Tag Archives: freshman English


That “Engfish” is not a typo.

A new semester will be starting this week in countless high schools and colleges. I’ve been thinking about the years I spent teaching English in a business school, a prison school, and a two-year college. Those were wonderful years, but it’s also true that I often felt frustrated about my students’ writing.

Those memories triggered thoughts about Ken Macrorie, a professor of English at Western Michigan University who despaired over the lifeless writing (he called it Engfish) that his students submitted every semester.

In a remarkable display of humility and honesty, he wrote a wonderful book (Uptaught, Hayden, 1970) that roundly placed the blame on…his teaching methods. Uptaught should be required reading for everyone who teaches English.

Or Engfish.

I’ve read more than my share of lifeless writing (and, alas, probably produced a good bit of it myself). The problem is not (surprisingly) weak language skills. I know that sounds crazy, but here’s what I’ve discovered again and again: Students produce wonderful papers if they have something to say.

And there’s the rub. What can an 18-year-old say that a middle-aged English instructor will find interesting?

My own solution was to create some controversy in my classrooms. My lower-level developmental classes studied scientific evidence about the Loch Ness Monster. Upper-level developmental students studied the Fall River Axe Murders (of Lizzie Borden fame). Sophisticated ideas, I learned, automatically generate sophisticated writing.

On the other hand, if you give students a weak topic, you’ll get weak writing back. It’s that simple.

What I really want to write about today, however, is Engfish: Expressions and ideas that immediately tip me off that I’m reading a weak paper.

#1: I would put in today’s society at the top of the list.

If this phrase has crept into something you’ve written, crumple it up, find a new topic, and start over. In today’s society is a dead giveaway that you don’t have anything provocative to say.

#2: ____________ (fill in a name) was born in ___________________.

If that’s the most interesting thing you can come up with to kick off your paper, you too need to start over.

#3: Any generalization about most people or everyone or all of us. (Everyone knows what love feels like. Money is important to all of us. Most people like to travel.) If the idea, experience, or emotion you’re discussing is that commonplace, it’s unlikely to be interesting.

What are some solutions to the Engfish problem?

Macrorie is a big fan of freewriting – allowing students to write honestly and freely in order to find a topic that’s fresh and real. I’ve already mentioned another approach: Bringing stimulating materials to class – a case study, for example, that challenges students to dig deeper into a subject.

I once attended an English teachers’ workshop that offered a different strategy that has worked beautifully for my students: Ask them to write about their jobs. We English professors are often a pampered lot who forget what minimum-wage workplaces are really like. If you want to see some amazing papers, ask your students to describe a typical day at work. Or tell you about their boss.

But remind them first that you won’t be accepting any Engfish.



What to Write about: Modes of Development

“What am I going to write about?” That’s the usual response when students have to write a modes of development paragraph. Not knowing how to choose a suitable topic, students often fall back on repetitive (and weak) subjects: For a comparison/contrast paper, sports cars vs. SUVs. For a process paper, a recipe. And so on.

So I’m going to offer some suggestions. You’ll notice that all these recommendations have something in common: a meaning. There’s a reason for making the comparison, outlining the process, and so on. (For an introduction to modes of development, click here.) A good modes paper doesn’t just list facts: It always gives readers useful information.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Comparison (notice that all these topics show that two things that seem very different are actually very similar)

  • public schools offer the same educational experiences as private schools, at a much lower price
  • a low-cost US vacation offers the same enjoyment as a pricey European trip
  • volunteer work can be as impressive on a resume as a full-time job
  • rescue animals are as much fun to own as purebreds
  • the fitness facility on campus is just as good as a gym you pay for

Contrast (notice that all these topics show that one thing is better or worse than another)

  • a Mac is better than a PC
  • term insurance is better than whole-life insurance
  • reading on a Kindle is better than reading a conventional book
  • taking a year off after high school is better than going to college right away

Cause (notice that you’re focusing on factors that that came before a problem or event)

  • why students drop out of high school
  • what inspired you to enroll in college
  • reasons you broke off a relationship
  • what your committee did to ensure that your prom was successful

Effect (notice that you’re focusing on factors that that came after a problem or event)

  • problems students face when they don’t complete high school
  • how your life got better after you break off a relationship
  • how a part-time job helped you mature
  • results of a new law in your state

Process (notice that all these topics show how to do a step-by-step process in a better way OR take a stand about a process, showing that it’s easy, beneficial, or harmful)

  • how to bake a better cake
  • a better way to organize your tax documents
  • a soothing way to get your child ready for bed
  • how to disagree without damaging a relationship
  • what happens to a fetus when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol
  • donating blood is easy
  • a task you know how to do better than other people
  • an environmentally friendly way to clean your apartment
  • a process that more people should do
  • a process that’s a waste of time

Classification (notice that all these topics offer readers multiple options for dealing with a particular situation)

  • three types of diapers
  • three ways to discipline a misbehaving child
  • three ways to study for a test
  • three ways to amuse a cat
  • three ways to get experience to put on a job application
  • three types of birth control
  • three ways to stop procrastinating

Definition (notice that these define the best or worst person or thing in a particular category)

  • the best (or worst) date
  • the best (or worst) parent
  • the best (or worst) boss
  • the best (or worst) party
  • the best (or worst) place for students to live

Narrative (notice that every story happened ONCE and makes a point)

  • a disagreement that you resolved in a positive way
  • an experience that taught you something
  • a time when you realized how much you appreciate your family
  • an experience that caused you to end a relationship
  • a time when you solved a problem in a creative way

There you have it! I hope these suggestions will help you find a topic that’s meaningful and meaty enough to earn you a good grade.


Starting a Writing Task

If you have trouble starting a writing task (and who doesn’t?), a kick-off task can help you get you warmed up and moving. Here’s a good one: Grab this “starting” idea and apply it to each part of the task by asking yourself questions like these: How will I begin my first sentence? How will I start each paragraph?

There’s another benefit to thinking about “beginnings” as you tackle a writing task: You can avoid many grammatical errors if you pay particular attention to how you start your sentences.

Here are a couple of tips:

-If you’re nervous about punctuation, try starting each sentence with a person, place, or thing. Because your sentences don’t have introductions, you don’t have to use commas. Just make sure there’s a period at the end.
Here’s another useful bit of advice about starting sentences: Avoid using an -ing word there. Yes, it’s perfectly correct to start a sentence that way–but long experience has shown me that many people tend to write dangling modifiers or fragments.
One more tip: “It” starts a new sentence. Wrong: The sky was dark, it looked like rain. Right: The sky was dark. It looked like rain.

-Stories are great starters for many writing tasks. If it’s a personal essay, think of a brief story from your own experience. If you’re writing a research paper or a report, find a story to put into your opening paragraph. News magazines like Time and Newsweek are great places to look for relevant stories.
So…suppose you were writing a research paper about the importance of educational programs in prisons. Your opening paragraph might be a story about an ex-con who was able to stay out of trouble after her release because she’d earned high-school equivalency diploma in prison.

-Paragraphs should begin with a sentence that does two jobs: Making a connection to your main idea and introducing what’s special about the paragraph.
In that paper about education in prison, you might start a paragraph with a sentence pointing out that ex-cons have greater earning power if they leave prison with an equivalency diploma. That sentence will set up your paragraph, which might include statistics and anecdotes to support your point.
Use the same strategy for each paragraph, and you’ll end up with a well-organized and well-developed paper.



Writing Your Introduction Paragraph

Many writers (perhaps you’re one of them!) struggle with an introduction paragraph for an essay, research paper, or report. Today I’ll offer some suggestions for tackling the beginning of a writing task.

Why are introductions difficult? One reason is the “blank-piece-of-paper” syndrome: Your brain freezes because the writing task seems overwhelming.

If you’re caught up in this syndrome, a good strategy is to skip the introduction altogether and work on the rest of the paper. Use a warm-up activity to get yourself going: freewriting, listing, making a mind map. (Click here for more suggestions about writer’s block.) You can always write the introduction later, when you have some momentum going and have a clear idea of what you’re saying in your paper.

Another reason introductions are difficult: You don’t know what you want to say. As an English professor, I’ve read countless student essays that say…nothing significant about a topic. The best solution here is to do some writing preparation. If you’re writing about a personal experience, look at photographs from the event or talk to someone who was there with you. Draw a sketch about the experience. In other words, have something to say before you formally tackle the writing project.

Some writers struggle with the introduction to a paper because they’re unsure how to organize it. Help is on the way! Here’s a list of what should be included:

  • An attention-getter. A short story (a sentence or two) is a great way to kick off your paper. Leaf through magazines, and you’ll see that almost every article starts this way. It’s a strategy you can (and should) use in your own writing.
  • The 5 W’s: who, what, when, where, and why. Don’t try cramming all of this in the first sentence of your paper. But do get it into your first paragraph (or second paragraph, if it’s a lengthy writing task). Make sure your reader knows the basics about what’s going on before you start exploring your topic in depth.
  • The thesis. Your paper should have an attitude or make a point, and readers should know what it is by the end of the first or second paragraph.

And there you have it!


Arrive Late, Leave Early

Arrive late, leave early. There’s an intriguing bit of writing advice! What does it mean, and does it work?

Answers: Get to the interesting stuff quickly, don’t take longer than necessary, and yes, it works.

You should note, though, that “arrive late, leave early” overturns conventional writing advice, which suggests starting with a generalization and gradually arriving at your point. Here, for example, is how one first-year English textbook suggests that you begin an essay:

For a typical college freshman, entering college is fun and an exciting time of life.

The paragraph in this textbook example wanders around a bit (soda, pizza, music, playing cards) before it gets to the point: the writer is a twenty-nine-year-old freshman, and his experience has been different.


My advice: Arrive late, leave early. Here’s how I would start the same paper:

Typical? Hardly. Although I’ve been on the campus for almost three months now, I have yet to join the groups of students relaxing over cards and Cokes in the cafeteria. As a twenty-nine year old freshman, I’m having a very different college experience. For me, “relaxing” means bouncing my infant son on my knee while I struggle to read an English or psychology textbook. “Free time” means working the night shift at a discount store. Because I’m a husband and a father, college is serious business, leaving little time for recreation or making new friends.

Arrive late, leave early. Avoid preliminaries and introductions. See if you can combine action with atmosphere. If your character is closing a wet umbrella, you don’t need to write a sentence about the weather. Effective details – a pair of tickets to a Broadway show, snowflakes on your eyelashes, sand squishing between your toes – can set a scene in just a few words.

Good writing moves. Tell stories instead of philosophizing. Show rather than tell.

It’s fun to see how much you can pack into a sentence or a paragraph. Try it!


National Punctuation Day

Be still, my heart: A whole day to celebrate commas, semicolons, and apostrophes!

In honor of National Punctuation Day, here are some helpful tips to use when you’re writing and editing your work:

1.  Pay attention to introductions (extra ideas at the beginning of sentences). They require commas:

When I saw the letter from Jane in my mailbox, my heart started pounding.

Once you know the difference between an introduction (which needs a comma) and a sentence (which needs a period), you won’t have to worry about run-ons and comma splices:

When I saw the letter from Jane in my mailbox, my heart started pounding. CORRECT

I saw the letter from Jane in my mailbox. My heart started pounding. CORRECT

2.  Break the bad habit of throwing an apostrophe into a word whenever you see an “s.” Apostrophes aren’t hard to learn – honest! Click here for some helpful resources.

3.  Adopt simple ways to think and talk about punctuation. Here are some handy rules that many people find helpful:

  • A semicolon is like a period, but it’s not followed by a capital letter.
  • Extra ideas (introductions) end with commas.
  • Sentences end in periods.

3.  Use your ears to help you punctuate. Listen for “Superman” sentences (voice drops) with two commas.

4.  Read, read, read. Ask yourself why the writer chose those punctuation marks. Observe and remember.

I’m always running into people who are astounded that periods and commas go inside punctuation marks. If you read magazines, newspapers, and books, you’ve probably seen these punctuation marks thousands of times. Take note, and use what you’ve learned next time! The same goes for commas, apostrophes, semicolons, and colons.

5.  Find a writing buddy and share your work. Talk about the punctuation choices you’ve made, and ask for feedback. Talking is a great way to learn, and you’ll be helping each other.



Modes of Development: Cause and Effect

This week we’re focusing on modes of development (also called patterns of development). Both student writers and professionals often use these modes to organize ideas and emphasize a point.

Today we’re going to consider two of these: cause and effect. It’s appropriate to think about them together, since they’re two ends of the same writing seesaw. Causes make effects happen; effects are the result of causes.

For example: A woman moves into a new town and feels lonely, so she adopts a dog from an animal shelter. As she walks the dog every day, people come over to admire him, and she makes new friends.

Causes (reasons for adopting the dog): moving to a new town, loneliness.

Effects (results of adopting the dog):  new friends.

Personal issues also have causes and effects. Think about the break-up of a romance: What caused it (jealousy, incompatibility, infidelity)? What are the effects (a broken heart, grief, or relief and freedom)?

Here are some pointers for writing about cause and effect:

  • Focus on either causes or effects, not both. Mixing them together creates confusion.
  • Follow your instructor’s directions carefully. If you’re confused, email your instructor and ask for clarification.
  • To write an exceptional cause or effect paper, dig deep into a subject and find an unexpected cause or a surprising effect. For example, consider unusual ways that recent technology advances have changed our lives (effects) – or think about reasons why few people are reading newspapers (causes).

Politicians and community leaders often focus on causes and effects when they’re advocating change. Look around your community and your region: What issues interest you, and what are the causes and effects? Often you can find effective topics that way.

Both cause and effect are tremendously useful ways to organize and present ideas. Adopt the habit of thinking about both!

(To read about narratives, click two links – Part I and Part II. For suggested topics using modes of development, click here. You can also click links for other modes: process, and classification.)


Modes of Development: Narrative

A narrative is simply a story. In writing classes, it’s usually a true story (unless you’re enrolled in a creative writing course).

Narratives are solid gold. The more stories you can tell, the better your writing will be.

The love for stories is universal, and stories have the additional advantage that they’re one of the best ways to make a point. The next time you need to talk to a child about a misdeed, skip the lecture and tell an appropriate story instead. You’ll make your point much more effectively, and the lesson will stick.

Narratives are tremendously useful to writers. For example, you can kick off an essay or research paper with a quick story about your subject. Another effective strategy is to tell an illustrative story in every paragraph.

What about narrative assignments? Beware! (Remember, I’ve spent 30+ years as a writing teacher.) Here’s what often happens: Students have a great story that they’re just bursting to tell, but it doesn’t make a point.

When you’re assigned to write a narrative paper, think of the point you want to make and choose a story to match. (Most students do exactly the opposite: They think of a terrific story first and try to make it fit the assignment. Usually that doesn’t work.)

Here’s an incident that’s fresh in my mind because it happened last semester. I asked students to choose a person they knew, identify a quality that person had, and tell a story to illustrate that quality.

To help them understand, I told them my own story about a time when I was dating my husband. He left me alone for a moment to help an inebriated man cross the street safely, and I was touched by his compassion.

At the next class, in came the papers. One was about a camping trip a student had taken with her family. The person she chose to write about was her father, but he came across very fuzzily. I couldn’t identify the special quality she had chosen, so I asked her to rewrite it.

Back it came with more details. The sunsets! The campfires! The lake! But Dad continued to be a fuzzy figure.

I suggested a conference to talk about the paper. As we talked, I realized what was wrong. She barely knew her father, who had abandoned the family when she was a small child. The camping trip was almost her sole memory of him. It would make a great memoir for her children and grandchildren to read someday, but it didn’t fit the assignment.

Bottom line: If you’re assigned to write a narrative, pay close attention to the directions you’re given, and choose a story that fits what your teacher is looking for. Don’t just pull out a great story that you’re eager to tell.

Did you notice that I told a story to make my point? In fact I include narratives (little stories) in many of my posts. Start developing the habit of thinking about stories. It’s a great way to enhance your writing.

(For an introduction to modes of development, click here. To read more about narratives, click here. For suggested topics, click here. You can also click links for other modes: classification, cause/effect, and process.)