Engl 703 – 01
Literacy Narrative – draft #1
Professor Kevin Ferguson
“Do the best you can” were the words I heard growing up, at home and in grade school. Friendly little words I never minded to hear. I had earned As and Bs in high school English classes and teachers seemed to be pleased with my work. I truly believed I was doing the best I could. In fact, I considered myself an excellent student and writer; I worked hard. Therefore, teachers awarded me with praise. I had caring teachers and my education at an award winning high school, in an upper-middle class neighborhood, was top notch; I thought that I was one of the lucky ones.
This I believed until freshman year of college. One morning, during Literary History II, Dr. Hugh handed me back my first essay. It was flooded in a sea of blue ink, from top to bottom, and branded with a blinding ‘F.’ I sat feeling defeated, angry, and I fought back tears. After class, in a huff, I went over to discuss the grade. I fantasized shoving desks and stamping heavily along the path. Inflammatory thoughts flooded my mind: “How dare he,” “I hate him,” “Why blue ink and not red?” No other teacher had ever criticized my work; not to this extent. The F sneered and snickered, his explanation slapped. Dr. Hugh took one long look at me. I didn’t have to say a word. “You can do better and you will do better,” he said. I just stared at him, confused. For the first time, I was being told that I was not as great as I believed to be. This was the first time a teacher gave me a push. Unlike teachers past, he seemed to relish the challenge of saying what others found difficult to articulate. He addressed, explained and offered suggestions to my writing errors. I discovered that I was an incredibly weak writer and reader; I lacked basic skills that were expected among college students. Somehow I slipped through the cracks in grade school. It seems to me that I went to school but was not necessarily educated. I had been one of the kids who made it through school as if traveling on a “conveyor belt” in a system where children are put in at one end and come out neatly packaged with a shiny cap and gown at the other.
That day was a great turning point in my education. I was no longer satisfied by doing the “best I can” because I learned that my work was not good enough. I needed to be better. I was determined to get an ‘A.’
I had so much progress to make and it was difficult to know where to begin. It took almost my entire college career to expose the mistakes I needed to fix and to shed many of my poor literacy habits. I had to fail many times in order to finally win. Unfortunately, not every professor was like Dr. Hugh, who was not afraid to unveil the truth. I could only learn from the mistakes I knew I was making. Dr. Hugh helped me become aware of every next opportunity presented to me.
During freshman year, my experiences in “Introduction to Shakespeare” helped me discover that my writing lacked focus and I wrote weak prose. Daunted by the Middle English language barrier, I was uniquely challenged but determined to succeed. The class was large, the professor, head of the English department, had little time to teach basic writing. He did, however, have plenty of time to offer criticism! The semester ended quickly but I managed to turn the ‘D’s and ‘C’s I earned into ‘B’s in the end. I felt I was on my way.
Expository Writing, during first semester sophomore year, presented a new set of challenges. Although I cleaned up the messy prose, challenges existed in the exciting world of opportunity that opened up for me. Not bound by novels or textbooks, I could write about whatever I desired. I had infinite topic choices at my fingertips; I was really, truly focusing – on everything I could think of all at the same time. I finally chose to discuss the many prophecies of Nostradamus. A five-page essay assignment turned into ten pages, and counting. I only stopped when I realized there was no end in sight. This opportunity forced me to discover the importance of an outline. I didn’t earn an ‘A’, yet I still believed I was on my way.
Literary History I, during second semester sophomore year, helped me shed light on my critical thinking skills. I learned valuable lessons on giving and taking. Lesson #1: After discovering that the professor is not open minded, figure out his theory and critique style, and give him what he wants. Don’t argue. Lesson #2: Take the grade and run – never choose this professor again. I earned ‘C’s and ‘D’s and, finally, when I learned my lessons, some ‘B’s helped raised my final grade. Almost the entire semester went by before I learned to bend without breaking.
During junior year, my confidence was growing. Learning opportunities abounded. Writing for the school newspaper helped me hone research skills. I had written an article on the many benefits of drinking coffee. Although the writing was solid, it was poorly researched; peers blasted me. I dove into a pool of hungry critics, and came up barely breathing. But I was not ready to give up.
Literary Criticism, senior year: Friends who studied English complained how difficult the class would be – they warned that the professor rarely gave ‘B’s, let alone an ‘A’. She would be tough, but I was ready for the challenge. I appreciated her teaching style, her attention to students, and her desire to see them succeed. She was truly focused on teaching writing. Some of the most valuable lessons I learned were ones I picked up among the critiques shared during peer writing groups. Reading other student’s work and hearing feedback allowed me to adopt good writing skills and helped me incorporate what I learned into the design of my own writing style. It all paid off – I truly earned that ‘A’!
My experiences with education duality, of losses and wins, allow me to greatly appreciate my literacy skills today. As a result of the constructive critism I was given in college, I gained an ability to critique myself and reevaluate what I am doing. I wish I could have learned the lesson before college; nevertheless I learned a valuable one. Not all students may be so lucky in the end. Personality, confidence, guidance, and support – they all factor in as well. I am uniquely positioned to fix what is wrong because of an innate “take charge” aspect to my personality. Many good teachers have this special quality.
Good teachers also take the time to educate; not send students on the “conveyer belt” to be sent into the world, unprepared. These teachers critique and share lessons with students that teach them to develop skills; there is always room for improvement. Praising students too often may create a false sense of accomplishment. Sometimes a student needs to hear the bitter truth. Good teachers lack fear; sometimes indirectly bruising a student’s ego will invigorate the spirit and inspire personal growth.
Dr. Hugh’s fearlessness had a great effect on my literacy skills today. Though I am still growing and learning to be a better writer, I think he would be proud of my progress. That day, I did ask Dr. Hugh why he used blue ink. He felt red was too traumatizing to students. Blue is somehow pacifying. What he did not realize is that in any color, an ‘F’ is an ‘F.’
To write a narrative essay, you’ll need to tell a story (usually about something that happened to you) in such a way that he audience learns a lesson or gains insight.
To write a descriptive essay, you’ll need to describe a person, object, or event so vividly that the reader feels like he/she could reach out and touch it.
Tips for writing effective narrative and descriptive essays:
- Tell a story about a moment or event that means a lot to you--it will make it easier for you to tell the story in an interesting way!
- Get right to the action! Avoid long introductions and lengthy descriptions--especially at the beginning of your narrative.
- Make sure your story has a point! Describe what you learned from this experience.
- Use all five of your senses to describe the setting, characters, and the plot of your story. Don't be afraid to tell the story in your own voice. Nobody wants to read a story that sounds like a textbook!
How to Write Vivid Descriptions
Having trouble describing a person, object, or event for your narrative or descriptive essay? Try filling out this chart:
What do you smell?
What do you taste?
What do you see?
What do you hear?
What might you touch or feel?
Remember: Avoid simply telling us what something looks like--tell us how it tastes, smells, sounds, or feels!
- Virginia rain smells different from a California drizzle.
- A mountain breeze feels different from a sea breeze.
- We hear different things in one spot, depending on the time of day.
- You can “taste” things you’ve never eaten: how would sunscreen taste?
Using Concrete Details for Narratives
Effective narrative essays allow readers to visualize everything that's happening, in their minds. One way to make sure that this occurs is to use concrete, rather than abstract, details.
…makes the story or image seem clearer and more real to us.
...makes the story or image difficult to visualize.
…gives us information that we can easily grasp and perhaps empathize with.
…leaves your reader feeling empty, disconnected, and possibly confused.
The word “abstract” might remind you of modern art. An abstract painting, for example, does not normally contain recognizable objects. In other words, we can't look at the painting and immediately say "that's a house" or "that's a bowl of fruit." To the untrained eye, abstract art looks a bit like a child's finger-painting--just brightly colored splotches on a canvas.
Avoid abstract language—it won’t help the reader understand what you're trying to say!
Abstract: It was a nice day.
Concrete: The sun was shining and a slight breeze blew across my face.
Abstract: I liked writing poems, not essays.
Concrete: I liked writing short, rhythmic poems and hated rambling on about my thoughts in those four-page essays.
Abstract: Mr. Smith was a great teacher.
Concrete: Mr. Smith really knew how to help us turn our thoughts into good stories and essays.