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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ten tips to flawless writing

Four years ago I wrote a guest blog post for learnemy. They are no longer around, so I thought I'd share the original post here:


As an English teacher it is easy for me to correct students' work. It is harder to teach them to correct their own work. Throughout the years I've picked up tips and tricks that help them avoid mistakes, and catch / correct them once written.

Proofreading isn't as easy as you may think. Tihs shwos your mnid is asoewme. Have you seen that before? It suggests that with only the first and last letter in the right place your brain will find the context and fix it for you. It is always harder to proofread your own work than someone else’s, but sometimes it must be done! How on earth can you proofread your own work?

Below I cover the best way to write a document. Understandably you can’t always follow these steps from start to finish, but ideally you would be able to do so.


1.   Hand write the first copy
a.  What? Who writes anything anymore? I know this seems antiquated but when you write with a pen or pencil silly typos are less likely to occur. Most people also type faster than they write, so by writing you are forcing your brain to slow down and form more accurate sentences. 

2.  Know what you are looking for
a. Different documents have different things you need to keep in mind. A formal essay should avoid first person, contractions and slang whereas an e-mail could include all of those (depending on your company). Be sure you know the style rules you should be following and keep these in mind for the next steps.

3. Type it up and use a spelling and grammar check
a.  Most computers come with a grammar check. Make sure yours is set up in the right language and use it! Do NOT just click, “OK” to everything. Read the options, the explanation and ONLY if you agree change it. Sometimes you may agree that it is wrong, but not in their corrections. That’s OK; rephrase it however you like. If you aren’t sure consider re-writing the sentence a different way regardless.

4.       Get some distance
a. Re-reading something five minutes after you wrote it will rarely yield amazing results. Coming back to it the next day (or longer) is better, but if you absolutely must send it off that same day take a break before you re-read it. Stand up and leave your computer / desk. Get a cup of coffee. Talk to a friend. Get your mind off the document. 

5.       Print it out in sections
a.  I love trees as much as the next person but most people will find more mistakes on paper than on a screen. Use recycled paper if it makes you feel better.

b. If you are proofreading a longer document try to check it in chunks. If you aren’t used to proofreading and you attempt to do it all at once you will likely get tired halfway through and stop noticing as much. It is better if you can divide it into smaller parts.

c. Another option is to read it all at once but only focus on one thing each time. For example: This time I am only looking for run on sentences. Note: This is harder to do!

6.       Read it out loud like you did when you were a child
a. Do you remember when you were little and you read with your finger on the words? This is called tracking. It is helpful to track when you grade your own work because your brain has to register every word. You can’t skip a word or phrase. This is especially useful with unneeded words you will hear as wrong (but only if you manage to say them!).

b. We often hear mistakes before we see them. Did you run out of breath before the sentence ended? It’s probably a run on sentence. Does something just sound awkward? It probably is!

7.       Make it bleed

a. Did you know that many teachers nowadays are being told not to use red pens. Some studies suggest that teachers are too negative when they use a red pen compared to other colors. Embrace this! You want to spot all the mistakes you can so use a red pen and get that edge.

8.       Read your document backwards
a. Backwards document your read? No, not like that. When you read from the top to the bottom your brain starts auto-correcting what it knows you meant to say. By reading the last sentence, then the second to last, then the third to last etc. your brain won’t anticipate the next step and you’re likely to find more mistakes. This is hard the first few times, but it does get easier.

9.       Embrace technology!
a. If you notice that you are frequently using the wrong word (e.g. there instead of their) jump on your computer. Find (Ctrl+F) all uses of your incorrect word and check them all at one time. Also take advantage of tech tools to check your writing.

10.   Rest and Repeat
a. A good job is never done, as stated before it is really best if you let your text rest in between readings. Even if you think you are done take the longest break you can, check it one more time, and then send.

There we are! Ten easy ways to proofread your own document. Whenever possible I suggest you find a trusted friend, colleague, old teacher, or relative who will look over your work. An extra pair of eyes always helps. However, if you are unable to do so, following these steps should make sure that your document gets as close to perfect as you can get it.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Using tech to help students review their writing


One of my big focuses as a teacher is giving students tools they can use without me. I've given many students checklists and models that they have later thanked me for as they used them throughout many later classes.

Besides those paper tools, I also give my students some electronic tools for reviewing their papers, e-mails, articles and really any written work. None of these are a replacement for a second set of eyes, but it is nice to have technology help out.

Most of these are Freemium meaning they offer services for free, but offer more or better services (without advertisements, less wait, etc.)

Below I'll give links and brief descriptions to four sites I give my students. Try them out with your own writing and share them with your students! I bet one or two of them will thank you.


1. Grammarly

If you sign up here you get to try Premium for a week (full disclosure I get a free week if you sign up with this link). Premium is nice, but I find the free version is definitely great too.

There's a Grammarly browser add-on (for Chrome, Firefox or Safari), a Microsoft Word add-on, and students can go to the site and copy and paste text to check it.

My favorite part though, is the weekly e-mails students get. Grammarly sends an e-mail once a week that lays out spelling and grammar issues they encounter most often.

Students can combine this with NoRedInk and practice any grammar skills they still struggle with on their own.

2. PaperRater

This site does have a lot of ads, but it's a great time to teach some digital citizenship in being careful what you click on. Students copy their text and then go to PaperRater. Once there, they paste their text into PaperRater filling out their specifics (type of text, grade level, etc.). The site looks at several different elements: Spelling, Grammar, Word Choice, Style, Vocabulary and Words. Then it gives a grade.

Obviously, this isn't perfect! For style it looks a lot at transitional phrases. For Word Choice it basically identifies words like "a lot, I don't, big, don't, get, really, many, am, go, most" and reminds students to consider other words or use a thesaurus.

A big thing to go over with students is that the grade is automated and that it definitely isn't a crystal ball that will predict that grade they earn.

3. Hemingway Editor
Reminding students that bigger isn't always better, Hemingway looks at sentence length, adverb usage, passive voice, and just awkward phrases to make writing easier to read.

While PaperRater also looks at sentence structure, most students get focused on the spelling, grammar, and grade. Hemingway focuses exclusively on structure. Spelling and grammar errors are irrelevant.

Hemingway Editor is definitely a site worth introducing to students. There is a time and a place for adverbs, passive voice and complex sentences, but this site's easy color coding can help students see if they have too many of one color populating their essay.

4. The Writer's Diet
Last but not least, there's The Writer's Diet. Based on the book by the same name, the site encourages writers to have "fit" writing rather than "flabby" writing.

After copying and pasting a text, students' are given a bar chart detailing a breakdown of their text and then the text itself.

There you are! Four more digital tools that students can store in their toolbox.

I am always sure to discuss all of these with my students. In fact often when first introducing them I have them run their text through and make changes. Then they give me a little write-up  which site they used, what was helpful, and what was not so helpful. This helps build a critical eye and students get an idea of when to use which site.

These are meant to be helpful tools, but they should be used with a critical eye. These are all automated and none of them perfect!

Do you know of any others I should add to my list? Have any experience you'd like to share? Let me know in the comments!

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