The War against Waffle

As I spend a fair chunk of my life coercing reluctant writers to squeeze out a few more words, it seems somewhat churlish to ask them, at times, to write less. But that’s what I’ve been doing a lot of with some of my pupils recently. Working as a journalist before becoming a teacher means I’m hard-wired to spot superfluous prose. When you have a lot to say on a subject and only 500 words allocated for the column – and God help you if you irritate your sub-editor by thinking they can trim it down from 517 for you – then concise writing becomes a necessity.

Indeed, looking back at that first paragraph, I can already identify a couple of sections that could perhaps do with some pruning:

But that’s what I’ve been doing done it a lot with some of my classes recently. Working as a Going from journalist before becoming then a to teacher means I’m hard-wired to spot superfluous prose.

My Year 13 and Year 11 classes certainly aren’t wary of putting pen to paper but often lack precision and clarity when writing essays. I’ve used two excellent style guides to help:


Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers by Harold Evans has been a personal style bible for some time whereas The Elements of Style by the marvellously named Strunk and White is a very welcome new discovery (a Christmas present from my wife).

They both deal with cliché, tautology and avoiding flowery language, yet my favourite teaching tool so far has been the sections on excising wasteful words. This passage on a Macbeth essay has been shown to all of my classes (n.b.They aren’t fond of the passive voice, so I’ll have to go back and re-write that as ‘I’ve shown this passage on a Macbeth essay to all of my classes’ at some point):

20160108_101102 (1)

The benefits of getting pupils to edit their work in this way are, I think, at least three-fold: 1) easier to read 2) clarifies argument 3) saves time in exam/word limit in coursework/controlled assessment.

My next step was to introduce some of my example paragraphs of analysis on a poem by Hayden Carruth – with more waffle than Bird’s Eye Potato – and cracking out the coloured pens for them to savage it:

edited passage

This extract was ripe for revision but what happened next was beautiful. The next lesson we looked at a published critical essay on Carruth and… they started critiquing the verbosity of one clumsily written paragraph. We then looked back at previous examples of my writing and they enjoyed picking out the odd unnecessary phrase such as ‘with regard to’ and ‘since the time of writing’. After that we took apart their mock exam essays and they went home to scrutinise their coursework drafts.

This is at the higher end of the ability spectrum but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be applied explicitly at KS3 or earlier. Right, with regard to this blog, time to sort it this blog out before I go up to the right hand corner and click the blue publish button.



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