled word and sentence fragment. But is that the place to start? What should be our focus? You’ve probably asked yourself these very questions:

  • Isn’t mechanics an important part of writing?
  • Should I allow inventive spelling, or insist that every word is spelled properly?
  • Should I focus on the main content, or should I address grammar and punctuation errors too?
  • How do I help my kids fine-tune their writing if I don’t point out all the mistakes?

It’s Like Walking a Tightrope

Just as we can correctly—or incorrectly—judge a person’s character based on outward appearance, it’s easy to judge a piece of writing by the mechanical errors we see. We don’t mean for them to interfere with our enjoyment of the content, but typically, they do.

The whole editing thing is like walking a tightrope, isn’t it? We don’t want to discourage our children from spilling their ideas onto paper, for the freedom of doing so sparks in them a love for writing. But for fear of dousing that fire, some of us sway too far to the left and never utter a word about grammar or spelling.

And tipping too far to the right are the parents who are so caught up in the glare of dangling participles and grave misspellings that we run amok with our red pens—and completely miss the heart of the child’s writing.

We really can address content, style, and mechanics without throwing our tenderhearted kiddos to the lions. The trick to finding the balance is remaining as objective as possible and cushioning our suggestions with praise.

For the rough draft, focus mainly on content. Do ideas make sense? Do they flow well? Is there enough information and/or detail? Then, once the story or essay or paragraph is organized and more rounded out, we can deal with any grammar, spelling, and punctuation issues that remain.

Photo: Joar E.M. Klette. Used with permission. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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7 comments ↓

#1 Content-Style-Mechanics « Public Agents on 01.15.10 at 6:32 pm

[...] the point I made recently, the great home-school writing blog In Our Write Minds has a post about focusing on content first, style and mechanics second. For the rough draft, focus mainly on content. Do ideas make sense? Do they flow well? Is there [...]

#2 Amy on 02.18.10 at 11:46 am

We’ve just recently started using WriteShop. We are just working through lesson 1b and we’re to the editing stage. I’m looking for editing tips for my two fifth grade boys. I’m wondering if there is a mandated method to the marking madness… color coding for spelling errors, certain standard editing marks… etc.
thanks,
amy
http://fisheracademy.blogspot.com

#3 Kim on 02.21.10 at 10:37 am

Amy: In the editing world, you’ll find that certain editing marks are indeed standard. But there’s no mandate for color-coding (at least that I’m aware of).

WriteShop recommends three colors for self-editing: blue, green, and red. Your boys’ Student Writing Checklist will tell them which colored pencils to use. For example, they’re instructed to use a blue pencil to underline repeated words. Beginning in Lesson 2, they’ll use a red pencil to circle “to be” verbs. You’ll also find a number of prewriting activities throughout the book that also use colored pencils, but in a different way.

Since you’re using WriteShop I, you’ll be happy to know that the Teacher’s Manual helps you navigate the waters of editing.

Don’t let the TM overwhelm you. Most sections are designed for reference, to be used as needed. Look in each of these tabbed sections for specific editing helps:

1. Editing and Revising. This section explains all the terms on the checklists in greater detail. It also gives an overview on editing. It’s not a bad idea to revisit this section often.
2. Addressing Errors Lesson by Lesson. Here you’ll discover the most common mistakes students are likely to make in a given lesson, along with ways to suggest improvement.
3. Student Writing Samples. In this section you’ll find what you’re looking for: a page containing standard edtiing marks (your boys will have the same page in their student books’ introduction as well). The Student Writing Samples section also includes examples of edited compositions to give you an idea of how to go about the task—along with several practice pages for your use.
4. Common Problems of Mechanics helps you identify the five most common grammatical errors we see in student writing.
5. Positive and Encouraging Comments. This section of the TM is a favorite among many parents. They love having uplifting, constructve words at their fingertips so they can make positive, helpful suggestions when editing and grading their children’s writing.

Again, there’s really no “standard” when it comes to colors. I actually preferred to do my editing using a mechanical pencil and smallish printing. That way, my marks didn’t take on the “angry” tone a red pencil alone might. Some parents like to use several different colored pens to identify particular errors and give a more colorful, friendly look to their markings. It’s up to you!

When editing the first several lessons, I tend to be more lenient. The process is new for everyone, and it never hurts to start gently! If children are on the younger side (as your boys are), it’s really important to overlook the smaller infractions and focus on (1) newly introduced lesson concepts, (2) previously taught concepts that the current lesson is reinforcing, and (3) any mechanics skills you’ve taught in the past that you know your boys should be using correctly.

Also, your boys are quite young to begin WriteShop I. Though many parents have used the program successfully with this age, I would encourage you to take it slowly. There’s no need to rush, especially since you’ve not done much formal writing with them in the past. Here’s a schedule you might appreciate.

This should get you started, Amy. If you have more questions, you can always email me directly: kim@writeshop.com

#4 Amy on 02.24.10 at 3:08 pm

Thanks Kim, for the heads up on this, I had not seen it!
Yes, my boys are young, and I do plan on taking it really slow. The first lesson I went through on the pace suggested for the 2-3year track… and it went fine. I did feel that I was pushing slightly and decided to lay off a little, so we are going to take it really slow. I also am weighing buying C as well… we shall see. I was hoping to win one of your contests!! I’m going to check out the link you mentioned as well.

I had read everything that you referred me to in the TM, but was wondering (I thought I saw somewhere) marks for editing like colors or specific marks… but it doesn’t really matter. I’m just a detail freak ;) I did find wading through all the different material and having to switch between SM and TM a little bit distracting (I think I would like to have all the exact same material in the same order as the students handy right in my TM!!). This is what I was looking for I think: “WriteShop recommends three colors for self-editing: blue, green, and red. Your boys’ Student Writing Checklist will tell them which colored pencils to use.”

I have the boys first revision sitting on my desk and they are looking forward to getting them back, but I do want to give it time so that they don’t feel overwhelmed and still find joy in the creative process of writing. Being detail-oriented I recognize my propensity to be over critical, so I want to be REALLY careful. I think they are going to benefit greatly from using this program :)
Thanks SO much for your help!

amy in peru

#5 Amy on 02.24.10 at 3:10 pm

whoa! sorry for the fragmented thoughts… I had to hit ‘submit’ before I really had time to go back over my response ;)

#6 Kim on 02.24.10 at 4:28 pm

No problem. I’m trackin’ with you!

You mentioned:

“I had read everything that you referred me to in the TM, but was wondering (I thought I saw somewhere) marks for editing like colors or specific marks…”

Did you ever find the page of editing marks in your TM? It’s on p. 139 and it’s called “Common Proofreading Symbols and Terms.” Not sure if that’s what you were looking for.

You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, Amy. I know you’ll edit their work gently yet thoroughly. I’ve learned that even if you just address half the stuff on the checklists, you’ll see the boys’ writing improve. Small steps—especially at their age. After all, you want them to have fun too. You can always repeat WriteShop I when they’re older and more mature, if you want.

Unfortunately, we’ll never be able to include both TM and SMs in the same book—at nearly 900 combined pages, it would just be insane! But one of these days we WILL revamp WriteShop I and II to make them more “linear,” with less flipping around. Won’t help you :) but I’m sure the changes will be welcomed by future WriteShop users.

#7 Pamela on 03.21.10 at 9:29 am

I think the idea of focusing on higher level concerns like ideas and organization before drilling down to mechanics applies to college “kids” too. I tutor community college students in writing and I think that overloading them by pointing out sentence level errors should come after helping them say what exactly they are trying to say. After all, the goal of writing is to communicate, so in my mind, issues of clarity take priority. Sometimes the mechanical issues straighten themselves out en route.

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