QueryTracker Blog

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

To Improve Your Craft, Take a Trip Back to Sixth Grade

I'm going to go all teacher on you for a few minutes. I've been teaching for nearly a decade and have been grading the Direct Writing Assessment for the past eight years. Without causing a drastic snooze-fest, basically, the DWA is a state-wide persuasive writing assignment for 6th and 9th graders.

As a scorer, I have to go through 20 hours of training. After eight years, I have that puppy memorized. Enter Mr. J (my darling hubby). He teaches 6th grade. Here's some word math for you: 6th grade writing assessment + professional DWA scorer = I grade my husband's essays. Oh, and the other 6th grade teacher's essays. And whoever will pay me to grade their essays.

This past weekend as I was slogging through the assignments, it occurred to me that I can use these 6 traits in my fiction writing. Why this concept had not struck me before, I don't know. But it was sort of an epiphany for me. So without further ado, let's board that time machine and go back to sixth grade. Strap yourselves in, I've seen sixth graders--and they are wild.

The Six Traits of Writing – A Way to Improve Your Craft.

Trait 1: Ideas and Content

In persuasive writing, this is where the student must convince me that their side is right. In fiction, this is your plot. Your subplots. What happens in your book. The conflicts, the characters, the events. You have to write them well enough to convince me to keep reading, to care about your characters and what happens to them. This is where you show off your interesting and original idea. This is a biggie, I know, but it's only the first thing. Even great ideas don't get off the ground without the other five traits.

Trait 2: Organization

In the DWA, I watch for transitions, paragraphing, and if the writing follows a logical sequence. But most of all I read for a beginning that grabs my attention and an ending that sums up the main idea. How is this any different from fiction? It's so not. Authors agonize over their first sentence, the first page, the first chapter. You want your beginning to grab the attention of agents and readers. And how many of you have read a book that didn't leave you satisfied? That you felt just wasn't enough, or else it went on forever? This is all part of how you organize your novel.

Trait 3: Voice

This is another big one. In persuasive writing, I first check to see if the writer addresses the appropriate audience. You may not talk directly to your audience in fiction writing, but your audience should be reflected in your point of view character. For example, young adult characters should narrate young adult novels. In fact, one of the bullets in the rubric under voice is: "The writer's point of view is clear."

I also watch for a unique, personal touch to the piece. This is no different for fiction. Agent upon agent has blogged about voice. The voice in the query letter, the voice of the writing.

This is where I usually draw a mental line when I'm scoring. The first three traits are all about the overall piece of writing. I normally don't break things down sentence by sentence to see if the ideas, the organization or the voice are "working." It's based on the piece of writing as a whole. The next three traits, though, are more technical. More nitty. They are how you make the first three traits work as a whole. Does that make sense? Well, keep reading and maybe it will.

Trait 4: Word Choice

While scoring essays, I look for the use of everyday words. Are they used well? You're looking to express your ideas with strong and precise language. Little or no repetition. Fresh verbs. You want to create a picture in the reader's mind with the words you choose. Oftentimes when I am critiquing someone's writing, I'll come across a word that just doesn't seem right. The meaning is usually clear, but the word choice is off. Watch every word, and make it count.

Trait 5: Sentence Fluency

In the persuasive essay, I look for how sentences start and stop. The length and structure should vary. Not all sentences should begin the same way. Going back to Mary's fantastic post on reading aloud, when I'm struggling to decide which score to give a paper in Sentence Fluency, I'll read it out loud. One of the bulleted items in the rubric is: "The writing has a natural flow when read aloud." Can't be more clear than that.

Trait 6: Conventions

This is, well, the conventions. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, paragraphing. I know we have a post coming up on the proper use of quotes, so be on the lookout for that. For fiction, I think the obvious thing here is: has your writing been proofread and edited? It's pretty easy to see when it hasn't. Don't get me wrong, everyone makes typos. But I've participated in enough critique groups to know who's posting something they've edited several times and who's just throwing up what they wrote last night. You can learn to self-edit your own work, or join a critique group if you feel like you can't. (More on that from me later. I know you'll all be on the edge of your seats!)

Well, this concludes the trip back to sixth grade. Climb aboard the time machine, people, I highly doubt any of you actually want to go back to being 12. But hopefully, these six traits of writing will help you improve your novel now, and the writing you do in the future.

By the way, if you care, you can download your own copy of the rubric I use to grade the DWA. Click here and scroll down to "DWA Related Links" (in the middle column). Click on "Scoring Rubric." I could recite it for you...but, well, I won't.kenyit


Angela Ackerman said...

Wow--thanks for sharing! You covered everything beautifully.

LOL, I hope there's some trade off for grading Hubby's essays...laundry, maybe?

Suzette Saxton said...

Ahhhh, a nice refresher course on the basics. I wish I'd had this when I first started writing!

My favorite phrase in the article is "fresh verbs."

Great article, Elana.

Paul W. West, Author said...

Great article. I wish more writers would take your advice.

Unknown said...

Elana, this is fabulous. It's so easy to forget the basics as we get older and start to think we know what we're doing, isn't it? Your refresher course is a very pleasant slap upside the head! :-)

Elana Johnson said...

Thanks everyone!

Angela, unfortunately, I get no perks for the grading. I'm totally gonna bring it up though...

Suz, you are my rainbow in a dark place. Thanks. :)

Paul, thanks man!

Disorderly, are you calling me old? Ha ha! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

LOVE THIS...living with a Middle School L/A teacher, we are always talking about 6th and 7th grade standards and their application to my writing. Thanks and great job