A Message from Dr. Spivey

Dr. Spivey

As I have done seminars across the country, many teachers have asked me what I do with students who repeatedly join their sentences with "and then…and then…and then…and then… ." As an example of the types of answers you can find when using the Writing Express system, I present the following discussion:

One of the tasks of a writer is to organize the material, providing meaningful and interesting transitions or bridges between sentences. In narrative (action) writing such as writing stories, the most common organization is by time, presenting material in the order of occurrence: what happens first, second, third, etc. This is called chronological organization – organization by time.

For example consider the following four-sentence narrative sequence:

The guard on the basketball team dribbled down the court.

She saw her opponent. She faked one way, changed dribbling hands, and drove toward the basket.

She scored easily.

An inexperienced writer often tends to join each of the sentences with the same transition such as "and then… and then… and then… and then." This repetition makes the writing sound choppy and immature. For example, notice how the above sentence sounds using the connector "and then."

The guard on the basketball team dribbled down the court. And then she saw her opponent. And then she faked one way, changed dribbling hands, and drove towards the basket. And then she scored easily.

Clearly the repetition of "and then" is monotonous. I believe its use comes from the intuitive understanding that there is a need for chronological organization, accompanied by a meager knowledge of different words and groups of words that tell WHEN. In speech this problem is not as evident because the student can vary the voice quality for variety: the volume, pitch, rhythm, etc. Also I've noticed that in casual conversations, some students purposely end one thought with "and then" to tell the listener that they still want the floor because their thoughts haven't been completed. However, in writing the repetition is clearly undesirable.

Another attempt at chronological organization in narration by inexperienced writers involves the use of the formal transitions such as "first," "second," "third," etc. … The use of these transitions are more appropriate in expository writing (writing to make a point, explain) when clarity is most important. In narrative writing, however, these formal transitions make the writing seem stilted and unnatural as in the following example:

First the guard on the basketball team dribbled down court. Secondly she saw her opponent. Thirdly, she faked one way, changed dribbling hands, and drove towards the basket. Fourthly she scored easily.

With the above presentation, the order of what occurs first, second, third, etc… is clear, but is somewhat choppy, and in narrative writing it is monotonous to the ear.

When a writer begins to use a variety of groups that tell WHEN as bridges or transitions between sentences in narrative writing, then both order and fluency are achieved. There are several common expressions that express WHEN: immediately, soon, afterwards, next, suddenly, at once, at last, finally, at the end.

In addition to the common expressions, a good writer understands how to build "when groups" and use them as bridges. These groups begin with the following words: as, after, before, during, since, until, when, while, and they may be placed before or after the main sentence. Here are some examples:

During the hit movie, the spectators laughed continuously.

As the people walked into the store, the owner gave away prizes.

Before the bell rang, the teacher gave a homework assignment.

The tiger leaped from the tree after it saw its prey.

The family ate dinner before they went to the ball game.

A clown did a funny stunt during a performance at the circus.

Here is the basketball narrative sequence again using a variety of WHEN GROUPS beginning with the above words.

When the guard received the inbound pass, she dribbled the ball down court. Before long she saw her opponent. Immediately she faked one way, changed dribbling hands, and drove towards the basket. After maneuvering through several players, she scored easily.

At times the writer may decide to change a main clause into a group that tells WHEN to provide a transition.

After dribbling the ball down court, the guard on the basketball team saw her opponent. Immediately she faked one way, changed dribbling hands, and drove towards the basket. After maneuvering through several players, she scored easily.

So in brief, my answer to teachers who have asked me what I do with students who repeatedly write, "and then… and then… and then…," is simply this: I teach my students to create a variety of WHEN GROUPS, drilling the students until they can produce these groups with facility, and insisting that the students use them in their own work.

In the workbook series, "Strengthening Your Writing," and my textbook, "Strengthening Student Writing Through Focus," I have included many exercises concerning this issue.

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