"Adding details?"

Recently, when conferring with student writers,  I’ve been asking some variation of the following question, “What will/ can you do as a writer to improve this piece?”

I’ve been asking the question for several reasons, and if I’m honest I will tell you that mostly I feared a certain response.

And the response I feared was the  one I’ve gotten most of the time. “Add details?”  Always a question, never a plan. I can’t tell you how many earnest faces have looked up at me over the last few weeks and said the same exact thing. And as we talked, I sensed what each and every one of them was thinking. “If I say that, you will go away, right?” Or, “That is what you want me to say, right?”

Ugghhh. No. This wasn’t happening.  Ummm yes, it was. What to do?

I started thinking. During the day, during writing conferences, late at night, on my drive to school. And I realized this can’t go on. We need to teach them what they need to know now, no matter where we are in the curriculum… no matter what the book or tomorrow’s lesson plan says.

We teachers need to instruct, support and give writers options and strategies. We must help them to discover and understand what “adding details” means. We  need to turn that pat response into something meaningful and workable, something concrete and doable. How to do that?

And so, in recent days, this has been my focus during writing conferences. When I sit down with writers, I ask them how it is going. I ask what their writing goal is. I ask how I can help. And when they say “adding details, ” I ask “How do you think you might do that?” And when they say, “I don’t know,” I don’t faint or cringe. I simply say, “Okay. Can I teach you a way you might try to do that in this piece?”  The look of relief that sweeps across the writer’s face is all we both need. Then, together, we get to work.

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