Doing Sentence Work

It’s not nearly as cool as talking about social networking; it’s not as much fun as figuring out how to tackle a particularly tricky communication problem. In fact, it may be the hardest thing we do. But sentence work is important in bcomm. Our students badly need it, and we will be selling them short if we don’t incorporate it into our courses.

What do I mean by “sentence work”? I mean getting students to look–really look–at their writing and then try to improve it.

I’m pretty sure that carefully marking and editing students’ problem sentences doesn’t do much good all by itself. Judging from how little their writing has improved from paper to paper, my students don’t really read the marks and comments on their papers (unless it’s to figure out if they should argue with me about their grade).

So I’m trying a new strategy.

I’ve created a one-page table of Common Sentence Problems I see in my students’ papers, along with the marks I use to identify those problems. When I get a set of papers, I type up the troublesome sentences I’ve found and then we go over them in class, using the table to help us identify and correct the problems.

I tried this method for the first assignment this quarter. The students were to research sexual harassment in the workplace in preparation for this year’s Association for Business Communication Student Writing Contest. They were to report their findings to me in a memo.

I pulled 35 problem sentences from their memos, and we went over most of them in class.

Their second papers were better. Exactly why, I’m not sure. But I attribute the improvement to two factors: (1) the students paid more attention to their writing (if only because I’d proven that I’d be looking at it) and (2) they had wrapped their minds around some common mistakes that they now knew to look for and correct.

Here are the 35 Sentences to Revise (along with sample corrections), in case you want to see them or even use them in your classes.

If you use them, . . .

  • don’t have students do all of them, or all of them at once–that’s too many. Select the sentences you particularly want them to wrestle with, or have different groups analyze different sentences and present their corrections to the class.
  • be aware that many of these sentences don’t fall neatly into an “error” category. If you want to give students focused practice correcting faulty parallism, dangling modifiers, or other identifiable errors, you’ll need additonal exercises. What these sentences have going for them is that they’re real; they’ll illustrate for your students the fact that sentences often need improvement because they’re weak or awkward or wordy, not because they contain a  “mistake” that has a precise label.

Here at my school, I’m the professor who prepares most of our new adjunct faculty and teaching assistants to teach Writing for Business. When we meet to share sample papers we’ve graded, I almost always have to remark that the new teachers don’t comment on the writing enough. I sympathize. It’s easier–and maybe more worthwhile–to focus on more global issues, such as readable formatting or logical organization. But we must help students with their actual writing, too. If not us . . . , then who?

I’m sure many of you have better strategies than mine for doing sentence work. Please share them.

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