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A Closer Look

During Monday night’s Twitter chat about information writing, author Melissa Stewart sent this Tweet in response to a question about creating your own mentor texts:

Interesting concept, isn’t it?  I wondered what could be gained by typing out another author’s text.  The next day I went to my bookshelf and pulled out one of my favorite books of all time, Looking Back by Lois Lowry.  I remember reading Looking Back for the first time and thinking, “This.  I want to write a book just like this.” Since then, I have read and reread Lois’s words many times.  What could I learn from typing them?

I opened to the first page and started typing:

Looking Back

Looking back (no pun intended) on the first paragraph, I noticed right away how many descriptive phrases Lois Lowry used.  It’s almost like the entire first paragraph is a string of descriptive phrases.

Wow, I never noticed that before.  I am usually more conservative in my writing, more succinct than Lois was in this paragraph.  Maybe if I want to write like Lois Lowry, I could try stringing several descriptive phrases together as well.

I was having so much fun, I decided to try it again with one of my all-time favorite picture books, Beekle by Dan Santat.  What I noticed when typing out the text to this beautiful picture book was how many times Dan Santat used the word ‘but.’

Beekle

I have read this picture book so many times I could almost recite it, yet I have never noticed the repetition of that tiny word before!  It is an interesting way of framing the story, isn’t it?  The repetitive use of the word ‘but’ tends to highlight the multiple problems poor Beekle is facing throughout the story.

I have studied mentor texts closely before, but I have to agree with Melissa Stewart: typing out the text gave me a feel for the flow of the text.  There was something about the act of typing that made me acutely aware of the writer’s choices. This is an enlightening way to study a mentor text.

**Note:  Teachers should always seek permission before typing full copies of texts.**

Dana Murphy View All

Literacy Coach, Reader, Writer

10 thoughts on “A Closer Look Leave a comment

  1. So great to be reminded of this. I use to do this with my 5th graders. We also would write the first paragraph of a text we liked and then continued writing our own stories from that start. Later we would return to the first paragraph to make it our own but it got my students off of the fear of the blank page plus gave them a feel for good writing to start a project. I have not done this for myself. I am off to pull out a few books to study. Also thanks for mentioning Looking Back. I have not seen this one before.

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  2. I am absolutely going to have my high schoolers try this with their independent reading. I love the low-stakes, casual way you present this — just open up the book and begin typing! Simple. I can’t wait to see what they might notice when they slow down and look carefully.

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  3. This is great. I often type up picture books so kids can have a copy of the their favorite mentors to keep in their writing folders (hope I’m not incriminating myself here). But I never thought to study them in this way as I do it. So helpful!

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  4. That tweet resonated with me too! I had my students look through her books yesterday as mentor text. Seeing them typed up would be a lovely next step to look closer. Thanks for this post!

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  5. I first used this technique 40 years ago to help improve students’ writing. At that time, I had him/her handwrite a copy of a paragraph of either a specific writer or an article from The Wall Street Journal or The Christian Science Monitor because they had well-written ones. It gave them a sense of parallel structure, effective repetition, etc. I do recommend it as a good exercise. There really is nothing new under the sun!

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  6. Looking forward to pulling some favorites off my shelf and trying this strategy. You’re the second person who has mentioned Looking Back in the past week. I think I need to add it to my mentor bookshelf.

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  7. Dana,
    I like how you highlighted key phrases and literary devices that you liked. I do that too. Sometimes I will highlights strong verbs in blue, alliteration in green, internal rhyme in purple in purple, etc. It’s fun, pretty, and instructional. Every single word matters, and patterns really pop out at you when you highlight them in some way. I should write a blog post about this, showing my color coding. Melissa

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  8. Dana,
    I like how you highlighted key phrases and literary devices that you liked. I do that too. Sometimes I will highlights strong verbs in blue, alliteration in green, internal rhyme in purple in purple, etc. It’s fun, pretty, and instructional. Every single word matters, and patterns really pop out at you when you highlight them in some way. I should write a blog post about this, showing my color coding.

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  9. Dana,
    More than anything you just again reinforced the power of revisiting a text AGAIN and AGAIN. Type it, talk about it – all help you the reader stduy the craft more deeply. Such an important reminder for all writers!
    THANKS!

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  10. I heard this same thing from Kate DiCamllo. I think she typed out a whole book to see what it felt like. Maybe Melissa and Kate are on to something, a deep, dark secret to successful writing. Now that you have shown how useful it can be, I may try it.

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