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Yesterday, I was asked how to conduct a writing workshop without a particular paper due. Although nothing can quite replace the immediacy of a newly-written paper, we and our students can benefit greatly from a look at past work. In fact, sometimes a little distance from the due date of the assignment can add a much-needed perspective to the writing discussion.

One of my favorite non-specific paper exercises is Sentence Clinic. I ask students to do the following before class.

Write down two sentences from your paper or journals we will discuss today :
1. A sentence that you think worked well, one that makes you feel proud (Why do you like this sentence?)
2. A sentence that never quite worked, one that we will look at in the sentence clinic (Why do you think this sentence does not work?)

During class, we use this worksheet. What happens in this exercise is two fold. First, students articulate what they like about their good sentences. From this discussion, we can develop norms and expectations for sentence writing. Second, they bring their bad sentences to the clinic. Depending on the size of the class and the time we have to devote to this, the clinic will either be the whole class or smaller groups within the class. Students discuss what these sentences fail to do, and the other clinic members make suggestions for improvement. I like to do this exercise in the middle or towards the end of the semester when students have developed their vocabulary for discussing writing as well as some trust in each other. Always I want to emphasize the “Why” factor—Why did you like this sentence? Why did you not like that sentence? The “Why” discussions are the best part of the whole exercise.

Another quick exercise I like around the middle of the semester is Thesis Blitz. Students write a current or past thesis statement at the top of a paper, and we send it around the class, so everyone (including the faculty member) and comment quickly. I do this after I have already introduced and discussed thesis statements quite a bit, so this exercise is usually a wake-up call to students. By looking at some better thesis statements, students quickly become exposed to good models. By seeing not so good models, students understand better the importance of the thesis statement. Finally, this exercise has the value of producing a preponderance of evidence. When students see that nine people think a thesis is not specific enough, they begin to take that comment seriously.

Finally, some of my favorite workshops are the ones on style. I usually conduct these between drafts two and three of a paper, but they can work any time. For these, I use the work of students long graduated to illustrate style concepts, such as clarity, coherence, emphasis:
Finally, some of my favorite workshops are the ones on style. I usually conduct these between drafts two and three of a paper, but they can work any time. For these, I use the work of students long graduated to illustrate style concepts, such as clarity, coherence, emphasis:


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