Below is a technique I learned to help students write with more focus. I learned the technique from an educator and writing coach for WriteBoston.
As a lifelong student and an educator, I believe the single most effective way for people to learn is for them to have an experience. So for me, being a good teacher means giving my students the opportunity to experience what I experience as a writer. All writers experience suggestions from editors for revision and editing, and all writers and teachers give suggestions as well. So I set out to create an assignment and an experience that would allow my students to look at a piece of writing the way a writing instructor does, and also experience receiving that kind of feedback. Many writing instructors and students themselves believe students cannot analyze a piece of writing as well as an instructor or editor at a publishing house or newspaper, but I have found that students can do an excellent job.
Here’s how I created the opportunity for students to experience looking at work in this way. First, I crafted an assignment, the Letter of Analysis. The assignment crams three conceptual frames for responding to writing into one rhetorical form. First, students need to read their partner’s essay 3 times without a pen in their hand. Then, they number the paragraphs, and begin the Letter. They first must write one sentence that sums up the essay–if there is a main point to the essay, then that fits in the sentence. If there is a list of ideas, then that fits in the sentence. The idea is to reflect, briefly, what the students have read. Then the students create an idea map; using the numbers and reviewing the paragraphs carefully, they write a description of what the writer did; i.e., “First, you introduced X, then you described Y,” and so forth. This is the reflection section, which merely records what the letter writer has observed.
Next, the letter writer finds elements to praise in the essay. They organize these elements by the Hierarchy of Concerns: Focus, Development, Organization, Paragraph Structure, and Sentence Structure. If any of these elements are praiseworthy, then the letter writer puts it in the letter under the appropriate heading and gives an actual example from the essay itself. For Sentence Structure, students transcribe 3 sentences they find fantastic, graceful, or stylistically elegant.
The letter writer now moves onto Recommendations for Improvement. Following the same template from the Hierarchy of Concerns, the letter writer puts in comments and questions, and must also include suggestions for how the essay writer can make the revisions or changes.
Finally, students write a “Wrap-Up,” line that gives realistic encouragement to the Writer.
Then, I collect these Letters of Analysis with the essay, and make revision comments on the letters themselves. Students then revise their Letters and return one copy to me and one copy to their partner. By the last third of the semester, my students are writing Letters of Analysis that rival mine. They say it is the most useful exercise to analyze writing they have ever experienced, and that it is invaluable in helping them assess and revise their own writing as well. The Letters of Analysis take time to write, but the template empathizes always praising and encouraging a writer, reflecting what the writer has written, and offering concrete suggestions for improvement. It also helps students integrate the Hierarchy of Concerns into their experience as readers, so that reading becomes more purposeful and systematic. In short, it works–my students swear to it, and ultimately, I work for them.