Writing that would make a student's grandma proud

December 06, 2012|Lisa Prejean

One of my students was struggling with how to make her writing sound natural.

I handed back a rough draft of an essay with some suggestions on it and asked her to come see me so we could take a look at the unrefined spots together.

The structure of her essay was sound. She had a creative introduction, a solid thesis and paragraphs that backed up her premise, point by point.

But sentence after sentence, line after line, I could tell she was having trouble with expression. What was she trying to say?

Let's face it. Knowing what you want to say and being able to express it in words can be two very different things, especially when it comes to explaining difficult concepts, such as some of the topics covered in essays.

A long time ago an editor told me to approach difficult concepts in my writing as I would explanations that I'd give to my grandmother.

What did he mean by that? Grandparents want things to be explained simply. They, for the most part, have not kept up with the times. That's why they have grandchildren — to explain all these new-fangled things.

It's a great way for the young to teach the old, er, mature, among us.

Just as a teacher needs to learn the material before teaching it, a writer needs to understand information in order to write about it. If I understand it, I should be able to explain it.

After all, isn't instruction the purpose of informative or persuasive writing?

The editor's advice made me think of conversations with my grandmother. She used to ask me many questions, and I miss those comfy talks in her living room. I knew she wanted simple explanations, and I patiently did my best.

I encouraged my student to do the same with me. We looked at the first bumpy section of her essay, and I told her to talk to me about what it meant. I told her not to think about using big words or about sentence structure — simply state what she means.

Then I asked her to take a look at each line where I wrote, "What exactly did you mean here?" and verbalize what she meant. I suggested that she pretend she was telling her grandmother or some other relative a story.

"Record yourself explaining your writing and then listen to your words," I continued. "If you like what you hear, write it down, word-for-word. Look at what you wrote, read it again and fine-tune it for flow and clarity."

She seemed to like those ideas and was willing to try them. I'm sure her grandmother would approve.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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