The Ten Commandments of Writing: How to Write Well

Since I arrived at Blue Ridge about four years ago, my educational philosophy has shifted dramatically. When I first entered the classroom as a fresh-faced young twenty-something, I cared deeply about content. I had visions of turning my students into lovers of history, one fascinating anecdote at a time.

Fast-forward a few years, and very much has changed. I still love history for the sake of content — of course I do, that is why I am a history teacher. But my students might not, and that is okay; almost all of them will go onto careers in which those facts and stories do not have any immediate relevance. The real purpose of teaching history in a 21st century classroom is not necessarily to pass on information that anyone can Google in the blink of an eye — instead, I see my most sacred duty as teaching your children how to write well.

When I first identified teaching writing as my main goal, I had some fits and starts trying to figure out how to best do that. Reading high-level writing is not so productive when it is inaccessible to many. Teaching grammar tends to lose people, and is not really within my remit as a history teacher anyway. Peer editing so often seemed like the blind leading the blind. What my students really seemed to need was structure, scaffolding, and repetition.

So this year, I tried something new: I rolled out the Commandments of Writing, ten items that my students were to commit to memory as inviolable. Some are grammatical, others pertain to the structure of an essay, and a few regard the post-writing process. They are as follows:

I.  There’s no “I” in Academic Writing.

II. To, Two, and Too.

III. There, Their, and They’re.

IV. Don’t never use contractions or double negatives.

V. No questions! Tell me the answer.

VI. Every paper must have a thesis statement in the introduction.

VII. Every paragraph must have a topic sentence, and explain one idea.

VIII. Did I read my work out loud before submitting it?

IX. What can I say more concisely?

X. Did I argue a point, or did I summarize?

Each one of my 9th graders received a copy of the Commandments on the second day of class, and was told that there would be a quiz on them the next week. The Commandments were thusly hammered home early on in the year, and we then had a collective, shared prism through which to assess our work all year long, which has provided so much of our structure.

Scaffolding the writing process is important — I cannot tell a 14-year-old to go out there and write a whole essay when he still only tenuously grasps how to make an introduction. Therefore, we do it in phases; often we will read document sets together in class and discuss them thoroughly, so students have a solid idea about what they would like to say before they sit down and start typing. I like to use sets of documents that help students tackle big historical questions, like “Was ancient Athens truly democratic?” They are often deliberately inconclusive, so students have to come up with their own conclusions based on what they think the best evidence is. After they hammer out an introduction, we review it in class.

Having the Commandments puts us all on the same page, since we all are suddenly speaking the same language when it comes to discerning good writing from bad. We look at an anonymous submission, and before we discuss anything else, we look at what Commandments the writer has broken. The bad habits of Commandments 1 and 5 have been notoriously difficult for my students to kick in prior years. This year, everyone had them out of their systems by the end of Fall Trimester. Students once struggled to know when to end one paragraph and begin a new one; this year we all share a common framework which clearly and simply explains the how, when, and why.

The Commandments have worked great for me because I do not have to personally model dozens of potentially confusing concepts and ideas for my students. They get ten of the biggest, most critical rules out there, and they hard-wire them into their brains. They become the editors, they are empowered with the tools. My students may have no idea who Sargon was in six months, let alone six years. They might not remember the Four Noble Truths, or when the First Crusade was launched. But, through constant practice and repetition, they will remember not to use contractions in formal writing, and they will know to instinctively check over their work when most other high school students (and many adults) might assume that they are “done.” They will know this, because they will know that if they do not, they stand in violation of the sacred Commandments of Writing!

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