Monday, February 25, 2013

Getting to the Core of the Writing

Too many words! You already said that!

I often want to scribble those complaints across essays I get from my College Composition students, so I was heartened to see that “Common Core” (the new standards program that’s “preparing America’s students for college and career”) includes some objectives to pare down habits of overwriting. In addition to the Core’s upper elementary standards for revising (Writing 4.5, 5.5 and 6.5), here’s one that really allows for quality time to break bad on verbosity:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.7.3a—Choose language that expresses ideas precisely and concisely, recognizing and eliminating wordiness and redundancy.

When I saw that, an exercise I once did as a fiction student came to mind. I’ve never thought to use it with my Composition students because we write non-fiction, but I began to see how it could be a fun way to practice a skill that can and should be applied to all writing. It could work as follows, but you may think of some creative variations. (If so, please share in comments at the end of the post!)

First day: For homework, students write a short story of a prescribed length (ours was probably 1200 words, but it wouldn’t have to be that long) with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Perhaps this could follow a literary discussion after reading a novel and be focused on a character making a choice and changing. Or, it could be written to a specific prompt. The idea is that there is a complete story there and that it conforms to a word length requirement.

Second day: For homework, students are asked to cut down the story’s word count by half, without changing what happens in the story. (The groans and stares should be quite entertaining.)

Third day: This is probably a good day to read some of these aloud, because there will likely be students who are really excited by the accomplishment of this seemingly impossible task. Have them share some of the sentences that disappeared, and point out why those words weren’t necessary to make the points in the story. Congratulate them on a job well done and then give the final assignment, which is to cut the word count in half again. The caterwauling should be epic.

Fourth day: Have everyone read these, because they will surely be so cool! You may want to introduce the concept of “flash” or “micro” fiction and direct them to youth writing contests. (For some contest listings, click the “yo, publish!” tab on my website,

Whether you’re using specific state standards or the Common Core, or old-fashioned common sense, there should be an ongoing effort to help students reduce the chaff in their writing. They’ll be better, more confident wordsmiths, and their college professors will be so much happier!


  1. Thanks for these ideas! I was looking for a fun writing challenge for one of my seventh grade English classes and used an adapted version of the activity you described. I had my students type a story about anything they wanted for 12 minutes, and then after they checked the word count, they had 12-20 minutes to cut the words in half. Because some of my students struggle with including enough detail and specifics, I then had them go back to the original version and increase the word count to 1.5 times what they started with. To follow up, I will have them compare the three versions and consider which one is the strongest and why. Thanks again for your post! My students enjoyed the activity, and I think it will lead into some productive conversations about writing.

  2. Thanks for sharing that! What a cool way to do the activity--going in both directions. I'm definitely going to try that.