Teaching grammar as merely traits of good writing

This post summarizes my notes and thoughts from reading Part 2, Teaching Grammar to Enhance and Enrich Writing, of Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich & Enhance Writing (Heinemann, 1996).

Part 2 of Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing by Constance Weaver was not as coheisve and engaging as Part 1 was. At least not to this technical editor, who found herself skimming over some of the specifics of classroom lessons and details of being a middle school English teacher. Part 1 shared much of her theory, which left me to infer how to apply it, whereas Part 2 showed specific, contextual applications of teaching grammar. So, this commentary is a criticism of my own reading of the book to try to glean ideas for how to improve my skills as an editor and what role grammar should play in my day-to-day job.

From skimming through the table of contents, trying to find a title for my blog post summarizing this part of Weaver’s book, it seemed that she mentioned or referred to the “popular” traits of “good” writing. In chapter 5, she lists some of the supposed 6 traits: “ideas (details), sentence fluency, effective word choice, and voice” (p. 72). It is not until Chapter 12 that she lists the full 6 major traits of writing, “ideas/details, which includes grammatical options and word choice, organization/structure, voice/style/tone, sentence sense/variety/fluency, and conventions.”

Chapters 5 and 6 discussed “adjectival modifiers” and used this grammatical construct to show how writing can be improved. They were filled with lots of examples from student writing, and I certainly learned a little grammar along the way from reviewing these examples. Weaver presents or explains this focus on adjectival modifiers with a tip of the hat to rhetoric (which she spends an entire chapter discussing rhetoric and different types of writing, in Chapter 10), and specifically Christensen’s “generative rhetoric” in that teaching grammatical options like adjectival moderates generates clearer thought and better writing (p. 74). These are often best taught through revising one’s own work using sentence imitating, sentence expanding (adding modifiers), sentence combining (sentence variety or fluency), or sentence restructuring (main/subordinate points) (p. 86, p. 89). Revision is a key element of the writing process. Weaver expands on these sentence revision strategies in Chapter 7.

Chapter 6 starts out describing “sentence chunking” as opposed to “sentence diagramming,” and I have to say, I kinda like it. With sentence chunking, you identify “major chunks of grammar and meaning in a sentence and [express] how they relate to one another.” She also describes this process as an art project of having students illustrate the sentence and putting the chunks of grammar and meaning within the drawing. Not sure that I can get away with that in my own technical editing, but it does allow me to think of “chunks of meaning” as opposed to specific grammatical labels for every word in a sentence. (p. 93-94). The rest of chapter 6 went into great detail about the different types of adjectival modifiers.

I was excited to get to Chapter 8, entitled “Editing Begins with Observation,” which was written by Jeff Anderson, and it talked about teaching editing to students, as part of the writing process. Anderson echoed Weaver’s belief that editing should not be focused solely on error. He amused me with his statement that “Students have come, over time, to see editing as electric shock therapy” (p. 131). He posits that “effective editing instruction is more about teaching students the patterns and concepts of the English language that readers expect courteous writers to use and follow than it is about rules, mechanics, or grammar” (p. 133). Anderson definitely has a witty way of writing about his thoughts, quoting his own article “Writing must be seen as ‘a creational facility rather than a correctional facility’ (p. 134). He uses a wacky acronym for the common subordinating conjunctions (AAAWWUBBIS) as the common example throughout his chapter, but makes several great points about editing: “Real editing is all about meaning and patterns, not errors” (p. 136) and “visuals and examples are more powerful teachers than rules” (p. 137) and concluding his chapter with “editing is designed to help create powerful writing, not avoid error.” Now, all of this is given in the context of writers editing their own work, blurring the line between writing and editing.

Chapter 9 was written by Weaver and was supposed to be all about editing. Unfortunately, it seemed to be more about learning the English language and even the effects of different dialects of English affecting the teaching of editing. Weaver did not say much about editing or the teaching of editing in this chapter, which saddened me greatly, but instead presented a great deal of research and thoughts around ESL (English as a second language) or ELL (English language learners, which broadens to allow for multiple languages, not just two). Ultimately, it supports the notion of not focusing on errors in the editing process.

So, in Chapter 11, Weaver presents her outline of grammar, calling it “rocks and mortar” and putting different grammatical forms as either rocks or as mortar. She considers adjectivals and adverbials to be the rocks or pebbles. The mortar is is transitions, prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns that introduce adjective and noun clauses. Weaver says, “When people write, they choose grammatical connectors based on what they want to say and their assessment of the rhetorical situation: They make choices” (p. 198). She started off her book by saying that writers enrich and enhance their writing by making grammatical choices, choices of rocks and mortar.

At the start of chapter 12, Weaver once again presents the six traits of writing. Here, she labels them a bit differently: generate details, rich content, with grammatical constructions that elaborate ideas, but also transitions and other connectors that relate ideas, where the organization is clear and coherent, and also use of voice and style is appropriate to purpose, content, and audience, and lastly word choice. Later in ths chapter, she presents a numbered list of 5, with the first item as a 2-item list underneath. As a technical editor, Weaver’s many different ways of presenting the six traits of writing, often as lists of three, four, or five things, is quite frustrating to see inconsistent and loose writing about a key theme in this part of the book.

In Chapter 12, Weaver presents these traits within a figure that tries to help teachers know what to teach next based on how well the writer applies or uses some of the traits. She talks about applying the rubric to assess “high” or “good” use of grammatical options, and she emphasizes that perfection is not the goal and that high is good enough (p. 219). I could definitely see this figure converted into an editing checklist that could be used to evaluate the quality of technical writing, inserting technical communication principles to make it more specific to technical or instructional writing.

One of the things that I liked best about Chapter 12 was Weaver’s discussion about “just right” words (p. 212-213). While she ties it to her context and student writers, I think that word choice in technical writing is a key trait that technical editors need to help writers address. The notion of using the same word, or the “just right” word, to communicate precisely and concisely was very apropos.

As you can see from my own write-up of the information in these chapters, I found Part 2 to be a bit disorganized, a bit disjointed, and a bit inconsistent in how she presented some of her thoughts. Her editor let her down!

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