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Thursday, January 26, 2012

An AP English Exercise

Here goes…

Mr. Collins taught my husband AP English in high school.  Hubby describes him as a good but challenging teacher.  Many times over the course of our marriage he has referenced the weekly writing assignment from that class.  The creative but demanding educator required his students to write a 500 word essay every week, without using the verb “to be.”   As a result of this rigorous practice, my husband developed strong writing skills.  

Okay, that’s 76 words using one "to be" and I couldn't leave that one out.  How hard could this be?  Darn, I mean, Let’s keep going shall we?

Although I love writing, and my husband professes to hate it (perhaps a consequence of the year spent with Mr. Collins), I often ask for his advice when drafting formal documents, to help me tone down my verbiage or make my writing clear when it gallops away from me.  (My husband kicks butt in grammar and spelling too, but I’ll save that story for another time.) 

Through these joint writing ventures, over the years we've been together the “Mr. Collins Effect” has seeped from my husband’s brain to mine, where it coaxes me to employ powerful verbs rather than weaker, less demonstrative examples.  “Action” language pulls readers into a story, offers up food for imagination, fodder to entice and engage, with the goal of making the reader's connection to the story more powerful. 

Oh my goodness, , I’m only at  Only 203 words?

When I began writing here at Middle Passages, I wrote first drafts of every post.  Then I edited them multiple times in an attempt to remove any representation of the offending verb. Every time I reviewed a post, I pictured my husband describing Mr. Collins’ assignment, and charged forward brandishing a sword in my effort to cut out the enemy weakening my prose.  In truth, sometimes, things read better when I left it in.  But I maintained my guard, lest the poison of too much passivity drag down my writing. 

Now as I approach my third (gulp) anniversary of blogging and subsequent regular, focused writing, (which also “celebrates” the third anniversary of something else I try to forget), I recognize my early drafts read more powerfully because I have developed the habit of avoiding “that” verb during my first round.

344 words.  This exercise is oops, kills me!

I appreciate teachers whose lessons continue to give.  An eleventh-grade creative writing teacher drove me crazy with her inability to focus, yet she taught me how to consider the world through a poet’s eye—and our daughter’s middle school pre-algebra teacher exhibited such enthusiasm that she continues to earn her best grades in math courses to this day.

401 words.   Oh my.  And he did this every week??? 

I wonder if teachers ever consider the residual benefits of the concepts they instill in their students.  Imagine if Mr. Collins, standing in front of his class of impatient high school seniors could see into the future and recognize the long reaching ramifications of his hard work.  How would he feel to know that even though I attended school in a different part of the state and never met him, I apply his lessons every day?  If I knew where to find the long retired educator, I’d thank him, and tell him I channel the homework assignments from his AP English class each time I sit in front of a computer  tearing my hair out.

There!  512.  Exhale, sigh, wipe brow, and thank God I didn't have Mr. Collins for English I only had to do this once.

What do you do to make your writing stronger?


Old Kitty said...

Yikes! Well done you!! A++++++!!

Yay for Mr C! I think if I had been (whoops, minus points for me already!!) in his class I'd be (yikes, another minus point!!)grumbling no end but in retrospect will also thank him for instilling such discipline and focus!

Take care

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Mr. Collins was tough! Bet he didn't know he'd make two writers better when he taught your husband, either.

Anne Gallagher said...

Ha! That answer is easy. I hand my writing off to my cp's.

But seriously, I learned a lot from the blogs. Passive voice is still my weakness, although I have gotten a lot better at it. By the third draft, I've pretty much conquered everything I possibly can. Sometimes, though "was" is the only option.

I don't remember high school at all and I prefer to keep it that way.

Tonja said...

In my AP English class many, many, too many years ago, I became an essay writing robot. I'm certain I can still write a perfectly formed essay on anything in 20 minutes.

Bish Denham said...

An excellent exercise! I know I'm guilty and will work towards improving myself.

To be or not to be...what would Shakespeare think?

Catherine Denton said...

Such a fun post! I needed to hear Mr. Collins' lesson. Your posts are powerful and compelling to read, so keep writing with your husband and his teacher in your ear!
Catherine Denton

Helen Ginger said...

Very well done Liza! When I first write, I tend to write without boundaries. I just let it flow. Then I go back (multiple times) and edit.

Wine and Words said...

The only thing I try to do at this point is make sure I haven't used the same word multiple times in a piece if it can BE helped :) But you know me, I'm not even trying to be a writer. I'm just releasing myself into the world one word at a time.

The Desert Rocks said...

Wonder what Mr. Collins thought of Shakespeare? "To be or not to be?" Yikes.:)

Mary Sullivan Frasier said...

Beautiful job, Liza! I'm seriously guilty when it comes to using that verb. I still write out a draft and go back to it several times and I believe I always will. It's the Virgo in me.

Good teachers are so much more than that. My Euro and American studies teacher in high school was a true educator. Sadly, she developed a rare blood disorder and had to stop teaching at the age of 40. She passed away a few years later and I think it was as much the result of a broken heart as it was the disease.

Mr Collins would be proud... of both of his students!

Robin said...

So many lessons here. One is that you never know how many lives you affect simply by living and teaching. In or out of school. Second, I realize how much you edit and edit and edit. I tend to just write and let it go. Of course, you are so precise with choosing just the right word and I am hoping that I am in the ballpark and got the accurate noun these days.

Anyway, thank you for sharing this exercise. I know that I could use something like this. My fifteen words and 15 minutes is excellent if you are stuck, but doesn't necessarily make you a "better" writer. It just makes you write.

Juliann Wetz said...

Thanks for sharing how hard this exercise was. (See - I already failed!) But I think Mr. Collins made a good point and I'll try to adopt his rule, too.

Teachers. They're awesome!

Jolene Perry said...

I read and soak up everything I can - that's how I make my writing stronger.
Great post :D

Caitlin said...

Wow! I'd never heard of this exercise before. Sounds like it'd be a good challenge, I'll have to give this a go tomorrow.

Words A Day said...

Well Done! You did it:)
Its a new one to me, leaving out the to be's, I must try it. Its amazing the effect this teacher has had.

To make my writing stronger I usually have to cut every second sentence because I've the habit of saying everything twice:)

Angie Ledbetter said...

Great stuff here. Editing others' work helps strengthen my own writing.

Carol Kilgore said...

I wish I'd had Mr. Collins. I write multiple drafts. Except for blogging, which is pretty much straight from my head to the screen. I proof, and maybe change a few things, but that's it. As you can see by reading this comment. It's my free writing, no editor allowed, exercise of the day :)

Happy Weekend!

kmckendry said...

Great post!! I had a high school French teacher that inspired in me a love of all languages and cultures. I'll always "be" (oops) grateful for his lessons.

I hopped on over from the Aussie BBQ.

Arlee Bird said...

I've never tried that exercise and I'm not sure I want to. I was fortunate to have some excellent teachers who focused on writing. I can't recall any specific exercises like Mr. Collins subjected upon his students.

Wrote By Rote

Anonymous said...

I love adding internal conflict among the characters. It can be dramatic, funny, or dangerous. But character conflict is necessary for me to move forward.

Jennifer Shirk said...

Oh my goodness, I think I'd fail. LOL!!
I'm working on "conflict" right now to make my writing stronger. It's a big obstacle for me because I usually skim enough conflict to get by.