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In one of my first class sessions with a group of college writers, I gave a survey asking what issues they wanted us to definitely cover this semester. The most common concern was how to add length to their pieces of writing. This wasn’t a surprise to me; actually, it was kind of a relief. In their first journal assignments, many wrote paragraphs that took up only three or four lines on a page, so I was glad to see on the survey that they recognized a valid area of needed growth.
Here are some simple suggestions for making a piece of writing longer. Of course, the shape and depth of the ideas should determine the length of the piece, but these practical tips will generate more content.
1. Just keep going. Oooh, that one’s deep, deeeeep. I know it’s artificial, but when students are practicing adding sentences to paragraphs, and paragraphs to their essays, they need to build up some stamina. So just keep going. Fill the page. Teach them to ask themselves, “What else do I know about this?” or “What else can I say about this?” If the writing strays from the topic, that’s fine for now. It’s kind of like when children are first learning to draw, and they create wild, unrecognizable explosions of colors and then proudly announce that it’s a picture of you. Eventually, with practice, children learn to sharpen their representations. The same is true of developing writers, but before they can practice the skill of focusing, they must have enough material to bring into focus.
2. When a puzzled student asks how long paragraphs should be, I give two suggestions. I tell her to hold her index finger and thumb as far apart as possible. The space in between is about how big a paragraph should be. Again, I know it’s artificial, but developing writers appreciate that visual guideline, and I can’t tell you how many former two-line-paragraph writers I’ve seen framing paragraphs with their fingers as they try to gauge if their new paragraphs are long enough. It works.
3. The other suggestion is for those who want to know how many sentences should be in a paragraph. I say, “There is no perfect answer, but aim for seven.” Again, this moves the two-sentence-paragraph writers into new levels of elaboration and provides a certain measure of confidence for those uncertain about what a paragraph should be. After they become accustomed to writing longer paragraphs, this rule and that finger strategy go away naturally.
4. Longer sentences make for longer paragraphs, so I also show how to revise at least some of the sentences in each paragraph by embedding a detail or descriptive clause.
For example, Abraham Lincoln was the only president not affiliated with a religious denomination. becomes Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s most admired leaders, was the only president not affiliated with a religious denomination. With this addition, a 12-word sentence becomes a 18-word sentence, adding 50% more words to the sentence. Is this mere padding? Maybe, but the goal here is helping writers learn strategies for adding mass to their writing. Making judgments about that mass can come later.
Beyond simply making existing paragraphs longer, students may wonder what else they can write about when they feel like they are out of ideas. Here are three approaches to try that can add a juicy paragraph or two to a piece of writing.
1. Provide examples of the main idea. These can be personal examples, hypothetical examples, or factual examples.
2. Offer an opposing view. In addition to giving one’s own reasons or perspectives on a topic, describe how it might be seen by someone who disagrees or has a different cultural point of view.
3. Although it probably depends on the purpose of the writing, I believe a narrative section is an appropriate way to illuminate persuasive writing or other expository writing. A narrative section can theoretically appear anywhere in a piece of writing, but students can usually easily see how a brief narrative can function as part of an effective introduction.
Each of these strategies is a way to add words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, or paragraphs to essays. They will not automatically make a piece of writing better, but they will make it longer. Although some of these may seem gimmicky, they have the effect of asking students to think more, to probe a bit deeper, to push through when the easy part is over.
Writing represents ideas. When the amount of writing increases, the ideas are also likely to be bigger. Writers may not know what they know until they write it down. When we provide ways for them to write more, we are simultaneously helping them enlarge and better understand their own thinking.