Teaching and Assessing Writing with the Six Traits
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Word Choice
Lecture: Show Me! Don't Tell Me!
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Mark Twain, a master of Word Choice said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Word Choice can be the difference between writing that is alive and writing that is dead on the page. Underlying all is the notion that showing is more powerful than telling. Words that speak to the senses build images. Words that describe sounds, smells, and tastes evoke memories. Flat, dull, boring, or vivid, resonant, and lucid-- how will it be? Where will we find those few well-chosen words to dazzle the mind's eye?

The Showing Hand

This lesson reinforces the link between the five senses and Word Choice. The Showing Hand combines important concepts of Word Choice into a quirky, memorable image. The result is a word bank that becomes a ready reference during Idea generation, drafting and revision.

  • Begin by laying your hand on an overhead projector and tracing out each finger. Your students, equipped with paper and pencil, do the same.

  • Take the time for a careful tracing. Sketch in a few details as you talk about the importance of showing versus telling.

  • Each finger and the thumb represent one of the five senses. Writers should appeal to all of the senses in order to build pictures in a reader's mind.

  • Draw an eye on the thumb and talk about the importance of visual description. (The sillier the sketch the better!) Which description sticks in your mind: "...the car" or "...the dented pink and black Cadillac"?

  • Continue to elaborate on your traced hand (and have your students follow). Call for words that appeal to the sense of sight. Prime the pump by providing broad categories: What words do you use to describe the colors, shapes and sizes of all the things in our world?

  • Jot down the most specific words on your projected tracing. Encourage students to volunteer so many vivid words that you "Smother the Thumb" with visually descriptive words.

  • Continue working your way through the five senses, drawing a cartoon symbol into each finger. As each digit sprouts an ear, nose, or tongue, continue to elicit powerful descriptive words.

  • Return to the example and elaborate one sense at a time. Eventually "...the car" becomes, "...the dented and dingy pink and black Cadillac, emanating the acrid odor of scorched rubber, swerving down the road...etc."

  • As a training technique, go overboard. Turn those short, flat, inadequately described simple sentences into long, elaborate, richly worded sense images.

Extending the Activity

Describing sight, sound, smell, taste, or texture may be something new for your students. They may struggle and be at a loss for words. To help your class build vocabulary, provide a word bank of sense words.

With the concept established, practice turning telling statements into showing descriptions. "The pizza was good" becomes a sense-drenched ode to bubbling mozzarella and spicy pepperoni.

Showing writing becomes the drumbeat: "Show me! Don't tell me!" is the chant. Return to this concept throughout the year. Pound away. Bang the concept home. In my experience, no other technique has more power to infuse student writing with interest.

Magnified Moments

Once students get a grip (even a slippery one) on the punch of showing versus telling, they need to practice applying this type of Word Choice to their writing. Every story has essential points of action that provide the drama and tension. Have students mark these moments in their stories. Have them underline the showing words in their sentences. Ask them to seek out the most important moment and MAGNIFY the sense details. The dramatic moment should unfold in slow motion, with each sequential detail described precisely.

This method of elaboration can free student writers from the awful fear of the blank page. With practice, the writer of crippled, one-paragraph "stories" develops the Word Choice tools to construct striking images and longer stories that are more interesting.

There are many ways to approach Word Choice. Word webs, mandalas, a word collage, burying cliches, vivid verbs, specific nouns, are all ways to enhance Word Choice. Providing a variety of experiences helps everyone "get it". The payoff comes when you see, hear, taste, smell, and feel the improvement in your students' writing.

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