As home educators it’s a good idea to expose our teen writers to essays before asking them to write one. But naturally we wonder how to do that. What do you look for? How many? How often? All of the usual practical application questions come up when figuring out how to implement an idea.
Brave Writer has an online class with rave reviews. If it’s in your budget and you have the time, that’s a quality option. But for those who can’t swing it (and there may be more in that category as the economic impact of the current pandemic unfolds), you can still explore essays with your teen.
If you have a reluctant teen writer, this is an excellent place to start instead of jumping into writing essays.Me. I said it. From hard-earned experience.
This is a legit part of growing a competent teen writer, for both reluctant and typical teen writers. You aren’t “wasting time” by examining essays. What will happen underneath the surface is your teen will internalize what essays look like, how they’re composed, and the way arguments and commentary are organized, just to name a few.
For the reluctant teen writer in particular, reading essays eases them into the essay writing waters without pressure and can help them recast a vision of why we write essays. Breakfast on Mars is excellent for showing essays don’t have to be boring. It’s the entire point of the book. (I recommend starting with the Big Foot essay to prove they can be fun. Trust me. For your gaming teens, Donkey Kong’s essay is great too.)
I’ve compiled a list of techniques from The Writer’s Jungle you can use to examine essays.
What Do You Need?
How do I use TWJ?
A. The Element of Surprise (pg xiv-xvii)
I’ve mentioned this writer’s technique before. Look for the line “The element of surprise is the unnamed and not talked about secret writing weapon…” for where the info starts. More paragraphs follow with details, starting with First, Second, etc., with five total elements. Read those and take notes.
For time’s sake I’ll copy from my previous post how you can use this to examine essays:
- Create a cheat sheet with a bullet list of notes you can refer to without needing to pull out TWJ each time. Pop it in their writer’s notebook under a new “author’s craft” section or in the revision tab.
- Now investigate an essay, looking for this technique in other people’s writing. Where did you find any? Highlight it. What element did the author use? What’s surprising about it?
- Record the ones you like in a literature journal. It can be used as a model later on in their own writing.
B. The Top Ten Writing Elements (begins on page 123)
- Create another bullet point list like the element of surprise and use it as cheat sheet as you read through essays.
- Investigate an essay the same way as the surprise element, asking similar questions.
Additional tip for these ten elements: Since there are ten, select just two or three to examine in any one essay. Analyze the sentence variety and verbs with one, then follow the figurative language element and quotes for another. Like that.
C. Snip and Pin Editing, OPW style (other people’s work)
Snip & Pin editing is underused, in my opinion, especially when it comes to reluctant writers. People tend to think it’s for little kids. Nope. It’s for teenagers too.
I’ve also mentioned this exercise before. More than once. More than twice.
I believe it’s effective in helping teens learn to organize thoughts in writing. Teenagers are messy thinkers. They just are. The rhetorical thinking stage is new to their brain, and it takes time to build the neural pathways in the brain that make this process easier.
And even when it does get easier, Snip and Pin is still a quality revision exercise no matter the writer’s age or experience. It’s for grown ups too.
When it comes to your teens, start with other people’s writing, though. Not their own. Here’s how:
- Read over Snip & Pin starting on page 86 in The Writer’s Jungle
- Find an interesting essay and copy/print it.
- Snip it apart. Either by paragraph, focusing on overall paragraph order, or snip a body paragraph apart and focus on organizing the sentences.
- Give it to your teen and let them arrange things in an order that makes sense to them.
- Compare it to the original. What different choices did they make? Why do you think the author made the choice they made? Which version has a stronger impact on you as a reader and why might that be? Where did the author place their commentary in relation to the evidence they cited? See where the conversation goes.
How often do you do this? Where do I find essays?
I’m working on a “Hot Tips” post to go along with examining essays, so stay tuned. But the short answer is not so often that you beat it into the ground. Keep it interesting, don’t turn it into a chore.
Another quick tip: Do one or two essays together first before handing it off to your teen to do alone. Collaboration when introducing a new skill is vital.
Here’s a short list of essay resources to get you started:
- Breakfast on Mars (one of my favorites, obviously)
- The Norton Sampler
- The Little Norton Reader
- Kelly Gallagher’s article of the week archive
Up next is how to examine essays using portions of Help for High School. Stay tuned!
Disclaimer: This post is not sponsored by Brave Writer. As I’ve said before, I purchased these BW products with my own money.