Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How to Write a Paragraph

Bluebird used her birthday money to sign up for the "Young Writer's Workshop" with the Youth Arts Festival this year.  After the first class she was all smiles and chatter about how they used a projector to show their writing on the board, and how they wrote a paragraph about a pencil, and, and, and...

I had to fill up the gas tank before dropping her off for her second day, so we left the house early.  On the way to the gas station I suddenly realized that I should ask about whether she had any "homework" or the like, which resulted in a "deer in the headlights" expression from Bluebird.  "Great," I thought, "we now have forty five minutes to get this done in the car!"

The assignment:  Write a paragraph about the senses.

Bluebird hunkered down in her seat with her notebook and pencil, dismissing all my offers to help with a lofty "No thanks, I like to write by myself."  Oh.  Well, alright, I will support you in your efforts to be an independent learner.  Write away.

Three minutes later she announced that was finished.

"Alright Bluebird, let me hear what you've got!  Will you read your paragraph to me?"

She sat up straight and began:  "Once I went to a restaurant and I ate a omelette."

Silencing the urge to point out that she needed an "an" in front of omelette, I waited for the rest.  It quickly became apparent that the sentence was her paragraph.

"Uh, Bluebird, your teacher asked you to write a paragraph, right?"

"Right.  That's my paragraph."

"Honey, a paragraph needs about five sentences."

"But when I wrote my paragraph about a pencil yesterday in class, I just wrote a sentence."

"Well, then it wasn't a paragraph."

Bluebird's eyes widened and she went on to explain that her teacher didn't know that, and that her sentence was a very good paragraph.  I responded with the suggestion that we just keep writing about that omelette and how good it tasted.  She scrunched up her face and told me that it made her sick to her stomach to even think about it because it had been served with hashbrowns that were disgusting.

I pounced.  "That's great writing right there!  Write that down!  Write down why the hashbrowns were disgusting and explain how they made your tasty omelette a bad experience!"

By this time Bluebird was holding her stomach and looking a little green in the face.  She looked up at me with big, pleading eyes and said, "I just can't write about it because thinking about it makes me feel sick.  This writing class isn't any fun anymore."

Poor girl.  I just looked at her and, stifling the urge to burst into laughter over her pathetic predicament, asked her why the writing class wasn't fun anymore, to which she replied with, "Because I wanted to write a story!  Not a paragraph!"

Aha.  "Bluebird, stories are just a bunch of paragraphs put together!"

"No they're not, a story is a story."

"No, think about it.  When we're reading a story, is it just one big page of words jammed together or are the words broken up into chunks of sentences?"

The look on her face told me that she was starting to believe me.  I continued, "So, in order to write a story, you've got to start with a paragraph!  Then you write another paragraph, and then another, until you've got an entire story."

"But I don't want to start my story with a paragraph about the senses!"

"Well, then, don't make this paragraph the start of your story.  Have it be the paragraph that starts a different chapter in your story."

"Do you know what my story is about?!"

(Once again, I stifled the urge to laugh.)  "No, I don't...why don't you tell me?"

"It's a story about four girls in a magical world."  (She raised her eyebrows at me and nodded her head in that "It's gonna be good" sort of way.)

Seeing now that we were down to twenty minutes before her class started, I decided to shut up and let her talk, hoping against odds that we'd be able to get something down on paper resembling a paragraph.  The girl wanted to write a story, so if she started talking about the story perhaps I could get an idea of what direction to steer her in order to accomplish our goal of one, measly, stupid paragraph incorporating one stupid sense.

So I took the bait.  "Ooooh, four girls in a magical world!  That sounds like a really interesting story!"

She grinned, "Yep, and it starts out really mysterious.  I'm sleeping in my bunk bed and I wake up because I hear handbells."


"Bluebird!  That's perfect!  You heard handbells?"

She looked at me with that, "Um, I just said that" expression on her face--and then her eyes got big and she shot up in her seat and squealed, "I HEARD HANDBELLS!  THAT'S ONE OF THE SENSES!"

"Yes it is!  You're so awesome, write it down!"

Sentence #1:  One night while I was sleeping in my house, I woke up and heard handbells.

I helped her spell her words, and then pressed her for more.  "Alright, you heard handbells; what did they sound like?"

"I think I need to come up with a title for my book first."

Knowing that it would take her forever to decide on a title, I responded with, "No, you don't.  You need to write down a paragraph.  Let's focus on what's in front of us."

"But Mom, I just can't write a story without a title."

"Honey, most writers don't give titles to their books until they're all done anyway.  You never know what you're going to end up writing about or where the story is going to take you and you don't want to be limited by a title.  How about you name the chapter when you're done?"

"Right.  OK, I'll name the chapter when I'm done."

"Ohhhh kaaaay.  Now, tell me what the handbells sounded like."

Once again, Bluebird gave me the ol' "My mom is an idiot" expression before saying "They sounded like handbells."

"I know they sounded like handbells, but part of writing is describing stuff so that the reader can imagine things exactly the way that you are imagining them.  To do that, you need to describe in detail what it sounded like."

"They sounded like handbells."

[insert silent scream here]  "I know they sounded like handbells...the point is, what kind of handbells?  High pitched?  Low pitched?  Ringing?  Short staccato sounds?"

"Well, both, but I couldn't really tell because the sound was so quiet."

"Alright, write that down!"

Sentence #2:  I could not tell if they were high or low because the sound was too quiet.

I asked what happened next and she said, "A belt appeared in mid-air with a sword hanging from it."

"Whoa, that's pretty interesting, you should write that down as well."

Sentence #3:  Suddenly, a belt with a sword on it was floating in the air next to my bed.

We had five minutes before the class started, so I decided that she needed to wrap things up.  "Alright Bluebird, you've got this belt floating in mid-air, but you started the paragraph talking about bells..."


"...Handbells.  It would make your paragraph strong to explain how that noise was happening."

"Well, there was a flute hanging from the belt with the sword attached to it and it could make all sorts of magical sounds like bells and harps and twinkling..."

"OK, OK, so the flute is making the handbell noise.  Write that down."

She starts erasing the last sentence.

"Bluebird!  What are you doing?  No!"

"But I have to write that the flute is hanging from the belt with the sword."

"You can do that in the next sentence!  Keep the sword sentence the same!"

"But the flute is on the belt with the sword and I have to explain that."

"It's OK, it's the same paragraph, you can do it in the next sentence."

Raising one eyebrow, she thought about it for a moment before re-writing the erased words from the sword sentence.  We were now down to three minutes.

"Alright Bluebird, what are you going to write about the flute?"

"I'm going to write that it's a magical flute that can mimic any magical sound it has ever heard, like bells and sparkles and unicorns and..."

"OK, you can do that in another paragraph.  Just use this one sentence to let the reader know that it's the flute that's making the buh...handbell sound."

"But then they won't know that the flute can make other sounds!"

"Trust me babe, you can talk about it more later in your book.  It will be like an extra surprise."

"Right!  That should make it interesting!"

Sentence #4:  Dangling from the belt was a flute making the handbell sound.

"Good job Bluebird!  You've got a paragraph!"

"I thought paragraphs were supposed to have five sentences."

"Generally speaking, yes.  But we're crunched for time, so this will have to do."

"Mom!  Look!  I SAW a belt floating in the air!  I have TWO senses in my paragraph!"

"Oh my goodness, yeah you do!  You've done such a great job!  OK, hop on out and get on to your class."

"OK.  Bye!"

Sometimes I feel like I need a reward for helping this child accomplish anything.

Her teacher's opinion:  "Good job."  For the amount of effort that went into it, I feel like his reaction was ridiculously anti-climatic.  We should vociferously celebrate every paragraph a child writes!

Now, excuse me while I lock myself in my room and giggle crazily.


  1. Oh my. Oh my oh my oh my.

    Now, giggle away!

  2. Oh my gosh, this made me laugh so hard!! She's Hannah's twin, when it comes to writing!!


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