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Strategies for Conveying Ideas: Narration and Description (pp. 30-70)
We begin our chapters on strategies with a couple of the most frequently used: narration and
description. Starting with these two makes sense because they lend themselves to writing
from personal experience, and both are easy to organize. Both also require lots of concrete
details, and most students need practice in providing specifics.
With its frequent connection to personal experience and its chronological
organization, narration is an appealing strategy for student writers. It offers them practice
in finding within their own experiences the kinds of topics that will be meaningful to
others, and it provides you with an opportunity to guide them through the process of
shifting from writing for themselves to writing with a purpose for a reader.
While grounded in personal experience, narration must be formally structured to
create reader interest and understanding: the inherent chronological order must be
consciously organized into coherent and understandable chunks; the events must be
developed in vivid and sufficient detail; the common pitfall of writing a second and
repetitively analytical conclusion must be avoided.
Images and Ideas (p. 30)
Just as written descriptions often convey a dominant impression, so do visual images.
Students are asked to put into words the impressions conveyed by the photos.
Tell students to omit the title they gave to the photo when they write their
detailed description. Then have each student exchange papers with someone who did not
describe the same photo. Have the students answer these questions: What title do you
think your partner gave to the photo? What words or phrases in your partner‟s description
lead to your conclusion? Did the writer feel the same way about the picture as you?
Then have them exchange with someone who wrote about the same photo, and
repeat the process. This time have them identify at least one similarity and one difference
between their paper and their partner‟s.
You can follow a similar process with the narrative part of the writing prompt.
Using Description (p. 32)
Whatever student writers have to say, accurate and evocative descriptions will help them
say it. Recognizing the values of effective description and learning the techniques for
producing it will stand students in good stead; they will be able to use their descriptive
skills in all their writing, whether they are informing, persuading, explaining,
entertaining, or expressing themselves to their readers. Ask them to imagine trying to tell
someone how to find their apartment, what their best friend is like, or why they are
depressed. They wouldn‟t attempt to do so using only general or abstract terms. Their
first impulse would be to describe specific, concrete details: “There‟s a seedy café called
the Joytime across the street”; “He has a pleasant expression even when he‟s paying the
electric bill”; “The door handle broke off my Honda this morning.”
The key methods for writing a vivid description involve focusing on a dominant
impression; using details, images, and figurative language; and appealing to all the
reader‟s senses. This last point is one that you may want to emphasize, since most of us
are so visually biased that we present only the “looks” in our descriptions. But there is
often much more to a scene than its visual appearance, and student writers usually need
help and guidance in writing about how things sound, smell, taste, or feel to the touch.
“RAIN OF FIRE” BY EVAN THOMAS (pp. 36-38)
Length: 1,072 words
Just to get the discussion started, you might ask your class: Where were you and what
were you doing when you first heard about the attack on the Twin Towers? Since this
essay is remarkable for its compelling action and vivid description, ask your students to
examine expressly the use of specific details to discover what makes them so effective.
Responding to Reading (p. 39)
As galvanizing as the visual images were, they could not capture as Thomas does the
physical and emotional trauma of those caught up in the inferno.
Considering Content (p. 39)
1. Because it was a beautiful day, she just “didn‟t feel like rushing.” She was hardly
2. She could “hear” it burning. She rolled on the carpet and patted out the flames.
3. She could tell only by seeing her coworker‟s horrified face. She was in shock and felt
pain only later.
4. They got no help, only a “cacophony of screams” (para. 8).
5. “No way was she going to sit there and wait” (para. 10).
6. He shows her determination to survive—her grit and fortitude.
Considering Method (p. 39)
1. It is organized chronologically.
2. His purpose is to inform and to appeal to emotions. He‟s writing for readers of
Newsweek, a wide and fairly well- educated audience; in other words, he‟s writing
for a general audience.
3. The separate date imparts extra emphasis and significance; it‟s the exact time of the
first plane crash.
4. He achieves emphasis and a small touch of suspense.
5. He focuses on one woman and her struggle for survival. It becomes a personal
struggle that we can get close to.
6. Here are some effective details: “lines shooting around the top of the elevator”;
“translucent teardrops of fire”; “hearing my hair on fire”; “smoky, suffused with the
nauseating smell of burned jet fuel”; “the skin was peeled off her arms.” They‟re
effective because they put images (sensory impressions) in the reader‟s mind.
7. The first short sentence is emphatic and decisive; the last two capture the
protagonist‟s courage and resolution.
Writing Step by Step (pp. 39-40)
Remind students of the value of specific descriptive details and well-chosen actions in a
narrative. If it drags out too long, it will likely fall flat. Just as important are vivid action
verbs. Encourage them to replace bland ones (like was, were, is, are, do, did, move,
make, has, come, etc.) when they revise. Also encourage them to work hard on crafting
an effective conclusion.
Other Writing Ideas (pp. 40-41)
1. This prompt could easily be substituted for the Writing Step by Step topic.
2. This prompt calls for a persuasive essay using an extended narrative example to
make the point.
3. This topic allows students to create a narrative from factual information (in case they
have not experienced any real traumatic event themselves).
4. This prompt requires an analysis of Thomas‟s essay and can serve to test students‟
reading ability and critical-thinking skills.
Gaining Word Power (p. 41)
Students might complete this exercise in small groups. Possible responses:
go slowly, take her time
on fire, burning
Thomas‟s words put clearer, sharper visual images into the reader‟s mind.
Editing Skills (pp. 42-43)
Advise students to put main ideas in independent clauses and less important ideas in
subordinate clauses and phrases. See Chapter 4 for a list of subordinating conjunctions
and instruction on using subordination.
Exercise (p. 42-43)
The short sentences can be combined in several ways. Here are our suggestions:
If you are a woman who likes to travel alone, I have some tips for you.
A woman friend who travels alone a lot has given me good advice.
If you are on a train or plane, choose your departure and arrival plans so that you get
to your destination during daylight hours.
Since taxis are expensive and the station or airport may be far from your hotel, you
need to find the best way to get there.
You should travel light, taking only two bags, one on wheels, because you will
probably have to carry your own luggage.
Compare the heroism shown in the World Trade Center disaster with the very different
kind of heroism discussed in Elizabeth Berg‟s “Everyday Heroes” (Chap. 4). Do you
think the word hero can stretch that far or is everyday hero an oxymoron?
“JACKIE‟S DEBUT: A UNIQUE DAY” BY MIKE ROYKO (pp. 44-46)
Length: 1,037 words
Before discussing this essay, ask your students to visit the Negro Baseball League Web
sites listed at the conclusion of this section (p. 51). Ask whether they gained any insight
into the unfairness of the “separate but equal” stalling tactic which was used for years to
Responding to Reading (p. 46)
Instead of a journal entry, this prompt could be used to check students‟ understanding of the
essay, especially if you ask that students use references or even quotations from the reading.
Also ask students to share their written responses in groups or online.
Considering Content (pp. 46-47)
1. The old men were prejudiced against African Americans.
2. They walked in order to save the streetcar fare.
3. Lincoln went through considerable hardship to get an education; these boys are similarly
dedicated to baseball.
4. He‟s surprised because “in 1947 few blacks were seen in the Loop, much less up on the
white North Side at a Cub game” (para. 4). (You might ask students if they know what
“the Loop” is in Chicago. Can they guess from context?)
5. They were attending an event as important to them as a church service or a funeral.
6. He means that the Cub player‟s poor sportsmanship wasn‟t worthy of a pro.
Considering Method (p. 47)
1. The boy‟s belief that something terrible is going to happen to baseball creates suspense.
2. These “wise men” are all just sitting around outside a tavern.
3. With this viewpoint, readers can see and judge for themselves the racism that pervades
the white world of baseball.
4. It was a significant date for baseball and racial equality in Chicago.
5. The details convey the essence of the racial division: blacks on their best behavior,
whites acting as if nothing unusual is happening.
6. We don‟t notice because it directly relates to the boy‟s lack of understanding.
7. It adds dramatic interest, importance, and verisimilitude.
8. The baseball reflects the value of the event: a black man finally breaking into baseball.
Writing Step by Step (pp. 47-48)
If students have trouble relating to the topic suggested for this assignment, refer them to the
Other Writing Ideas for more congenial topics. Since the instructions ask them to compose
a narrative that makes a point without directly stating it, a useful question to include on peer
evaluation checklists would be “Is the point clear?”
Other Writing Ideas (pp. 48-49)
1. If you have students who are not ready to tackle a narrative in which the point is
merely implied, suggest this topic.
2. Students with a creative flair should do well with this topic.
3. This topic also works for the Writing Step by Step assignment.
4. You can use this analytical topic to test reading and thinking skills.
Gaining Word Power (pp. 49-50)
Students often need help in getting the most from their dictionaries. Hardly anyone is
willing to struggle through the lengthy “Explanatory Notes” that good dictionaries provide
for their users. So, in this section we have boiled that explanation down to the essentials.
The exercise allows students to increase their dictionary skills using the word debut. Here
are the answers:
2. only one correct pronunciation
3. a noun and a verb
4. from French
5. “a first appearance”; “a formal entrance into society”; “present to the public for the
Editing Skills (pp. 50-51)
You might want to include an extra peer- evaluation session on the final drafts to let students
check each other‟s punctuation of direct conversation.
Exercise (p. 51)
Here‟s the correct punctuation of this conversational exchange. Note the indentions that
show the change in speaker.
“Oh, heaven help us!” Marvin exclaimed. “I forgot to do our income
“We‟d better get started on them fast then,” responded Rosa.
Marvin groaned, “You get the receipts together while I try to find the
“How am I supposed to know where to find the receipts?” asked Rosa.
“Surely,” roared Marvin, “you‟ve been keeping them all together some
Rosa was silent during a long pause, then asked, “Was I supposed to?”
Marvin slapped his palm against his forehead and yelled, “We‟re
“Don‟t worry, honey,” soothed Rosa. “They never send you to Leavenworth
on a first offense.”
Royko describes racial prejudice as he perceived it as a white boy in 1947. Brent Staples in
“Just Walk On By” (Chap. 4) deals with the same topic as an adult black male. Would you
say that race relations improved in the forty years between the two essays?
“WALKING AWAY” BY BEN MCGRATH (pp. 52-54)
Length: 1,006 words
You might begin by asking students if they know who Tiki Barber is. Fans of professional
football will probably know, since Barber has also been a commentator for ESPN. You can
also tell students that the article was published in January of 2007, which will clear up the
opening reference to “a few weeks ago.”
You might expand the Preparing to Read prompt to consider the pain and risk of other
endeavors. What other jobs and activities also involve pain and risk? Are they worth it?
Responding to Reading (p. 54)
Have students share their paragraphs. You might also use this prompt as a way to check
Considering Content (p. 55)
1. Players have to review tapes of the previous game, then meet and get ready for the next
game, which is usually only a week away. They also have training and physical therapy
2. Fans are puzzled because he is, as the author says, “quitting at the top of his game.”
He‟s also making a lot of money. Barber explains that the zeal and passion for the game
are “short-term” and that he‟s “mortgaging [his] future health” to continue. Some
recognition of the title‟s double meaning might be useful here: Barber is “walking
away” while he‟s still able to “walk away.” Student reactions to the decision will vary.
It might be interesting to see if the differences break down along gender lines. Are
females likely to be more understanding?
3. He consulted veteran players, who told him that surgery only “begets more surgeries.”
Instead, he built up the muscles surrounding the P.C. L. injury to compensate for the
4. A Combine is a large harvesting machine. Barber‟s use of the term is probably slightly
sarcastic; it implies that the N.F.L. regards its players as crops to be harvested—or, in
Barber‟s words, “a precious piece of equipment” to be inspected and kept in working
5. Answers will vary.
Considering Method (p. 55)
1. As a writer for the New Yorker, the author could assume that most of his readers would
know who Barber is. You might also ask students if they felt they were part of the target
audience for this selection.
2. The vigor and youth of the children contrast with the physical impairment of Barber. He
also plays a game, but a much more serious one. These contrasts highlight the point of
the article—that Barber‟s playing days are over.
3. The author describes Barber‟s clothing and his walk; the way he sits and stands; his
height and weight; his shaved head, his face and neck, and even his voice. And, of
course, the details and effects of his injuries. The descriptions are mainly visual with
some tactile and auditory references. They are needed to develop the main topic: the
deteriorating physical condition of a gifted athlete.
4. The important point about the injury is its effect on Barber, not the medical details,
which would probably be technical and beyond the understanding of many readers.
Answers may vary, although we think that most readers will not feel short-changed.
5. The details about the other players confirm and explain Barber‟s situation and his
decision to walk away.
Combining Strategies (p. 55)
This prompt encourages students to think about the uses of description. It would work well
as a group activity, either in class or online; students will benefit from seeing what
descriptions and examples their classmates choose and from reading the explanations of
others. It can also be used to check students‟ understanding of the reading.
The descriptions of the way Barber has to sit and stand (paras. 2, 7) are
particularly telling: they make readers picture Barber’s physical condition and thus
understand why he wants to quit.
Writing Step by Step (pp. 55-56)
The organization for this essay involves some comparison and contrast—a before- and- after
presentation or arrangement. Steps F and G move the discussion beyond description and
narration and require some analysis and critical thinking.
Other Writing Ideas (pp. 56-57)
1. This assignment is just the reverse of the Step by Step writing. The first part would
describe the misgivings and doubts (reluctance), and the second part would detail the
unexpected pleasures and rewards. The conclusion would, of course, be quite different
from Step G in the Step by Step directions.
2. What makes this topic interesting is the “unexpected” factor; it works against
3. Encourage writers to carefully consider the audience. They could also write to a more
general audience than the one stipulated in the prompt.
4. This assignment requires analysis to test reading and critical- thinking skills. Students
can use what they came up with in the Combining Strategies prompt.
Gaining Word Power (p. 57)
As a follow-up, challenge students to write sentences of their own using these words.
Editing Skills (pp. 57-58)
You might want to suggest to students that they mark this section with a Post-it note or a
bookmark because we explain here the general rules for using quotation marks, which they
will probably need to review from time to time. We also explain the occasions for using
single quotation marks inside double ones. There are more details about punctuating
quotations in Chapter 8.
Exercise (pp. 58-59)
1. Proofread carefully to be sure you have not confused its and it’s. [or “its” and “it‟s.”]
2. Reggie said to me, “You be there on time or I‟m leaving without you, Squirt.”
3. Then I said to Reggie, “You call me „Squirt‟ again and I‟m not going anywhere with
you ever again!”
4. Serena wrote an analysis of Sandra Cisneros‟s short story “Woman Hollering Creek.”
5. “I liked this poem,” Kesha observed, “but when Frost says „The woods are lovely,
dark, and deep,‟ what does „deep‟ mean?”
Compare this reading about sports to “Mom’s the Word” in Chapter 10, especially
in terms of purpose and audience. In what ways are both authors trying to accomplish
“ROAD WORK” BY SERGEANT JACK LEWIS (pp. 60-63)
Length: 1, 317 words
This narrative illustrates an effective balance between “showing” and “telling.” Prompt
students to look for and make a list of these elements of a good narrative: sensory details
that describe the scene or location, a central conflict or incident, key actions and
participants, lines of dialogue that reveal feelings and advance the story, comments and
observations from the narrator that convey the main point(s) of his narrative.
Considering Content (p. 64)
1. Answers will vary, of course, but it seems clear that Sgt. Lewis wanted to share his
wartime experience with people back home. He was probably not writing for other
soldiers but, rather, for people who had little firsthand knowledge of how the war in
Iraq affected the civilian population—a readership that probably includes most
2. We learn that not all Iraqis are insurgents or enemies of the occupying forces; they
are parents and children who have hopes and dreams and love their families. The fact
that they didn‟t have weapons, propaganda, or false IDs establishes them as innocent
victims and underscores the random, senseless character of death.
3. The details about the young man point out just how costly and frustrating the
occupation can be: it destroys, even accidentally, the very people who are needed to
rebuild and run the country.
4. We learn that Sgt. Lewis has lost a child—a girl who died in her sleep. Even though
she died young and quietly, her death still forms a basis for Lewis to say “I think I
knew exactly how one Iraqi man felt.”
5. Lewis comes across as intelligent, observant, caring, and understanding.
Considering Method (p. 64)
1. The verbs indicate how difficult it was for the vehicle to stop. The sounds—
“moaned” and “heaved” and “ground”—suggest an almost agonizing experience,
something similar to the Iraqi father‟s reaction to the accident.
2. These parenthetical comments seem to be what Lewis thought, but did not say aloud,
in response to the remarks of others. They reveal his inner feelings.
3. The reactions and comments of the other participants seem much less sympathetic
than Lewis‟s. The medic is businesslike; the young soldier and the colonel seem
offended, or perhaps embarrassed, by the Iraqi father‟s emotional reaction. The
interpreter, we are told, was “disgusted, resigned, or maybe just plain tired.”
4. The dialogue near the beginning (paras. 2-6) draws the reader into the incident by
conveying what has happened in an interesting, economical way—much more
effective than a description would be. The brief exchange in paragraphs 16-17
reveals the onlooker‟s unsympathetic reaction—in sharp contrast to the author‟s more
compassionate attitude—and does so quickly, without belaboring the point. The
dialogue in paragraphs 20-23 reveals the medic‟s matter-of-fact approach (again, in
contrast with the author‟s more sensitive response). This same contrast comes out in
the quoted remarks of the interpreter (para. 29) and the colonel (paras. 30-32). The
last bit of dialogue, between a sergeant and the author (paras. 33-36), registers the
concern of the military and a need, perhaps, to rationalize the violence inflicted upon
5. Paragraph 36: “the sudden light show of ambulances and police jeeps” and
“surrounded by young Arabic men with steely eyes”—these words create a vivid,
almost sinister scene. Paragraph 38: “I felt the cold creep into me.” Paragraph 39:
“torn from me in a terror of rending steel, stamped out by a sudden monster roaring
out of the night”—these words, especially the verbs (torn, rending, stamped, roaring),
put across terrifying images of both sight and sound.
6. Answers will vary. The last two lines suggest sorrow, futility, resignation. They also
confirm the connection between the two fathers who have both experienced loss.
Writing Step by Step (pp. 64-65)
If students encounter trouble getting started with their narrative, have them write out the
answers to these questions: Why did the experience or incident occur? What events led
up to it? How was it resolved? What were its immediate and long-term effects? What is
its significance now?
Another method for generating material is to retell the story to a classmate or friend
and have that person ask questions during the retelling. The student can then jot down
details and points that the retelling and the questioning bring out. Or tell the story to a
tape recorder, then listen to the tape and make notes.
Other Writing Ideas (p. 65)
1. The challenge of this topic is to let the true feelings about the event show through
without directly describing or naming them.
2. Students can write a credible essay on this topic if they make clear that they are just
showing how they decided the issue for themselves.
3. This is a good assignment for in-class or online group work; having students
exchange and share their summaries will broaden an understanding of the range of
feelings and reactions that the Iraq war has generated.
4. This analytic prompt tests reading and thinking skills.
Gaining Word Power (p. 66)
Similes are commonplace in speech, but they often become tired and overused. Ask
students to complete several common similes—“slept like . . . a log (or baby),” “pretty as
. . . a picture,” “ate like . . . a pig,” “happy as . . . a lark”—to see how easy it is to fall
back on clichéd similes. In conversation, people don‟t stop to think up lively, original
comparisons. But writing gives individuals time to reject worn- out, hackneyed
expressions and to invent fresh ones.
The first selection in this chapter, “Rain of Fire,” contains a number of striking
Exercise (p. 66)
Answers will vary. This is a good exercise to try along with your students and/or to turn
into a group activity. Comparing answers can be fun and instructive.
Editing Skills (pp. 66-67)
Find additional uses of these words from other essays in the chapter, or ask students to
find them. The other three professional essays contain several examples of there and
their, but the only other examples of they’re occur in the McGrath article (paras. 5 – 6).
Exercise (pp. 67-68)
3. their, there
4. their, they‟re
5. their, they‟re
Don‟t let students forget the additional component of this exercise: copying sentences
from their own back essays.
Which of the four published authors in this chapter—Thomas, Royko, McGrath, or
Lewis—does the best job of putting you at the scene and communicating his main point?
Justify your choice.
Student Essay Using Description and Narration
“DOMESTIC ABUSE” BY KELLY BERLIN (pp. 69-70)
Length: 776 words
This account of domestic abuse illustrates several features of good narrative writing.
Although her sister was unfortunate in choosing her boyfriend, Kelly was fortunate in
choosing this episode for her topic. It has built-in drama and suspense, and Kelly does an
effective job in selecting descriptive details, using dialogue, and conveying a point
clearly without hitting the readers over the head with it.
You might also want to point out the effective use of short sentences for emphasis
in paragraph 12 (“But she wouldn‟t sign the papers.” “I was wrong.”). And the last
sentence supplies a really good closure (“she now calls the police herself.”).
Considering Content and Method (p. 70)
1. The choice of topic is excellent, and the focus is just right for the word length.
2. Good details: descriptions of Scott and the sister emphasizing his size and her
fragility; the noise—“like a crack, a board breaking”; Kim‟s “shaky voice”; the “long,
wide bruises forming across her upper thighs.”
3. Direct conversation adds immediacy, verisimilitude, and credibility.
4. The implied point is that battered women are often emotionally unable to escape the
abuse. It‟s more effective to imply this point rather than spell it out (as we just did).
5. Eliminate the cliché (“like a raging bull”) in paragraph 11. Explain what caused the
sister to realize that that the boyfriend was not going to stop (last paragraph).