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Write This, Not That: A Class Activity
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Writing a simple email message can turn me into an overthinking scaredy-cat. Am I using the right phrase? Do I sound like I’m apologizing too much? Am I oversharing? Am I being too vague? Ugh.
I end up evaluating, re-evaluating, revising, writing, and then erasing any time I have to send an important message. What should be an easy message telling someone my manuscript will be late or I can’t make a meeting becomes agony.
Imagine my joy when a friend shared Dani Donovan’s “E-Mail Like a Boss” matrix on Twitter. Even better, her “Write This, Not That” style suggestions are a perfect model for a classroom activity.
In the image below, Donovan (@danidonovan) concentrates the kinds of sentences I struggle with into short, direct ideas that avoid unnecessary apologies or padding:
For students, this matrix can demonstrate two things. First, there is the obvious face value of the information: students gain some stronger ways to say things in emails and elsewhere. Second, each pair demonstrates the value of revision, showing stronger ways to phrase the same idea. To use the matrix in class, I would follow these steps:
- Students can work in small groups or as a whole class to discuss how the suggested alternatives improve on the original.
- Together, brainstorm other email sentences and messages that can be difficult to write. Students are sure to come up with some ideas immediately, such as telling a professor that they are ill and won’t be in class. While you will want to keep the scenarios they come up with appropriate for the classroom, try to push students to get beyond simple scenarios.
- If time allows, students can search their email for messages that they have struggled with and add those ideas to the list.
- As a class, review the brainstormed lists and identify nine situations to focus on.
- Assign each of the situations to a small group or pair of students. Ask students to create their own “Write This, Not That” style suggestions, using Donovan’s matrix as their model. The groups can record their suggestions in a shared class document if desired.
- Once all the groups have completed the task, ask groups to present their recommendations to the class, and arrange for everyone to have a copy of the suggestions for future use.
To go beyond the original matrix, students can think about other writing situations that they encounter frequently, creating “Write This, Not That” suggestions for other tasks they complete, such as description, persuasion, and research essays. As another option, students can review their own drafts, identify sentences or phrases that they have struggled with, and then work together to create “Write This, Not That” alternatives in a group peer review activity.
If you use this “E-mail Like A Boss” image with students, be sure to share Donovan’s ADHD Explained Using Comics collection as well. Donovan explains these ADHD webcomics this way:
ADHD can be difficult to explain, and even harder to talk about. We're creative, friendly, and misunderstood by a lot of people. My hope is to help people with #ADHD feel understood and seen, and be able to share their experiences with others.
Her comics can inspire other writing activities as well as discussion of how to communicate ideas that readers may not be familiar with. If your class is exploring comics and graphic novels, this collection demonstrates how a comic designer has used the genre to share her message with readers.
If you try any of these activities, I would love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment to tell me how it worked in your classroom or share other ways to use these resources.
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