Characters and Actions/Short
to Long/Topic Strings/etc.
Identify/Generate the principle
Time: 20-30 minutes
This is a great exercise to demonstrate to students that they
already use many of the sentence- and paragraph-level principles
we teach. By naming them and becoming more conscious of them, students
will be able to execute them more consistently, and to manipulate
Before you talk about any of these principles, try this activity.
Everyone in class should write a paragraph explaining the process
of evaporation and condensation in the global climate -- how
rain turns into rivers turns back into rain. (They can make it
up if they don't exactly remember.) Ask half the class to write
the paragraph to a high school science teacher; ask the other half
to write it to an imaginary five year-old cousin. Set the paragraphs
aside, then introduce one of the principles.
Afterwards, return to the paragraphs. Ask students to read them
for the principle (circle the characters and actions, count the
words before the verb, identify what kind of topic string the paragraph
uses). Share the results as a class (by a show of hands): How many
people writing to their teacher used abstract characters and actions?
more than 4 words before the verb? mixed topic strings? How many
people writing to their cousin used obvious characters and actions?
only a few words before the verb? focused/linked topic strings?
Most writers already know that when they write to someone familiar
with the subject, they can use more complicated sentence/paragraph-level
style, and when they write to novices, they need to use simpler
You might ask students to keep the paragraphs so that you can return
to them as you introduce new principles.