Avoid sentence fragments.
My school days are not fragments, they are one big blur. The too-early–in-the-morning garbage trucks that sound like dying whales. My mother’s bowls of healthy, tasteless oatmeal. Which I don’t eat. The mind-numbing Zoom calls and the pale teachers who are on mute half the time or accidentally end the call. Sometimes, I’m tempted to push down the screen in the middle of my English teacher’s lessons about Point/Evidence/Explanation paragraphs and types of irony. It’s not about meanness, it’s more about how everything seems like weightless tissues that you could just drop on the floor and nobody would say you have to pick them up. And why would I have questions about fragments in an essay that’s already turned in? “The snoring, the rain, and Mama’s hair that smells like bread.” That’s a sentence fragment from The House on Mango Street, the book my essay was about.
Consider breaking up this paragraph into subpoints.
My mother got us a dog, a Finnish Lappie that sheds and chews on everything. Rumi sleeps on her back with her paws in the air, snoring. She is really cute, but it’s annoying when she jumps on my bed in the morning. Still, I like our walks together, and I am starting to notice the trees budding and blossoming in the park, now that we are, as the counselor says. “learning to appreciate what really matters.” Getting out of the house is the hardest part, and I try not to look at my phone when I do. When Rumi pulls me along on the leash, I start breathing so loudly that people passing by must think I am having some kind of asthma attack. My brother David was born during the first summer of Covid, when the restrictions temporarily eased up. My mother sometimes leaves me with David during her nine or eleven minute high-intensity workouts. Afterwards, she takes a long shower and the steam drifts out into the hallway mixing with the scent of brownies and sour dough bread. My parents have decided that it is OK for my friends and me to meet in small groups together outside without masks, but we just keep texting each other. There are fewer and fewer things that don’t frighten me or that don’t seem pointless. I can only barely remember being disappointed when the eighth-grade graduation was canceled last year. Now the idea of looking forward to something feels intimidating and nearly impossible.
State your point at the beginning of paragraphs. Use topic sentences.
But it is better if I can build up to my point. And those topic sentences look so exposed. “Your idea of shared parenting is a little skewed, Martin,” I heard my mother say. The door slammed, I pressed down harder on my green highlighter, and then David was crying. I think I worry about other people’s feelings too much. Maybe I should offer to help more with David, but I am not ready to change anyone’s diaper. I think my parents regret having David.
Good choice of evidence, but you need to provide further analysis.
My English teacher never really explains what she means by analysis. I am not sure she even knows, like she is asking me to do something she can no longer do herself. Corona moves everyone up one notch over on the dial. The neurotic people are now crazy, the stressed people like my teacher are now frantic, the lonely people like my aunt are now shipwrecked castaways, and the normal people are just taking on everybody else’s stress. It’s like everyone else’s feelings are sitting on top of me.
Great point! Tell me more!
We get emails from the school counselor and links to mindfulness routines and videos about being positive. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t want to be positive when I am not feeling great, and I don’t want to observe my thoughts and then release them like leaves floating along the surface of a river. Toxic positivity–that’s what I’m calling it. My English teacher tells us to go to sleep at the same time every night, but she looks so tired herself. During one class, it sounded like someone started the world’s loudest blender in another room behind her and I’m certain I saw her mouth, “For Fuck’s Sake, Carl.” Then my English teacher’s four-year-old daughter, Ellie, ran over to her–she had a ring of what looked like chocolate frosting around her lips–and tugged on the sleeve of her mother’s gray sweater. When my English teacher tried to lift Ellie onto her lap, Ellie reached out to the desk to push herself up higher and she accidently knocked a cup full of tea. When my English teacher gasped, reaching out to grab the cup, Ellie slid off her lap and ran away crying. My teacher moved away from the camera for a few seconds, and when she came back it looked like she couldn’t make up her mind whether or not she should apologize or just keep going with the lesson. She just kept going.
Notice the many references to women sitting by windows. What do you make of this?
I get it, it’s about escape, but why do I have to look for the deep meanings all of the time? I just want to lie on my bed and read these little chapters–vignettes my English teacher calls them– in The House on Mango Street that tell Esperanza’s story, not write an essay about how they are interconnected by certain motifs and symbols. I mostly wanted to know what was happening to her. Her friends. Her sister. The people in her Chicago neighborhood. Esperanza seems like someone waiting to begin. I get that, but what scares me is that the bursting out of my skin feeling that I used to have won’t ever come back and that I won’t even care if it does or not.
How else might this line be understood?
Just tell me what I am missing, what I don’t understand? How can I know what I don’t know? I wonder if David will remember when everyone wore masks. I wonder if Rumi will suddenly feel lonely when our house is empty during the day again, when the curve, and everything else, is completely flattened. One recent Blursday morning, I lifted my head off the edge of my keyboard and felt the tiny dent on my forehead as I looked through my bedroom window. A duck stood alone by some red flowers. It was like the duck had made a plan but all the other ducks canceled at the last minute. The poor duck bobbed his head up and down like he didn’t remember what he and the other ducks were meeting up about in the first place. That’s what everything feels like right now.
Dan Shiffman is a high school English teacher at the International School of Hamburg and an MFA student at Lindenwood University. His work has appeared in such places as Hobart, X‑R-A‑Y Literary and Shark Reef. You can read more of his work at danshiffman.com.