Monday, April 29, 2013

PLANNING TO WRITE: The Shrimp Cocktail Disaster

In a February blog post, I discussed the use of graphic organizers  as a useful tool in pre-writing with primary school students. Pre-writing or jotting down ideas before you begin generally results in a more fleshed out story.

In addition, standardized writing tests can expect students to show some evidence of pre-writing or planning. The short essay part of the Virginia Standards of Learning Assessment includes a checklist for fifth graders, asking students to plan before they begin their written answer.

For an easy method of planning, teach your students to ask themselves a few simple questions.

First off, tell your students to answer this all important question: What is your story about? Are you relating a first experience? A funny experience? A lesson learned? An obstacle overcome?

Identifying the topic leads to the next question. What do you want your reader to feel?  Do you want your reader to laugh with you or cry? Are you trying to warn your reader  or  hoping to share a wonderful experience? Narrowing down your purpose helps you choose the best details to support your central theme.

For example, let me take you through my own planning for the following prompt: THINK BACK TO A MOMENT YOU’LL NEVER FORGET.

The moment I want to write about is something I dub “The Shrimp Cocktail Disaster.” It happened when I was in my early twenties, working as a waitress in a seafood restaurant. I was hurrying, with a huge tray of shrimp cocktails on my shoulder, to a party of twelve people in the back room of the restaurant. Just as I reached the table, I slipped on a wet spot and came crashing down, shrimp cocktails and all! The twelve hungry people at the table collectively moaned as shrimp and red sauce splattered everywhere.

“The Shrimp Cocktail Disaster” could be told in at least two different ways, if not more. Figuring out my purpose beforehand will provide focus and depth to my writing.   

First off, what is my story about? Is this a lesson learned? Don’t run with a tray of twelve shrimp cocktails? Or is it a funny experience, intended to make the reader laugh?

If I want my reader to laugh, then I should spend time describing the splattered red sauce, the shrimp flying across the room, and the awkward position of my exposed legs as I sat in the mess on the floor.       

If I want this to be a cautionary tale, I could include details about my impatience to be finished with my shift and my preoccupation with the amount of tip I could expect from such a large party that caused me to ignore what should have been an obvious spill on the floor.

Finally, I should decide the order in which I want to tell the tale. Should I begin with dropping the tray and share the details in flashback? Or should I tell the story in chronological order?

For humorous impact, it might be funnier to begin with a short slapstick teaser and then go back and tell how it happened. For a more serious account, maybe I would want to tell the story in chronological order. I could show how distracted I was and build the tension to my clumsy moment. Either way, planning ahead of time will help me focus the story and convey the meaning I intend to my reader.

So planning can all boil down to three easy questions: What am I writing about? What do I want my reader to feel? And what order should I tell my story?

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