Some summer writing stuff for DC1

DH pointed out to me that DC1 will allow hir work to expand to take any amount of time allotted for it.  A lot of this is wasted time or hidden goofing off (something I am prey to as well).  Basically during the school year zie steals little bits of time to websurf and forum chat etc. and never has large pockets for things that are actually fun like composing or video games or movies or even books.  We talked about why that might be and came up with the fact that whenever DC1 looks like zie isn’t busy we always have suggestions for things to do (usually stuff zie should be doing anyway, like hir laundry or emptying the dishwasher, but not always).

It also has become very apparent during the last year that DC1 hasn’t been taught any writing skills since fifth grade when we were living in Paradise.  Zie just hasn’t had to write.  And hir first draft isn’t generally that great.  (We only noticed this in the last 6 weeks because prior to that there were few writing assignments and what writing assignments there were, DC1 would work on verrrrry slowly and not get a draft done that zie was willing to show us until they were actually due.)

Sidenote:  some college applications have the option of turning in a graded essay as a writing sample.  DC1 does not have a single thing zie could turn in.  The most writing zie has done (other than lab reports that “don’t count”) were FRQs (aka practice AP test writing) from hir history classes.  I wouldn’t trust hir own English or History teachers to be able to write anyway (with the exception of the late AP US History teacher who was writing rec letters from the hospital before his death).  Hir racist World History teacher wrote a terrible rec letter for my friend’s son which was both badly written and made him sound like a jerk, which he isn’t.  (She started with basically, “He may seem like a tyrannical leader” and then had kind of word salad and ended sort of, but not clearly, saying but that would be incorrect?  It didn’t say what she thought it said.)

My friend’s kid who is going to Brown next year has perfected putting things off to the last minute and then doing a reasonably good job on them in a short amount of time.  DC1 does not have that skill.  My friend’s kid also put off doing college essays to the last possible second which caused my friend a lot of stress (though zie still got into Brown, so…)

So we decided that this summer DC1 will practice personal narrative writing in the form of college essays.  Zie will learn how to brainstorm and how to write a first draft quickly.  And, this is important, once zie has a good essay, zie is done for the week (other than picking out the next week’s question).

We started off small with a short Harvey Mudd Essay about the ideal humanities/art class.  Brainstorming was a little painful– zie still seems to have a bit of that perfectionist streak.  But in the end we got some ideas on paper.  I gave hir I think an hour to get a first draft from the brainstorming.  The first draft was ok, but it wasn’t very punchy and there were a few items that were obviously clear to DC1 but not to the reader.  DH and I went through and cut out repetitious parts, suggested different ways that sentences could be moved around to make the narrative punchier, and requested clarification for the parts that weren’t clear.  The second draft was perfect.  And we were done for the week.

I’m hopeful that this trend will continue as we get into more obnoxious essays (zie has been looking at the Amherst page– the essay prompt back in my year, “Barbra Streisand sings that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world, but Sartre says that Hell is other people, which do you agree with and why?” was so sickening that I ended up choosing not to apply; it looks like in 2021 they offered some choice, though I’m deeply offended by the anti-math prompt from a physics professor).

There are a lot of guides for writing essays out there, but these essays have kind of an almost flippant tone that neither DC1 nor I like.  There’s a sort of sameness to them.  I told DC1 that zie doesn’t need to emulate them, but zie does need to have hir own voice come out.  Narrative essays (blog posts, essentially) are not the same as technical writing.  I’m not sure how good my advice is.  My sister’s common app essay, in retrospect, did kind of emulate these essays (she talked about destroying my stuff as a kid and how dance and physics intertwine) and she got in everywhere she applied while mine was more of a “here’s a social problem illustrated by my experience volunteering” and I didn’t get in everywhere I applied.  But… my sister had a better overall application than I did (team captain for award wining all-girls poms and math teams, knew she wanted to do mechanical engineering, etc.) so I can’t just blame the essay.

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13 Responses to “Some summer writing stuff for DC1”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    We are also writing this summer as well and my kid also has two jobs. We learned this year that he’s much better at getting stuff done when he’s actually busy. This year he’s done the best in school, yet is the busiest he’s ever been.

    My boss recently said the best money she spent was on a college essay tutor. She and the tutor are both from CA. She charges by the hour and will be as engaged as you want. If the student is super motivated, she can just edit drafts. If they need more help, she can teach you things like how to do an outline, etc. The first step she gave me was a questionnaire to fill out. It asks things to help come up with ideas about your personal narrative like, who’s in your family, what do you do besides school, etc. I’m sure we can do fine without a tutor but I need it more to have someone accountable to and to have deadlines to a person that’s not me. Otherwise it will be a wait to the last minute task and I just can’t deal. The goal is to at least have the common core essay done and any individual ones needed at his top 3 schools.

    She also said to start with the common core essay and then a lot of the individual essays you can cut and paste much of the content from the big one.

    . If interested, let me know, I can email the questionnaire over.

  2. CG Says:

    Ugh, writing. Our oldest is a stellar student, but writing is his bête noir. Like your kid, he just hasn’t had to do enough of it to get comfortable. And I’m a professional writer, so I have the expert problem in trying to help him. A very expensive writing tutor we engaged this year did not help, unfortunately. I am not very motivated to practice with him this summer because we both feel kind of bruised from the school year and he’s taking a prereq for an AP class this summer and working and playing a sport so he already has a lot on his plate. We have a little time before he needs to worry about college essays, luckily. But a college essay tutor may be in our future.

  3. Alice Says:

    I worked in my school’s writing lab the first year I was in grad school and also once taught Freshman Comp. Here are the things I gave as suggestions the most frequently:

    * When you’re writing, only be writing. Don’t try to watch television or do things online or any other activities. Your brain can only do one thing at a time well.
    * After you’ve written your first draft, read it out loud. Doing so slows you down enough that you pay attention to what you actually wrote instead of what you intended to write. If I’m tired, I tend to use more commas and leave out words. The students who came to the writing lab often had verb agreement issues that they spotted themselves the instant they had to read their work out loud.
    *If you’re writing a paper for a class, always have a thesis statement and an outline before you begin writing. Review your outline: does everything you’re planning to say relate to that thesis statement? Do the same thing after you write your first draft: did everything you included relate to the thesis statement? One of the big problems I saw over and over again in Freshman Comp was that my students would start with one thesis, and over the course of 5 pages, wander through 12 other things. Any one of those things would’ve been a good thesis to base their paper around, but because they didn’t maintain the focus, they didn’t actually present a coherent argument about anything when all was said and done.

    For myself, one additional guideline has always held true– if there’s something I really want to think about and do a good job with, it’s best to work it out on paper, not onscreen. If I’m still working out a complicated idea or struggling to find the words for something, I always use paper. I handwrite more slowly that I type, so switching to paper helps me to slow down and let my brain loop around my ideas as I’m writing. Writing on paper also feels like less pressure to me, because I know I can’t submit it– so I feel like I have the freedom to be imperfect without worrying about it. The third advantage of using paper is that if it’s something that’s being submitted, it forces me into not skimping on a good 2nd draft process– because the act of typing things up always prompts me to rephrase, move, cut, etc.

    Oh, and one other suggestion– if they can get into a journaling habit, it’s a good way to practice writing. I’ve been handwriting journal entries in cheap composition notebooks since I was roughly 16, sometimes a lot, sometimes very infrequently. It’s a space where I’ve written stories and poems, recorded dreams, worked out personal plans and issues… whatever I felt like writing. It’s been very good to have a space to write that was just for my own eyes, and I think that all of the hours spent with a pen made me a better writer. I don’t think I would’ve been on board with it if the idea had come from my mom, but I had an instructor who randomly put it out there as a suggestion and I chose to do it myself.

    (And good grief, those early journals are a solid reminder that I was not a wholly mature, even-tempered, wise teenager. No matter what I remember.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Excellent advice!

      Sadly I think DC1 would rather eat tomatoes than keep a journal.

    • First Gen American Says:

      This is excellent advise. How do you coach how to transition between theme topics? One of the things we struggle with is the first draft often looks like just a diarrhea of facts in no particular order. Here’s fact 1 and then Here’s another fact. Fact fact fact. Here’s a gigantic run on paragraph that should be 3. Let me just list every fact I can think of, add my citations and call it done.

      We spend a lot of time trying to link things together and bucketing them into something cohesive. Most of the rework is the opinion part of why said fact is important to the thesis.

  4. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    Your friend’s kid who is going to Brown reminds me of a friend who went to a top UC. She only ever did things at the last second, literally the morning that the assignments were due, but her work was always top notch. A terrible classmate to have! XD I love her and I don’t understand how her brain works.

    Thanks for sharing the writing practice you’re doing. I suspect we probably need to do something similar because JB loves reading but hates writing unless they’re having one of their moments. They’re going to need to build some technical skills if their teachers don’t teach writing.

    • EB Says:

      Being an enthusiastic reader gets you halfway to being a good writer, but only if a good portion of the reading you do is expository and/or argumentative. The writing conventions of newspaper articles or op-eds are the ones you need in college, not the conventions of novels or stories. And they rub off if you read enough of them.

  5. teresa Says:

    Your friend’s kid sounds like me, and as I’m sure you know it works super well right up til it fails spectacularly. I have no real suggestions, just I’m impressed with your plan. Teenage me would have hated it but in retrospect it would’ve been incredibly beneficial.

  6. First Gen American Says:

    I’ll also say that it feels like everyone’s writing has gotten way worse since the pandemic. I’m not sure why this task fell off the list of essential things. Maybe papers take longer to grade than tests and quizzes?

    Also, I’m finding that writing one big paper that counts a lot towards a grade doesn’t have as much learning impact as multiple smaller ones. I think in this case, quantity over quality would help more as he spends hours on his one assignment without really getting much done because the deadline is so far out. I think to practice the thesis statement and outline on a number of different topics would help tremendously vs one big research paper a quarter. And then to boot, that paper is counting both towards his English and history grade so doing poorly on one paper wrecks grades in two classes. The guidance department was giving me crap because he’s taking creative writing and science fiction next year instead of humanities (because it’s harder) but I think writing a bunch of short stories will help with the efficiency part of the equation.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I haven’t noticed any pandemic specific writing changes… more of slow trend down starting before. This group does seem to have somewhat better reading skills than prepandemic.

      Our guidance department seems more hands off. Of course, there’s no actual options for English 4 other than AP, honors, or the 4.0 version of the class. Which is odd given my own smaller hometown high school had English electives. But we didn’t have weighted grades so there were more people to take any given elective.

      Nobody seems to be doing drafts and rewrites these days. In my classes I allow infinite ungraded rewrites on my papers before a deadline but I don’t grade them so it benefits the hard workers but slackers don’t get the extra practice.


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