Category Archives: Writing

“Be more specific”

Ironically, “be more specific” is the most uselessly vague criticisms my students seem to get about their writing. I am tempted to give them official permission to growl at the next person who says it to them.

When I ask new (English-fluent) students how they could improve their first piece of writing for me, 90% of them say they should have used more details or been more specific. And when I have followed up with, “What do you mean by that? Can you show me an example of what you would change?” only ONE student has ever actually known how to make such a change. One. It breaks my heart to know all of those kids have taken the criticism to heart without any understanding of how to fix it. They must feel such impotence.

So what can a parent do to help their child? Think about what led you to say, “Be more specific” and discuss that. Do you not have a good mental picture of the setting in your mind? Are you confused about the order of events? Are the words repetitively boring because everyone “goes” and “says” and “is” but never does anything with any other verbs?

Be able to point to something specific in the text as an example and explain your problem. “It says here that she’s driving. I imagined a car because that’s the most common but in the next paragraph the story talked about ‘closing the back gate’ and I realized that what I was imagining was wrong.” “I know there are three sisters but you don’t tell me their ages so when you say ‘the oldest one,’ I’m not sure who you’re talking about.” After being specific, ask the kid to look for any other places that might confuse someone.

If you can’t point to anything specific in their own writing except a total lack of adjectives, ask them to draw a picture of their story and then express surprise at a newly discovered detail. “I did not realize the house was red! I bet the people who are only reading the words would love to know that. Where could you add some words to tell them?”

Even better, instead of criticizing the work (because, oh, we make writing such a mysterious game of “guess what the adult is going to dislike this time” and just being appreciated sometimes is invaluable in creating adults who don’t hate writing), give them confusing texts themselves to read and ask them what the author could have explained better. When you are reading aloud to your child, pause sometimes if you could *reasonably* misinterpret something unspecified and talk about what the author could have said instead. If you are reading picture books, say “I sure am glad that picture shows that the old woman whispering hush is a rabbit, because the words by themselves would not give me that detail!” When you are reading to yourself and see a sentence with great details, share it out loud with your family. “I love how this book describes the ocean. Listen to this…”.

If we want kids to be specific, we have to start by being specific ourselves!

Starting Over


We Two Tutoring students reading this will already know the #1 rule of our classrooms: Make Mistakes. If you aren’t making mistakes, then you aren’t pushing yourself. You aren’t trying new, uncertain things. You aren’t learning.

Students must make mistakes.

Another, unspoken rule is this: We Are All Students. Learning doesn’t end at the classroom door. It doesn’t end on Friday afternoon. It doesn’t end at the diploma.

Life always has new challenges and we must learn in order to conquer them.

I began this blog and this website and promptly forgot those two lessons. As an English tutor, it is really hard to put out written work which might contain mistakes, and so I made the biggest mistake of all: I stopped. I created a new challenge in my professional life but I backed away from learning from it. I backed away from making any of those lesser-but-necessary mistakes. My brave students walk through the door day after day and hand over their written work or engage in conversation knowing that they are there to reveal their flaws. How vulnerable they make themselves, and I wasn’t good at doing that in return.

So with the new year, I’m renewing my commitment to writing about my tutoring here. I’ll be sharing resources, tips and advice in a way that may be flawed but will at least follow those most important rules of our classrooms.

I’ll make mistakes, and we can learn from them together.

Writing Wednesday: What Do Characters Say?

I am horrible at writing dialogue.  This is one reason I steer away from fiction – I heard a rumor that characters like to talk.  *shudder*  But I also know it’s important to keep pushing myself as a writer, to keep trying those parts of writing I am not good at.  And yesterday … I did it!

“How did you achieve this wonderful thing?” you might ask.  (<– More dialogue.)  Simple: I cheated.

In my opinion, all my dialogue sounds like I, myself, am talking.  So I borrowed a few characters from one of my favorite TV shows – one of the characters is pretty weird, so he doesn’t talk the same way most people – and imagined a scene.  I’ve heard hours of these characters talking, and I know exactly what they sound like.  I closed my eyes and listened to what they were saying inside my mind.  The story I came up with is only 249 words long and only includes three lines of dialogue but hey, that’s better than none at all.

A side trip into a discussion of fanfiction…

Now, this kind of writing is called “fanfiction,” and you can probably guess why.  It’s important to do it responsibly because those characters are actually the property of other people.  They don’t belong to you or me.  If I sold that story to a magazine, I would be breaking the law.  In fact, I won’t even put it up here on the blog for free.  Some authors are also upset by the idea of other people copying characters they worked so hard to create, which is understandable.

Generally speaking, people are allowed nonprofit, educational, fair use of the characters, so a story you wrote in a private notebook to practice your skills as an author would be fine.  That is similar to seeing art students copying paintings at a museum.  They would not then hang it in a gallery and say, “Look at this beautiful portrait I made!  I call her Mona Lisa!”

A list of authors and their positions on using their characters in your own writing is available here; it is not a complete list.

Another challenge is that not everyone respects fanfiction, either.  I do, and I’ve seen my students do great work when they were inspired by characters and settings in their favorite books, movies, or TV shows.  Just keep in mind that, again, your own practice notebook is a good place for fanfiction; handing it in to a teacher for a grade is riskier; trying to sell it as a book is wrong.

Always, always, always acknowledge the wonderful writers whose hard work creating those characters and worlds inspired you, even in your own notebook.  Those authors who allow fanfiction are sharing a special gift with you, and they are awesome.

Back to the writing exercises …

  • Imagine your favorite TV character was a new student at your school this year; you are assigned to be their buddy and show them around.  What questions would that character ask about your school?
  • Some pretty famous books end by jumping into the future and looking at the characters once they are all grown up.  Write a “twenty years later” epilogue to a book you think should have it.  They are at a special event and the main character makes a speech.
  • Books, movies and TV shows usually share the most exciting moments in life: It’s not just a school day, it’s the first day of school!  It’s not just dinner, it’s your birthday!  It’s not just a Saturday with friends, it a trip to an amusement park!  But what about the rest of the time?  Write about a regular, average, normal day for those characters.

Writing Wednesday:

Figment is a free website for young writers ages 13 and up.  Once teens have registered, they can post their writing, read others’ writing, and participate in contests and writing groups.  It was started by two journalists from The New Yorker.

The Daily Fig is Figment’s blog, featuring book releases, popular culture, author interviews, and writing and art contests.

My favorite part of the Figment site is the Daily Theme.  This feature emails five writing prompts a week to subscribers.  Some come from professional writers; some offer photos for inspiration; some focus on one aspect of writing, such as character development or sensory descriptions.

Commonsense Media (an excellent website that helps educate children about the media: the advantages, the disadvantages, and how to understand the difference) has a review of Figment.  They suggest that parents can use Figment to begin discussions of a user’s digital footprint and how to respect each others’ creative work.


Writing Wednesday: Family Photos

The combination of digital cameras and airplanes means many parents have photos of people whom their kids have never met and places they’ve never been.  These photos can be used in myriad ways to encourage language skills.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

One way to start is to simply tell kids the stories behind the photos.  Choose just a couple and judge your child’s interest level.  This is not supposed to be torture!  Your words will expose your child to important communication skills like narrative structure, audience awareness, and the importance of description.  You begin with a concrete item (the photo) but move into abstract discussion (the story surrounding the photo).  Most importantly, you demonstrate to your child that you value using language to communicate.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

ELL Families: We work with many parents who don’t feel fluent in English themselves but want to support their children’s studies.  This sort of story-telling, in any language, will help your child’s English language skills.  “Fluency” is not only knowing the vocabulary and grammar of the language, but also being able to put that knowledge together to create an entirely new sentence.  Doing that in your first language will help your child do it in many languages.

So turn on your computer, open up a photo album, and tell your child a story!

E-Resource: Zimmer Twins

Young movie makers will enjoy the Zimmer Twins website which provides animated clips and dialogue screens which kids can then assemble into their very own stories.  It is an entertaining way to practice writing and story-telling skills.

The basic site is free, although a paid membership is available (a nice touch: they do not automatically charge your credit card when your membership period ends).  Unfortunately, Zimmer Twins requires Flash, so it cannot be used on any iOS devices.  When signing up, children are required to provide a parent or guardian’s email address, and they cannot use their own names for their accounts – the site takes kids’ safety seriously and begins teaching them the basics of Internet safety and courtesy.

With paid membership, you get more clips to choose from, but I actually like the existing limitations.  There is still a huge selection with the free account, and the teacher in me appreciates the ways students have creatively used what’s available to tell an infinite variety of stories.

Try using Zimmer Twins to make any of these movies:

  • Write a story set in the future … or the past.
  • Write a sequel to someone else’s movie.
  • Tell the true story of something that really happened to you.
  • Tell a story backwards.
  • Recreate your favorite book.

Have fun!