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Ten Tips to Improving Writing Coherency

Using Coherence and Word Choice e-Comments

Coherence and Word Choice e-Comments

Ten Tips to Improving Writing Coherency

Writing coherency refers to how well sentences and paragraphs are organized into an understandable whole. Good writing coherency is reader-centered. From the reader’s point of view, the train of thought must be connected, easy to follow, and make sense. Incoherent writing is inconsiderate to the reader. If the writing lacks coherency, the reader’s comprehension and enjoyment of that writing will decrease. A reader may have to re-read, be forced to use too many context clues to understand what is being said, or make an undue amount of inferences.

To improve coherency, writers need to ensure that their writing has these characteristics:

1. Predictable Paragraph Organization To maintain optimal coherency, organize paragraphs in the way that readers are accustomed. For example, unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, place the topic sentence in the first position of the paragraph. The topic sentence appears in the first position of the paragraph 80% of the time in expository writing. Because of this high percentage, readers expect the main idea of the paragraph to be in this position. Similarly, the thesis statement appears 50% of the time as the last sentence in an essay introduction, so follow this practice as well.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

Additionally, the Ancient Greeks developed the rhetorical rules for our writing, and these rules dictate that the most important idea in any communication needs to be stated first. Organize paragraphs with customary and traditional structures to be considerate to your reader.

2. Comprehensible Sentence Structure- Again, toe the line with those Ancient Greeks. English follows suit by placing the most important words at the beginning of the sentence. In the sentence: “You need to mail that letter today,” the emphasis is on the action. In the sentence: “Today, you need to mail that letter,” the emphasis is on the time. English grammar is very flexible in its forms and so can emphasize words with many different grammatical constructions. See How to Improve Sentence Variety with Grammatical Sentence Openers for examples.

Vary the length of sentences. Charles Dickens can be difficult to read because of his notoriously long-winded sentences. A good rule of thumb is to never place two long sentences next to each other. Of course, short staccato sentences can get irritating, as well. Strive for balance in sentence length to increase reader understanding and concentration.

3. Repetition- Repeat key words, phrases, or clauses to build coherency. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the “I have a dream” clause nine different times in his short speech. Also, write with parallel grammatical structures such as in Abraham Lincoln’s “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Notice the repeated “_ed” past participles, each followed by prepositional phrases.

4. Effective Sentence Transitions- Use, but don’t over use, transition words and phrases at the beginnings of sentences to connect to previous thoughts. Remember that most transitions at the beginning of sentences are followed by a comma, except in  short sentences. A helpful list follows.

The author’s Teaching Essay Strategies provides 11 Transition Worksheets, one for each purpose. Each worksheet requires students to identify, select, and apply the

transition words in the context of sentences and paragraphs. Great practice! Check out the free samples below.

Get the Transition Worksheets FREE Resource:

Teaching Essay Strategies includes 42 essay strategy worksheets corresponding to teach the Common Core State Writing Standards, an e-comment bank of 438 prescriptive writing responses with an link to insert into Microsoft Word® for easy e-grading, 8 on-demand writing fluencies, 8 writing process essays (4 argumentative and 4 informative/explanatory), 64  sentence revision and 64 rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, writing posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in this comprehensive writing curriculum.

5. Clear Pronouns- A pronoun takes the place of a proper (named) or common (unnamed) noun. Using clear pronoun references will improve reader understanding of your writing. Always place pronoun references close to the nouns which they represent. If in doubt, simply repeat the noun. For example, in the sentence: “The dog traveled over the hill, chased a bunny, drank from a stream, terrorized a stray cat, and than it returned home,” the it pronoun does not clearly describe the antecedent dog. The sentence would be more coherent as “The dog enjoyed many adventures before it returned home: traveling over a hill, chasing a bunny, drinking from a stream, and terrorizing a cat.”

6. Clear Modifiers- A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that acts as an adjective or adverb to define or limit the meaning of another word or phrase. For example, in the sentence: “Thrown in the air, the dog fetched the Frisbee®,” the phrase “Thrown in the air” is a classic dangling modifier. The reader may be confused into thinking that the dog, not the disc, was the one thrown into the air. To prevent dangling modifiers, always place modifiers close to the nouns or verbs that they intend to modify. The above sentence would better be written as “Thrown in the air, the Frisbee® was fetched by the dog” (albeit in passive voice).

7. Precise Word Choice Use specific, rather than vague, meaningless words. For example, instead of “Many things caused the recession,” replace with “Decreasing consumer confidence and high gas prices caused the recession.” Use words that fit your audience. Avoid technical or academic language when simple words will suffice, unless your readers are well-acquainted with the terminology. Be courteous to your reader and define unfamiliar words to improve coherence.

8. Appropriate Conjunctions- The common coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so (F.A.N.B.O.Y.S.) each have precise meanings and need to be used correctly to maintain coherency. For example, the sentence: “He needed money for paying expenses,” does not correctly use the conjunction for. The sentence suggests that money is the medium of exchange for paying expenses, rather than a necessary prerequisite for paying expenses. Using the conjunction so would create better sentence coherency as in “He needed money so he could pay expenses.”

9. Limited Passive Voice- In passive voice, the subject receives the action with the use of a passive verb. A passive verb combines a “to-be” verb with a past participle (_d, _ed, or _en ending). For example, is practiced, was doubted, had been eaten. Instead, use the active voice in which the subject does the action. For example, “John ran to the post office.” Passive voice can be used intentionally to emphasize objectivity, such as in “It has been shown in educational research that more women than men….” Otherwise, avoid the passive voice.

10. Brevity- Using concise language builds reader understanding. Readers lose focus, if the writing is verbose. Rather than “It would certainly be very nice if you would please consider it in your heart to take out the trash,” replace with the simple and to the point “Please take out the trash.”

Following are examples of an incoherent paragraph and a coherent revision of that same paragraph. Try revising the incoherent model, using the Ten Tips to Improve Writing Coherency before looking at the revision to see if you can apply these tips.

Incoherent Writing Model

Snow creates problems. Streets need shoveling. Snowplows cannot always access streets. Driveways are hard to clear. Many communities leave the expense of clearing snow up to the homeowner. Building up dangerously high on a roof, it can break roof framing. Snow may seem harmless. It can damage houses. Snow is always potentially hazardous. It can endanger people.

Coherent Revision

Snow creates two problems for homeowners. First, it requires shoveling to keep driveways and streets clear, but snowplows cannot always access them. Furthermore, many communities leave the expense of clearing snow up to the homeowner; thus some homeowners cannot afford the expense of hiring a snowplow. Second, snow may seem harmless, yet it is not. Snow can build up dangerously high on a roof and break roof framing. Always potentially hazardous, snow can damage houses and endanger those who live in them.

Also, check out Mark Pennington’s articles on writing unity and parallelism.

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How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs in Writing

Every English teacher has a sure-fire revision tip that makes developing writers dig down deep and revise initial drafts. One of my favorites involves reducing the number of “to be verbs”: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been.

At this point, even before I begin to plead my case, I hear the grumbling of the contrarians. One of them mutters a snide, rhetorical question: Didn’t Shakespeare say “To be, or not to be: that is the question:”? He used three “to be” verbs right there! If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me. True, but Will used only six more “to be” verbs in Hamlet’s next 34 lines. My goals are to convince teachers to help their students reduce, not eliminate the “to be” verbs, and so write with greater precision and purpose. There. I just used a “to be” verb. Feeling better?

Eliminate To Be Verbs

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

What’s So Wrong with “To Be” Verbs?

  1. The “to be” verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been are state of being verbs, which means that they unduly claim a degree of permanence. For example, “I am hungry.” For most Americans, hunger is only a temporary condition.
  2. The “to be” verbs claim absolute truth and exclude other views. “Classical music is very sophisticated.” Few would agree that all classical compositions are always sophisticated.
  3. The “to be” verbs are general and lack specificity. A mother may tell her child, “Be good at school today.” The more specific “Don’t talk when the teacher talks today” would probably work better.
  4. The “to be” verbs are vague. For example, “That school is great.” Clarify the sentence as “That school has wonderful teachers, terrific students, and supportive parents.”
  5. The “to be” verbs often confuse the reader about the subject of the sentence. For example, “It was nice of you to visit.” Who or what is the “It?”

Adapted from Ken Ward’s E-Prime article at http://www.trans4mind.com/personal_development/GeneralSemantics/KensEPrime.htm

When Can We Use “To Be” Verbs?

It’s not that “to be” verbs are always bad; sometimes writers must use “to be” verbs to communicate exactly what the writer wants to say. In fact, these verb forms can be difficult to replace. When the verb links to the subject (the do-er) of the sentence as a state of being, it performs one of these five functions:

  1. Exists−Is there any trouble? Yes, I am he (predicate nominative).
  2. Happens−The meetings are over.
  3. Locates−He was at the birthday party.
  4. Identifies−Those children were friendly (predicate adjective).
  5. Describes−That could be scary (helping verb)! He is being helpful (progressive tense). Those girls have been so mean (perfect tense).

Generally, writers should avoid using “to be” verbs in essays. “To be” verbs can appear more frequently in narrative writing. However, when writers can replace a “to be” verb with a vivid, “show me” verb in any writing genre, it certainly makes sense to do so. With a good “show me” verb, the reader (or listener) can picture the physical or mental action of the verb. The verb engages the interest of the reader and specifically communicates the nature of the action. But, not all non-“to be” verbs are vivid, “show me” verbs. For example, the physical and mental action verbs in this sentence do not use vivid, “show me” verbs: The boy sits down on the bench and thinks what to do next. In contrast, the physical and mental action verbs in this sentence do use vivid, “show me” verbs: The boy slouches down on the bench and studies what to do next.

So, how can we get our students to reduce or eliminate “to be” verbs in their essays to create precision of meaning, specificity, clarity, and just good old sentence variety? How do we get our students to use these vivid “show me” verbs instead? Try these five strategies:

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

  1. IdentifyStudents need to memorize the “to be” verbs to avoid using them and to revise those that they have used in essays: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. Teach students to self-edit by circling “to be” verbs in the revision stage of writing. Teach students how to problem-solve whether a “to be” verb is necessary or not. Teach students to identify and revise Non-standard English forms of the “to be” verb (Common Core State Standards L.2,3). For example, “They be watching cartoons” or “She been taking her time” 
  2. SubstituteSometimes a good replacement of a “to be” verb just pops into the brain. For example, instead of “That cherry pie is delicious,” substitute the “to be” verb is with tastes as in “That cherry pie tastes delicious.” If a strong, vivid verb does not pop into the brain, HERE is a great list of action verbs, specifically designed for persuasive/argumentative essays, informational/explanatory essays, literary analysis, and narratives (W1.0, 2.0, 3.0 of the Common Core Writing Standards) with useful categories for your students. Thanks to Mary Beth Foster, University of Arizona Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) Center for compiling this list. Also, substitute the “there,” “here,” and “it” + “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “There is the cake, and here are the pies for dessert, and it is served by Mom,” replace with “Mom serves the cake and pies for dessert.” Let’s also add on the “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” + “to be” verbs. Finally, strong linking verbs can replace “to be” verbs. For example, instead of “That was still the best choice,” substitute the “to be” verb was with the linking verb remained as in “That remained the best choice.”
  3. ConvertStudents can start  the sentence differently to see if this helps eliminate a “to be” verb. For example, instead of “Charles Schulz was the creator of the Peanuts cartoon strip,” convert the common noun creator to the verb created as in “Charles Schulz created the Peanuts cartoon strip.” 
  4. Change−To eliminate a”to be” verb, students can change the subject of the sentence to another noun or pronoun in the sentence and rearrange the order of the sentence. For example, instead of “The car was stopped by a police officer,” change the complete subject, the car, to a police officer to write “A police officer stopped the car.” Also, students can add in a different sentence subject to eliminate a “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The books were written in Latin,” add in a different sentence subject, such as “authors” to change the passive voice to the active voice and write “Authors wrote the books in Latin. Lastly, starting the sentence with a different word or part of speech will help eliminate the “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The monster was in the dark tunnel creeping,” rearrange as “Down the dark tunnel crept the monster.”
  5. CombineLook at the sentences before and after the one with the “to be” verb to see if combining the sentences will eliminate the “to be” verb. For example, instead of “The child was sad. The sensitive child was feeling that way because of the news story,” combine as “The news story saddened the sensitive child.”

A Teaching Plan to Eliminate the “To Be” Verb

  1. Post a list of the “to be” verbs and the problem-solving strategies listed above for student reference. Download the three “To Be” Posters at the end of this article. Great tools to teach!
  2. Why not create a Dead Verbs Cemetery bulletin board? (What a great idea for Halloween!)
  3. Share the five strategies one at a time, so as not to overwhelm students. Teach, practice, and master only one strategy  before moving on to another strategy.
  4. Use teacher think-alouds to model the “to be” verb revision process.
  5. Then, turn the revision chore on over to the whole class with one student writing sample. Correct whole class and commend the variety of effective revisions. Compare sentence revisions and discuss which strategies worked and did not work to eliminate the “to be” verbs.
  6. Next, collect student writing samples from the whole class and have students individually revise their peers’ “to be” verbs. Peer editing focused on one target issue makes sense.
  7. Next, have students revise their own sentences from their own writing samples, using the five strategies.

After teaching and practicing all five strategies, set the “rule” that from now on only one “to-be” verb is allowed in any paragraph (excluding direct quotes). Use peer editing to help identify the “to-be” verbs and peer tutors to help struggling students.

Teaching the strategies and practicing them in the context of student writing samples will help students recognize and avoid these “writing crutches” in their own writing. The end result? More precise and purposeful student writing with vivid, “show me” verbs.

Check out the quality program materials found in these teacher-created and classroom-tested resources:

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies provides the step-by-step resources teachers need to teach the argumentative and informational-explanatory essays. The program includes 8 complete writing process essays with accompanying readings (4 argumentative and 4 informational-explanatory), 42 sequenced essay strategy worksheets, 64 writing opener lessons, dozens of writing skill worksheets (like the “to be” worksheet above), plus writing fluency quick writes Also save time grading essays with the e-comments download of 438 writing comments to improve written response and student revisions.

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Teaching Grammar and Mechanics for Grades 4-High School

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and High School Programs

Also, check out the full-year interactive grammar notebooks,  grammar literacy centers, and the traditional grade-level 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and high school Teaching Grammar and Mechanics programs. Teaching Grammar and Mechanics includes 56 (64 for high school) interactive language conventions lessons,  designed for twice-per-week direct instruction in the grade-level grammar, usage, and mechanics standards. The scripted lessons (perfect for the grammatically-challenged teacher) are formatted for classroom display. Standards review, definitions and examples, practice and error analysis, simple sentence diagrams, mentor texts with writing applications, and formative assessments are woven into every 25-minute lesson. The program also includes the Diagnostic Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics Assessments with corresponding worksheets to help students catch up, while they keep up with grade-level, standards-aligned instruction.

Get the “To Be” Verbs Posters FREE Resource:

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