Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Writing Lessons from Freshman English

My experience teaching first-year English this semester is bringing me back to my roots, so to speak--parts of the writing process that I no longer think twice about are proving to be real challenges for some of the students in my classes, which is in turn keeping me on my toes.

We're about a month into the semester, and I'm already taking stock of the things I've been learning from my classes--lessons that have been lying dormant for awhile, but are no less important than the first time I learned them:

Always remember the basics. Grammar, mechanics, word usage, and spelling (you know, the boring stuff) are the heart of any well-written piece. It's important to master these basic skills, as they serve as the foundation for all books, articles, screenplays, what have you. Stephen King calls them the "toolbox", and it's really true--a misplaced comma or misspelled word can change the whole meaning of your message.

"Hook" your audience early. Just as the tone of the class is all but set on the first day, a well-written introduction that pulls your reader into your piece from the beginning is essential. My students need to know the instructor's boundaries and expectations--your readers expect the same from you as a writer. What are you going to tell them? What do you expect from them as readers--a chuckle, a tear, or a "Wow, I never knew that!" Make it interesting from the start and your audience will stay with you the whole time.

Say what you mean. I'm finding that students take things literally, and since this is the first college course for many of them, I can't assume that they're familiar with any of the information I'm teaching them. Your choice of words and how you present them are important.

Have more than you need. Over-research, over-interview, write a long first draft of an article...you can always edit later! I'm living proof of the philosophy that over-preparedness may not be a bad thing! It's always much easier to cut out the excess than scramble to find info because you've come up short. I'm finding the same to be true with teaching--it's difficult to know how much I'll get done in a particular night, so there tends to be more free time than I'd like at the end of the class. I'm trying to work ahead on my presentations and have other material ready so we can move on to the next thing if time allows. I'm trying to have more so I can edit later. I'd rather fill up the full class time than let them go much earlier than they should!

Be consistent. As a freelancer, everything falls on us--querying, follow-up, researching, writing, invoicing--plus the various other elements of being a writer. Set some consistent standards for yourself and your work--establish your pay rates, focus on certain markets, and set up a tracking system that works for you. I'm learning that I need to take another look at the rules and guidelines that I've set for my classes so that there's more consistency and accountability, and that I need to follow through on the framework I set up at the beginning of the semester. A certain level of consistency makes life easier for everyone.

What are some "basics" that you still use in your writing today?

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