For the first few weeks, I focused on the pre-writing process. Then, I turned my attention to text characteristics and discussed text format on October 7 and text scaffolding last week. You can scroll down to read those posts.
Today, I’m going to share some ideas about text density in informational writing. This is a topic I started thinking about recently because an editor said she wished my writing could be “more breezy.” It made me realize that compared to the fiction she’s used to editing, expository writing is often jam-packed with ideas and information that kids (and editors) have to digest as they read. That’s a lot of work!
As I said in my October 7 post about text format, breaking expository writing into discrete chunks gives readers a chance to pause and ponder. And when the chunking follows a recognizable pattern, it can help readers organize ideas and information in their minds.
As I was writing that post, I remembered a great essay I read on the #STEMTuesday strand of the From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors blog last January. In it, children’s book author Jodi Wheeler-Topen (@WheelerTopen) discussed “the interruption construction”—a common feature of expository writing. Here’s an example from page 4 of Snowy Owl Invasion! Tracking an Unusual Migration by Sandra Markle:
“On one sand dune, peeking through winter-dried plants, sat a big white bird—a snowy owl.”
Notice how the dependent clause “peeking through winter-dried plants” interrupts the main sentence. Why does the author include this extra bit of information? Because it’s a lovely detail that enriches the writing by helping readers visualize the owl and its surroundings.
Here’s another example from page 11 of Itch! Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About What Makes You Scratch by Anita Sanchez:
“Parasites are organisms that use other living things—like you and me—for food and shelter.”
In this case, the interruption “like you and me” improves the writing by helping readers feel more connected to the content.
If students feel overwhelmed by the density of an expository passage, they can hunt for examples of the interruption construction and cover them with their finger. After they understand the main part of the sentence, they can lift their finger to get some bonus information.
Can you think of other common constructions in expository writing? If we can teach students to recognize these text patterns when they’re in fourth or fifth grade, it will help them tremendously as they encounter increasingly complex nonfiction texts in middle school, high school, college, and in their careers.