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Writing with Meaning: . Eight Excellent Techniques. A composition workshop designed by Sue Stindt. How to complete this workshop…

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a composition workshop designed by sue stindt

Writing with Meaning:

Eight Excellent Techniques

A composition workshop designed by

Sue Stindt


How to complete this workshop…

Thank you for participating in “Writing with Meaning.” This workshop is intended to help you develop meaning in your personal and informative essay topics and to convey that meaning to readers. This workshop is a tutorial and requires your participation.

To receive full credit for this two-hour workshop:

Scroll through the slides one by one. Read the information thoroughly; give each point thought and consideration. The workshop contains 10 Activities, brief assignments for you to do or write, usually after reading a few discussion slides. At the end is a final reflection for you to complete.

You must complete all 10 Activities and the reflection. Most activities do not have specifically right or wrong answers; rather, they ask for your thoughts, ideas, and experiences.

Your work may be handwritten or typed (unless your teacher specifies typed).

You do not have to complete this workshop in one sitting. You can work through it at your own pace as time allows.

When finished, turn your work in to your instructor for credit.


Notes about this Workshop…

The techniques discussed in this workshop are a compilation of techniques I teach in my classes, ideas from colleagues and the ideas of many writers, many writing teachers and professional from other disciplines. I have credited sources where used and included a works cited slide at the end.

For students who have already completed the “Finding Meaning” workshop, a few of the slides contain review material.



Whether trying to make sense of your life experiences, or your research and learning discoveries, discerning and expressing meaning in writing requires effort and critical thinking.










critical thinking is a skill you can t live or write without
CRITICAL THINKING Is a Skill You Can’t Live (or Write) Without…

A writer must choose how to convey meaning – to interpret the significance and importance of the story or topic -- and connect with readers.


Critical thinking involves the ability to understand complex issues from multiple viewpoints and to realize that knowledge of any topic or of any experience develops through reasoning and reflection.

essays and meaning
Essays and Meaning…

Throughout the semester, you will be required to write various kinds of essays. Some will be personal in nature, such as a personal narrative or an essay revealing character or place. Others will be informative or expository, written from a combination of the objective point of view and first person point of view. You may be required to write an informative, research, I-search, persuasive, analytical or review essay. A character profile essay may fall somewhere in between personal and informative.

No matter what type of essay you are asked to write, the essay must reveal meaning.


Essays and Meaning…

  • The following thoughts came fromthe website forVISUAL CONCEPT -- "Visual Thinking Software”:
    • We all have patterns of thought in our minds that we have been building all of our lives. Through constantly shifting patterns and experimenting with re-arrangements – we continue to learn.
    • As we try to deal with ever more complex and dynamic situations [and topics], it is helpful to get ideas out of our heads and into a medium where we can explore their content and their relationships.
    • Through writing powerful intuitions and insights can be generated and shared.
my story speaks for itself doesn t it
My story speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

“…the elements of the experience or topic you write about should show the reader how they led you to some type of growth, new insights or understanding, even if it is a humorous one. You do not necessarily need to explain the meaning of the experience in abstract, general terms (although you can do so), but the meaning must be evident or implied by the end of the essay. After all, why write about it if it has no meaning to you?” say Olivia Bertabnoll and Jeff Rackham in their textbook From Sight to Insight: The Writing Process (42-3).

What the authors say about not having to explain meaning in abstract, general terms is true, but…

Many teachers in your college career may ask you to include the meaning in abstract or general terms and developing the skills to do so will benefit you in the future.

Occasionally, if a story is so powerful and well written that the meaning is self-evident, I may tell the writer that it isn’t necessary to interpret the meaning.However, the ability to write abstractly and generally -- the ability to take the story beyond the personal -- IS a skill in itself. I like students to show that they have the ability to write abstractly or objectively, as well as personally.

And remember, you’re not just writing a “story,” you’re writing an “essay.”

A second compelling reason for “spelling it out” is because, as I’ve already mentioned (and you’ll read more about this soon), readers bring their own interpretations to the text. I think it’s important that the writer make his or her meaning clear to readers, forcing readers to at least consider that point of view or interpretation.


The Personal Narrative or Personal Reflection…

An essay is a focused piece of writing

It is mostly idea, often supported by story(Rule and Wheeler 10).

A narrative is a story supported by an idea.

A personal narrative is about the author, or a story told from the author’s point of view, written in the first person (“I”).

A personal narrative essay combines all the above elements and you can think of it either way:a first person story focused on an idea or an idea supported by a story told in first person.

Either way, all the elements must be included.



Think of “stories” as the everyday activities and adventures you describe to your friends and family.

These are rich material for the personal narrative.

Why do you tell the stories you tell?

What do they mean?

What do you want readers to take from them?



The people in the photo (left) are members of my family. We were visiting the U.S.S. Arizona, a National Monument at Pearl Harbor in Oahu, Hawaii. My brother-in-law, Mark (center), and my sister (to his right) were both officers in the Air Force. Mark, especially, is passionate about history, particularly military history.

That day, the U.S.S. Missouri was docked in the harbor (and, I believe, will remain there permanently as a monument). The Missouri is the ship on which the Japanese surrendered to end WWII. Mark visited that ship while the rest of us took the tour on the Arizona. When we reconnoitered, Mark told us about the Missouri’s place in history and what he’d heard and learned on his tour. He connected this information to other events he knew about the time and the war. Because of Mark’s passion for and interest in WWII history and his personal connection to the military, the meaning of the day’s experience was perfectly clear in the telling of his story.His story was authoritative, informative, interesting and heartfelt, qualities that engaged his listeners.

activity 1 making meaning of life experiences
Activity 1… Making Meaning of Life Experiences

Think of two of your own life stories. Briefly explain each. List several reasons why each particular incident or event that you experienced might stand out, be unforgettable, or come to mind when you are asked to tell a story about your life. What did you learn from the experience? What new insights did it give you?

Do not use a cliché to summarize meaning. Use original words and specific examples.

expository writing and meaning
Expository Writing and Meaning…

The very basis of the word “expository,” which comes from “exposition,” according to Merriam-Webster Online, is “a setting forth of the meaning or purpose.”

Expository writing requires a main idea (theme), purpose and significance (meaning).

Note: I use the word “expository” in this workshop to refer to any writing that isn’t strictly personal, such as the personal narrative and character or place portraits.

expository writing and meaning15
Expository Writing and Meaning…

Like your personal writing, expository writing tells a true story. But expository writing “must be backed up with evidence: facts, statistics, verifiable Quotes and references to other texts, names, dates, [and] numbers” (Bomer 164).


writers make meaning of discovery community and world events art and the lives of others
Writers make meaning of discovery, community and world events, art, and the lives of others…

An essay should be constructed around a theme – a shared discovery or connection that informs the reader about a topic or offers an opinion or specific point of view.

A clear purpose (spelled out in the essay) sheds light on the writer’s intentions.


The Writer’s Job…

is to help the reader see why the topic or issue is important, not only to the writer, but also to the readers. Emphasizing the importance, significance or consequences of the topic or issue or making personal connections to a topic or issue makes the topic much more interesting to the reader.

A research project, for example, should “mix personal experience and opinion with facts, statistics, and quotations from interviews and books” (Rule, Wheeler 10). It should spell out why the topic is important to the writer and why the writer thinks other people may or should be interested in the topic. Personal knowledge of or connection to a topic lends “authority” to the writer, makes him or her more credible.


“Meaning stems from the events of the story, but it is larger than the story and has everything to do with the writer’s perspective – how he or she sees the story”(Rule, Wheeler129).



The payback readers want is to learn, to grow, to gain insight, to understand the writer’s thinking, to identify or connect with what you have to say.

MEANING IS your perspective of the stories you tell and information you gather.

MEANING IS your purpose for choosing a particular story to tell or topic to explore or discuss.

MEANING IS the significance of the story or research.

MEANING IS knowledge, revealing insights, something you learned or saw in a new way.

MEANING IS a connection of new knowledge to old knowledge or a connection to your readers.

MEANING IS an acknowledgementof your readers.

A writer must reveal meaning in his or her essay.

ah meaning is like a theme
Ah, meaning is like a theme!

Some teachers and writers use the word theme when they discuss meaning.

Novelist Theodore Weesner said, “Theme is what the hell it is you’re really trying to say”(qtd. in Rule, Wheeler 130).

Author Grace Paley said, “Every story is two stories” (qtd. in Rule, Wheeler 130). Stories are convergences, perhaps between a surface story, the events, and the underlying theme.

A theme is the main idea, the purpose for writing the essay and the significance of the story in personal writing or the information discovered or shared in informative writing.A theme reveals meaning.


Theme is dependent on the writer’s perspective – his or her insights.

Insights are “glimpses of understanding,” says Denis Ledoux in his book Turning Memories into Memoirs.

“Oh, now I understand what she meant!”

“Ah, that makes sense, she was trying to…”

Insights help us draw conclusions about our stories, lives, research and discoveries. By describing insights (glimpses of understanding) in our essays, we reveal purpose and significance of the experience, the event, or the information presented to our readers. We make sense of our experiences and demonstrate our knowledge, showing how we learn and grow.


Theme depends on our point of view – our interpretation of the story or material or research.

Sometimes as writers, we approach an essay with the theme in mind, but more often the theme unfolds as (or after) we tell the story or reveal our discoveries.

Often we don’t know how to interpret our experiences immediately when they occur, but after looking back on them with a new perspective, we can put them in the context of our lives and see the lessons in them.

Writers use many techniques to weave meaning throughout their essays.

eight simple techniques writers use to express meaning
  • Discuss universal themes or experiences
  • State a clear purpose
  • Go beyond yourself
  • Reflect
  • Compare contrast
  • Examine the subject in wider context
  • Make connections
  • Create metaphors – layers of meaning

These eight techniques will be discussed on the following slides. You will find a writing activity after each discussion.

You will notice a great deal of overlapping advice in these techniques. They are connected, and the intent of each is the same – to express meaning.

Using just one technique may not be enough. Consider combining techniques that are best suited for your topic or narrative.

one discuss universal themes or experiences
ONE: Discuss Universal Themes or Experiences

Personal Writing

A universal theme or experience is a topic or life experience that many of your readers will identify with – things many of us have in common. From the widest point of view, as human beings, most of us have many common experiences – growth and development, becoming independent, learning to love, facing death, laughter, pain, etc. As Americans we have many common cultural experiences – going to school, riding a bike, watching televisions. As families we experience many of the same things – sibling rivalry, responsibility for others, working through problems, living together, breaking up.

To write with meaning, a writer can discuss in general terms a universal theme or experience

I sometimes use the words “philosophical terms” instead of “general terms,” when explaining this to students. Step away from your personal story, change your writing voice from the personal tone of your story to an objective one. Explain your thoughts on the subject or theme in general. Your personal story then becomes an example of this life-theme.

Writers connect to their readers and convey their ideas about specific life experiences by identifying one of these common themes or life experiences and interpreting their ideas about the significance of it.

to discuss universal themes or experiences
To Discuss Universal Themes or Experiences:
  • Frame your story in an abstract idea or life lesson (examples follow)
    • Some teachers may assign a theme (idea or lesson) and ask you to write an essay about it. Here, you have to find a story that matches an idea or concept.
    • Usually this idea is based on an abstract concept… justice, truth, trust, joy, loss, humor, beauty, rejection, acceptance, etc. The writer may explore – explain his or her views or interpretation of or offer insight on an experience where she was treated unjustly; he lost the trust of his parents; she experienced a major loss for the first time; he discovered that a sense of humor is a healthy asset; she experienced the rejection of peers. These are “universal” experiences. We all learn these concepts through personal experience. The writer’s personal story is an example of how that concept came to light in the writer’s life (Rule & Wheeler 133-135).
  • Use objective language to discuss the “idea” or “concept” or step away from the “I” point of view and write objectively about an abstract concept. Interpret it. Explain what you think justice means (for example) to many people.

Expository Writing

Look for universal themes or life experiences in the research or persuasive topic you choose and in the literature or film you analyze.Use these themes to make personal connections or help your readers form connections.

life themes
Life Themes…

Writing professor Peter Elbow suggests that you look for “powerful experiences or interests or preoccupations that shaped your reactions” (291) as topics to base your essays on.

Examples of life themes that many people will connect with are: relations between parents and children, love, sex, divorce, eating, the outdoors, fighting, loneliness, adventure, or breaking free of obligations(Elbow 291).

universal experiences include
Coping with loss

Coping with change

Managing stress

Feeling rejected

Wanting to fit in

Fulfilling a dream

Working hard

Gaining respect

Losing respect

Forming friendships

Believing in justice

Riding a bike

Learning to read

Getting married

Going on first date

Learning to drive

Breaking family bonds

Having a baby

Falling in love

Forming belief system

Feeling insecure

Feeling sad

Universal Experiences Include…
abstract ideas
loss win change stress rejection acceptance dreams work respect friendship injustice justice love hate jealousy anger fear beliefs values humor joy goals want disgust karma

competition courage failure embarrassment inspiration greed obsession excellence hope discipline wish revelation panic luck enemy despair terror envy goodness kindness praise success

Abstract Ideas…


The following is an excerpt from a student essay, used with her permission. Since there is not space or time to read the essay in its entirety, I have highlighted passages that clarify meaning for readers. All words in black are mine. Students’ words are purple.

Vicky wrote a story about stepping on a nest of bees when she was just a child. The bees swarmed her, covered her skin and she was stung multiple times. Interspersed in her story were the following insights:

One summer day started out with enthusiasm and excitement, but for me ended in fear. When children experience a traumatic encounter with fear, it can remain with them throughout their lives.

Later in the paper…It could have been a life and death situation if the bees had left stingers or had I been allergic. Yellow jacket bees leave no stingers, but can sting over and over again. After everything I had just gone through, the doctor commented on how he couldn’t believe I was afraid of a few bee stings.

 She concludes…Although, I physically recuperated from the bee encounter, the fear from that experience has left me extremely guarded when bees enter my domain. I keep a can of spray adhesive on hand to use if a bee should enter my home. The spray adhesive glues the bee wings, leaving it with no way to fly and it drops to the ground instantly. It works fast and that’s for me!

Vicky’s abstract idea (theme) is “fear.” Vicky reminds us of her theme several places in the paper. She weaves it in at appropriate and opportune spots.



The following is an excerpt from a student essay, used with her permission. Since there is not space or time to read the essay in its entirety, I have highlighted passages that clarify meaning for readers. All words in black are mine. Students’ words are purple.

The above examples take a very direct approach to conveying the importance of the subject. Ashley wrote a research paper about ice cream. She worked at The Parlour and clearly enjoyed her job. The joy she observed in the customers, her co-workers, and her feelings about her job led her to this topic. She recognized that in our culture there is a universal love for and interest in ice cream. Indirectly, we can “read” this into her introduction:

In the long hot days of summer one of the favorite things to do is to go down to the local ice cream parlor for a cooling treat. Ice cream comes in many different flavors and textures, from vanilla to beer flavor and from ice cream to sherbet. When I walk into work at Jackson’s local ice cream parlor, the first thing I notice is the sound of people laughing and having a good time. I put on my apron and get to work making the different ice cream sundaes on the fountain. The most popular sundae is the Jr. Pecan Combo followed by the Jr. Banana Split. The coolest part of making sundaes is topping them. We try to make them look the least messy as possible. My apron is usually a disaster within a few hours and it could be said that my fountain partner and I look like we swam in the toppings. But we all have good time making the perfect sundae for our customers.

And her conclusion…At the end of the night we prepare the final sundaes and begin clean up. The worst part of working with ice cream is the fact that it gets everywhere. Every little crack has sprinkles, nuts, or some combination of them. But we turn up the jukebox and make the job a little more fun. Once all the walls are washed, the stainless steel cleaned, and the floors scrubbed, we say goodnight to each other and the whole process begins again in the morning. Ice cream is a treat that can be enjoyed year-round and in many different styles. Throughout the years it has undergone radical changes, with even more changes in the future. While we cannot be sure what the future holds for ice cream and ice cream lovers, we can be sure it will be there in some way, shape or form.

activity 2 themes
Activity 2… Themes

Look at the stories you have written so far and examine them for theme.

What are your stories saying beyond the facts? Finish this sentence for each of several of your stories:

This story shows how it is important for people to….

Continue with these thoughts, writing a paragraph or two, then answer the following questions:

Are you gearing your theme (message) to an intended audience? How has this influenced your plot development, your characterization, and your use of setting?

What have you discovered about your theme while writing? Has the theme changed? How had this affected your interest? (Ledoux 114-8)

two state a clear purpose
TWO: State a Clear Purpose

Personal Writing

  • Explain why you chose to tell the particular story you did. Be specific. Discuss the significance of the event, story or experience with the reader. Whether you do this at the end or the beginning of the essay is up to you. There are advantages to each.
    • Revealing your point of view early in the essay encourages and guides the reader to “see the story in a certain way” and think about your interpretation as he or she reads the essay.
    • Revealing your point of view in the conclusion of the essay encourages the reader to determine the significance of the story, make his or her own connections with the story, and then finally consider how his or her view compared to yours.
  • Either way, you must:
  • Select and include details that support your purpose
  • Caution: Avoid mentioning the essay or assignment itself. Avoid sentences like, “In this essay, I will describe…” and, “The topic of this essay is….”
two state a clear purpose34
TWO: State a Clear Purpose

Expository Writing

A paragraph from Linda’s essay on the next slide is an excellent example of how stating a clear purpose can accomplish two important things:

Topics are more interesting to readers when they can make personal connections, either through the author’s experiences or their own.

A topic is more compelling to readers when they see that an author has some “authority” – personal experience with or knowledge of the topic.

example of clear purpose expository

The following is an excerpt from a student essay, used with her permission. Since there is not space or time to read the essay in its entirety, I have highlighted passages that clarify meaning for readers. All words in black are mine. Students’ words are purple.

Linda wrote a persuasive paper about the importance of urging young women to pursue an education and to learn skills so that they can be independent.

At my age, forty-eight years, I am faced with the ugly truth that people can’t depend on anyone in this world for their own well being. I, after many faithful years of serving as wife and mother was left homeless and penniless. It didn’t matter to anyone that I had no education or means of support. I was left to figure it out on my own. Financial security for women is very important; it is usually the women and children who suffer when a family is split apart. Whether it is due to divorce or death, women need to learn early in life how to take care of themselves first before getting involved with the male of the species. We need to teach our daughters that their lives are important, and they need to be independent and strong, both emotionally and physically.

activity 3 clear purpose
Activity 3… Clear Purpose
  • Choose three topics or issues that you are interested in researching and possibly writing about.
  • For each topic answer the following questions, thoroughly (more than one sentence for each question; offer explanation).
  • Why are you interested in the topic? What personal connections or experience do you have with the topic or issue?
  • What is your purpose for writing about this topic or issue? Would you like to increase awareness, seek change, get others involved, educate others, entertain, etc.?
  • Why should readers be interested in or concerned about this topic? OR -- what might readers find interesting about the issue or topic?
three go beyond yourself
THREE: Go Beyond Yourself

Make your story or personal essay “bigger than you”

Extend the meaning to others

Recognize others who may have had similar experiences

Help readers see how what you learned may apply to or connect to their lives

Author Mitch Albom does this brilliantly in many of pieces. Excerpts from one of his pieces, similar to a character portrait as described in your textbook, are contained on a following slide.

Personal Writing

Go beyond yourself by generalizing to a broader audience

Let your audience know that you understand that they may have had similar experiences. You may wish to acknowledge another way to interpret your experience if you think that your interpretation is unusual or conflicts with the norm.

Expository Writing

Explain why your topic or issue may be important to others

Help readers understand the significance of the issue or topic in their lives

Make connections for readers


Expanding your experience to other people or acknowledging the common view on a topic is a way to construct meaning.

You are connecting the information to what other people may already know.


A fine example from Mitch Albom’s work…


Mitch Albom, columnist, novelist and ex-sportscaster, wrote a wonderful character portrait of his Uncle Eddie as an article “He Was A Champion,” published in Parade Magazine, September 14, 2003. In it he describes Eddie’s physical characteristics, tells stories that Eddie used to tell and describes memories about family gatherings. He gives the readers some personal history about Eddie and uses dialogue that reflects Eddie’s personality. Albom reflects on his own feelings about Eddie from the point of view of when he was kid, and then also describes his observations and feelings from an adult point of view.

  • In this piece there are a couple themes the reader might connect with. There’s a theme about the importance of extended family members. There’s also a theme about loss and death and expressing our feelings to our loved ones while they are still alive. Mitch makes readers think about these ideas by stepping away from the story about Eddie and addressing the theme(s).
  • For example, there’s a paragraph in the middle of Mitch’s story that says,
    • They say that uncles stand to the side, that fathers and grandfathers have a more direct line to the child. But uncles, perhaps because of that distance, can be glorified in ways that others cannot, and as a boy I glorified Eddie. He was the champion in my family tree – and stronger than anyone I knew.
  • This is generalizing. This paragraph may make readers think about their own uncles or male role models, or aunts or female role models for that matter. The writer speculates about the role played by uncles, in general.
  • A paragraph at the end focuses on another theme, love and loss and regret, drawing the reader in with the use of “we.”
    • We all have wonderful people in our lives – but when they’re gone, it seems, all we can do is miss them. I miss Eddie’s quiet toughness. I miss our phone calls from the airport. I rub my arm now, where Eddie would have punched me, and I realize that I have never met anyone as magical as my uncle seemed to me as a boy. He should have known that. And I wish I had told him.

Mitch Albom continued…

When Mitch says “we,” he’s talking to his readers; he’s talking to and about people in general. He makes these general comments to the readers and then returns to his personal story, the example of his theme.

The comments make Mitch’s personal story about his uncle a story of uncles (the story is not just about HIS uncle, but all uncles), in general, or of loss and death and regrets (not just his, but ours, too), in general. These paragraphs give the story a universal appeal. Don’t most of us have people like Eddie in our lives? Haven’t most of us experienced loss or death of a loved one? Haven’t many of us wished we had expressed our feelings to someone we have lost? We, the readers, then identify with the story. We connect it to our own love, loss and family experiences. The connection you feel as a reader gives the story meaning.

The introduction and the conclusion are good places to discuss the meaning, purpose or theme of your essay. By introducing your theme early, you, the writer, direct readers’ thoughts to a particular topic or issue connected to your story. Writer’s often return to that theme at the end with a new or additional point made clear from the story or from reflection, looking back on the event. But many good stories have thematic comments throughout. Rick Bragg’s 100 mph…. (in St. Martin’s textbook) is also a good example.

Mr. Albom has used techniques one and three: theme development and going beyond himself. He also steps away from “I,” using “we” to connect with the reader(s) and uses objective language to discuss theme.

activity 4 beyond yourself
Activity 4… Beyond Yourself

Look at the draft of your first essay or essays. Find places (more than one) where you can “go beyond yourself” by generalizing or by including your audience or recognizing a common experience. Add lines to emphasize these points. Develop your abstract ideas in these ways.

Highlight these revisions in your essay or write the lines on your answer page for this workshop.

four reflect
FOUR: Reflect

Personal Writing

To reflect means to “look back.” When you write about an event that happened in the past, the passing of time automatically gives you a new perspective on the event. Re-examine the impact of the experience.

Ideas for Making Meaning:

Speculate about people’s behaviors; examine motivation for observable behaviors; make reasonable guesses about your own and other character’s behavior based on the facts and circumstances of the story and its context

Discuss the consequences

Draw conclusions

Examine belief systems

Ask questions… I wonder? What if?

Ask, “So What?”

Consider the possibility of change

Understand and reveal how emotions can influence decisions or actions and help readers reflect on the importance of the decision or action

Explain the impact of what you’ve learned on your thinking or action

four reflect on the material gathered
FOUR: Reflect on the Material Gathered

Expository Writing

  • Ideas for Making Meaning:
  • It isn’t enough to collect information without assessing the meaning or value of what you’ve seen and heard. What have you learned? How might this topic, issue, event or person reveal something about our lives or the time in which we live? What is your final personal reaction?
  • A conclusion doesn’t need to be profound, but careful reflection should lead you to some understanding of the subjective beliefs, lifestyle, problems, or cultural values that are represented by this one topic, issue, event or individual – and perhaps show you how those might relate to society as a whole (Bertabnoll, Rackham 88).
  • Look back, step away from the event, issue, person or experience. Discuss the meaning of it today, a later time, as compared with the thoughts and feelings expressed in the essay or story.

Reflection can occur in the moment. It can be a pause and self-prompting that one uses in the midst of [writing or telling]. To employ this second level of thinking allows one to consider intention and choices even as we perform them (Baldwin).



The following is an excerpt from a student essay, used with her permission. Since there is not space or time to read the essay in its entirety, I have highlighted passages that clarify meaning for readers. All words in black and red are mine. Students’ words are purple. -----------------------------------------------------------

Denise wrote about a trip to Mexico. After describing her experience there, her paper concludes with a reflection:

When I returned from Mexico I believe I was changed. I have a whole new outlook on what material objects really mean to me. I put my family first that is for sure. I was never truly conscious of how much food people in America actually waste. I now try to throw away as little as possible and only serve myself what I am going to finish.

I realized that the Mexican people I met did not really have their eyes open. They did not have million dollar houses; they had shacks, yet they were happy. They did not have brand name clothes or shoes, yet they were happy. I wondered how they could be so happy and not have all of the stuff that I used to consider happiness for any teenager. I now understand that the reason that the people from Las Olivas are so happy is because they do not realize they are missing anything. When my family was tight on money I never felt like I was missing anything either, but when we became well off, I wanted everything. Happiness lies in the hearts of those with little and might never be reached by those who have a lot.

activity 5 reflection
Activity 5… Reflection


Students have written about personal traits that describe or define their character. One student wrote about procrastination and how that habit affected her life. Others tell tales of first loves or of painful losses, the randomness of luck or the long lasting effects of abuse. The outstanding essays are the ones in which the writers reflected on what the traits or experiences mean in their lives and possibly in other people’s lives.

Select a personal trait that describes a way that you typically behave. Reflect; look back. Describe how that trait or quality has influenced your life. Be specific (6). Speculate on the origin of the trait. Ask questions. Consider change. Examine consequences. What have you learned about yourself and about others?

five compare contrast or explore then and now
FIVE: Compare Contrast or Explore Then and Now

Personal Writing

  • Ideas for Comparing and Contrasting… Reveal how perspective, thoughts, ideas changed with time
  • Use thoughtshots to reveal what you were thinking and feeling at the time; reflect at the end on what you think and feel now, looking back
  • Manipulate time; compare the relationship of one day to every day (Bomer 160). Why or how did this day stand out? Explain why or how it came to be so important. How did it differ from all other days?More explanation follows…

We make meaning based on our point of view and perspective, how we see things.

  • Our reality in the stories we tell comes from our point of view.
  • We can change how we see things.
  • Sometimes it takes an outside observer (or reader) to help us see things differently.
  • We see things differently after experiencing new things, maturing and gaining new knowledge.
  • Meaning can change as we learn, grow and begin to reflect on our experiences in the bigger picture. 

My niece at age nice and…

As we grow, accumulate new experiences and

mature, change in perspective is inevitable.

my mother-in-law at age 82, see the world very differently from each other.

our views change with new knowledge
Our views change with new knowledge…

When we’re four or five, tying our shoes or riding a bike seem like daunting tasks. But, soon we realize they are very simple skills.

Many teens struggle through adolescence, a time when they are easily influenced by peers and will do almost anything to fit in. When we’re older and look back on that time, we often wonder what we were thinking and why that seemed so important. Most young adults prefer to be their own person.

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FIVE: Compare Contrast or Explore Then and Now

Expository Writing

“When writing of a past event, it’s easy to return to the same frame of mind you were in at the time the event occurred. Yet the advantage to looking back is the added perspective of the time that has passed” (Rule, Wheeler 133). On September 11, 2001 you had a reaction to the events that occurred that day. You felt and thought a certain way. Now, looking back, perhaps you see the bigger picture and the consequences. Perhaps your feelings have changed. Compare and contrast those differences.

Consider the possibility of a change in your way of thinking If, after writing your story, research, or analysis and reflecting on it, you come to the conclusion that your thoughts and ideas were not productive or conducive to future positive outcomes, consider (like thinking out loud) the possibility of change. Describe a new outlook and your reasons for it (Idea from IN TIME).



The following is an excerpt from a student essay, used with his permission. Since there is not space or time to read the essay in its entirety, I have highlighted passages that clarify meaning for readers. All words in black are mine. Students’ words are purple.

Zak wrote an essay describing his younger brother Nick and their relationship. The following insights are scattered throughout the essay. They keep his theme alive from beginning to end. The theme ties all the little stories and descriptions together.

 Zak’s opening sentence…

There’s nothing quite like brotherly love.Statement of theme.


My psychology professor told our class that siblings don’t tend to be much alike. In the case of Nick and me, my professor was completely right.

Having a little brother whom you have never lost to in any sport beat you for the first time might be the worst feeling the world for an older brother.

Growing up, our differences led to many conflicts.Insight

As a child, I never really had much confidence, which led to a shortage of girlfriends. Compares then and now.

As many people say, you don’t appreciate what you have until it is gone. Acknowledges what people say.

As I grow older, I’m starting to see Nick less as an annoying little brother and more as a friend. Compares then and now.


It’s ironic that the little brother that I grew up hating and fighting with is actually a factor in which college I will choose.Insight

activity 6 compare contrast
Activity 6…Compare, Contrast

Choose and briefly describe one event from your childhood that you saw differently then than you see it now. Describe the different points of view. Describe insights. What do you know now that you didn’t know then?

In most truthful accounts of childhood by adults, a tension builds between the childlike way of doing and perceiving and the writer’s present ways. Like most tension in communication, it often breaks open new insights for the writer and reader. The child can never know the adult completely or the adult the child, but in the act of writing, the writer momentarily constructs a bridge. There’s danger for you as a writer walking there. But also the chance you may get over to the other side where you’ve never been before. Compare and contrast what you knew then and what you know now (Macrorie 115).

When you work with then and now on the page, meaning will emerge. Through revision, you may be able to separate what you thought and felt at the time from how you regard the event now. This is revision in its truest incarnation, re-seeing (Rule, Wheeler 133).

six examine the subject in a wider context
SIX: Examine the Subject in a Wider Context

Personal Writing


Reveal the bigger picture, e.g. give the experience or story historical perspective or family context

  • Reveal larger truths; your story is most likely an example of an experience that many people can and will identify with – discuss the “life truth” you see in the experience. Your truth may be influenced by your life position (next slide).
  • Tell large truths about childhood and how it differs from adulthood when you put down a telling fact that draws others to it, you may be able to go through them to a significant finding about childhood. If you don’t come up with such a larger truth, a significance, you may still have an account that takes your readers back into your childhood and brings it alive so much that they find themselves also moving back into theirs (Macrorie 117).
  • Select details that [support] the larger truth about our lives (Bomer 160).Try to see the general in the particular, the big in the little, and in doing so, to valorize the fine fiber of your experience (Bomer 165).
life positions
Life Positions…

“We cannot step outside of the positions we occupy, and these positions tend to affect how we [write].

Can you see in your [writing] any effects of your age? Your gender? The region where you live? Your race? Your nationality? Your class? Your sexual orientation? Your occupation?”

(Elbow 291)

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SIX: Examine the Subject in a Wider Context

Expository Writing

If your angle seems too narrow – not yielding enough meaning – try backing away, looking at the subject in a wider context. What else was going on your life (or the world) at the time that would make you see the event in a particular way, or influence how you thought about it? (Rule, Wheeler 133)

Explain how your life position influences your view of the experience, event, issue, or topic.

Place the topic or event in context. It may be historical context. It may be the context of your life, your family. It may be the context of all of science or just your discovery.


activity 7 context
Activity 7… Context

Give an example of how your race, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, age or occupation has influenced your view of an issue or event.

Put that same issue or event in historical context. What else was going on in the world at the same time?

seven make connections
SEVEN: Make Connections

Personal Writing

  • Use “thoughtshots” to carry on the theme or idea (Lane 44)Just as writers make physical snapshots, they can also take a snapshot of the thoughts in their characters’ heads, or in their own mind. A thoughtshot can be used in both fiction and nonfiction writing.
  • A thoughtshost in personal writing is simply a look at what a character is thinking and feeling.
  • Thoughtshots often draw a frame around a story or essay. They place events in a context and give the reader and the writer a reason to be interested.
  • Thoughshots can seem like a conversation with your reader.
  • Ask, “so what?”What do I stand to discover as I write on this subject? What do I want to see in a new way or ways? Am I writing to understand? (Rule, Wheeler 131) Also, what do you want you reader to see, to learn, to understand?

One way we make meaning is to connect new information to what we know…

When we read another person’s story, our minds try to connect that story with what we know. If we read a story about the experience of divorce, we may try to connect it to our own

family situation or other families we

are familiar with. We interpret the meaning based on what the author says, our ability to empathize, and own experiences. We are making meaning of life experiences.

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SEVEN: Make Connections

Expository Writing

In research writing, thoughtshots are often found in the first sentence of paragraphs. They are the skeletons on which the facts and examples are hung and from which unanswered questions grow (Lane 44).

Other Ideas…

  • Explain your personal interest and connection to the topic
  • Connect new material to old, new notions or ideas to old
  • Make connections for and to your readers


Let’s say you wrote an essay about the damage and economic impact of Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005. Your essay might focus on the loss of life, property, and livelihoods of the people who lived in the Gulf Coast region.

To examine the subject in a wider context, you could also discuss the impact of the storm on those individuals dependent on goods or commerce based in Gulf region who live away from storm damaged area. For example, many Midwest farmers had difficulty transporting goods because of damaged ports on the Mississippi River.

And, to make even more personal connections, you could discuss the impact of the storm to those of us in Jackson county, such as the temporary increase in lumber prices and lack of availability of wood products because lumber was diverted to high need storm-damaged areas, the temporary increase in fuel prices, local agencies and volunteers who became involved in relief efforts, or your own personal commitment to help.

Readers are drawn in when they see connections to their own lives, when they can understand the impact of an event in a personal way.

inquiry skills used in critical thinking and making connections
Inquiry skills used in critical thinking and making connections…











activity 8 connections
Activity 8… Connections

Pose a question. A real question – one you don’t know the answer to but want to explore. You might question your goals, your marriage, your former friend’s life choices, your religion, how to survive in a hostile neighborhood. You may want to examine more fully an event that left you wondering or with feeling you’d like to clarify. Tackle the question on the page. Speculate, comment, discover and most of all, make connections. (Rule & Wheeler 136). Use thoughtshots, make connections for your readers, connect to your readers, connect new ideas to old, ask questions, etc.


EIGHT: Create Layers of Meaning

Personal Writing

“Metaphorical thinking may produce surprising connections and offbeat understandings”(Romano 117).

(www.tremainsmith.com/ LayersofMeaning.html)

using metaphors
Using Metaphors…

We use metaphors quite often in our speech to express moods and feelings. The color “blue” can be a metaphor for feeling down. “Sunshine” can be a metaphor for a bright and cheerful disposition. Metaphors as explained above may also be extended or developed. In the journey of life we cross bridges, forge streams, and come to splits in the road, etc. This reference to life as a journey has become cliché, of course. As a writer, you want your metaphors to be fresh and original.

  • Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.”
metaphor and story



A simple story can have three layers of meaning. First, there’s the plot -- the series of events that make up the story. That plot is supported by a theme (the second layer) -- the main idea, the life lesson, the universal experience, the purpose for telling the story. A third layer may be metaphor.

Metaphor and Story…
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Metaphor and Story…

An excellent example of combining metaphor and story that some of you may know is from Rick Bragg, the writer and comedian, who wrote a piece about his adolescence called “100 Miles per Hour, Upside Down and Sideways.” Bragg’s story consists of a surface plot about the pleasures of owning the car of his dreams and the demise of that car. Underlying the plot is a theme about wanting to fit in and be popular. This theme is “universal” in nature, because many adolescents feel this way or can at least understand the social desire. But another layer, really the most satisfying to many readers, is how the car symbolizes Bragg himself. Bragg’s status and self-esteem rise and fall with ownership and loss of the car. This is a beautifully constructed essay and can be enjoyed on all three levels.

eight create layers of meaning
EIGHT: Create Layers of Meaning

Expository Writing

Metaphors can help readers understand difficult concepts.

Metaphors can lend a “mood” or “tone” to factual information.

Perspective in representational art is line drawn on paper to give us depth perception. In language it is much the same. We use words as lines from which we draw meaning. The art of our imagery can be clear and sharp or abstract and fanciful. Metaphor is a means by which we derive depth of meaning in our communication and writing. When we view and assess another’s work of art – just as we make judgments on another’s writing – we bring our own experience and viewpoint to whatever we encounter (Pugh et al. 69).

Use metaphor effectively. Aristotle said, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor…. Since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of [the] similarity in the dissimilar” (qtd. in Baldwin).



The following is an excerpt from a student essay, used with her permission. Since there is not space or time to read the essay in its entirety, I have highlighted passages that clarify meaning for readers. All words in black are mine. Students’ words are purple.

Linda used the metaphor of “death” to describe her experience and reveal the meaning of divorce after a 30-year marriage. She also shows insight and reflective thought throughout. She introduces the metaphor in the opening sentence by simply writing:

I remember the day I started to die.

I, like many women who don’t know what it means to really be loved by someone, would consider this love.Insight

I visualize the devil in his long black cape and red bloody eyes, stalking me out as a young child only to give me nothing but pain and sorrow for thirty years. This was the Devil that I came to know I my marriage.Continuation of metaphorI guess I wanted to be loved by someone mo matter the cost.Insight

 Looking back I can compare it to some kind of cult from the sixties, where the members, like me, give up every possession and have a vacant star in their eyes.Reflection

My divorce was final on February 15, 2001. I lost everything I owned, two homes, boats, several cars, and a dog that I loved very much. In spite of all this, I continue to look forward as best I can. I live on very little money and go to college to show my children and myself that anything is possible at any age. Facing my slow death has equipped me with the strength that I will need to pursue a degree in nursing. I can still make a difference in my own life and others. Everyday I try to make that happen with each opportunity that arises. You might say that I have been reborn.Return to the theme

activity 9 metaphors
Activity 9… Metaphors

“We use our experiences to help us define and measure the changes in our lives, from the passage of time to the rite of passage. Metaphors not only express transitions imaginatively but also lead us to insight about our changes. We may retreat from changes like a turtle into its shell. We may open windows when the doors are closed” (Pugh et al.84).

Create a metaphor that describes the way you socially interact. For example, are you shy, outgoing, reserved, or a jokester?

Describe yourself with a metaphor and elaborate on the description.

Think of a news event you heard about or a community event you attended recently. Describe it. Now find and describe a metaphor that you might use in describe the event. Elaborate as much as possible.

themes and meaning develop in one of two ways
Themes and Meaning Develop in One of TwoWays…
  • Write your essay
  • Look for life themes or universal experiences in your story OR

Look for abstract ideas that are directly connected to your story

Decide which of the seven techniques discussed here best fit your information

3. Develop and discuss the theme or ideas (life themes, universal experiences, or abstract ideas, compare, contrast, draw conclusion, connect new information to old, etc.) in your essay


(continued on next slide)

themes and meaning develop in one of two ways71
Themes and Meaning Develop in One of TwoWays…
  • Build your story around a life-theme or abstract idea. Approach your expository essay with a topic and technique to develop in mind.
  • Introduce your theme in the opening paragraph.
  • Tell your story or using details, thoughtshots, and comments to support the theme. Present your research of information focusing on the details most important to your theme or idea.
  • Comment, again, on the theme in the closing paragraphs.

Add photo or clip art

Sea Life in Tide Pool

warning common problems and pitfalls
Warning!! Common Problems and Pitfalls…

Common problemsoften are a result of trying too hard (sounds fake), not being honest to the experience, taking the safe way out or not risking any emotional investment in the story or interpretation, being too close to an emotional event, or just not thinking very hard about it.

common mistakes solutions
Using clichés to interpret meaning

“I learned that life is short.”

“I shouldn’t take things for granted.”

Saying things everyone will like

Going too far (overgeneralization)

Misinterpreting cause and effect

Giving the impression the situation is either black or white

Articulating someone else’s beliefs, not our own

Avoid clichés; use original words and specific examples

Remain true to your story or research and your opinions

Avoid pronouns like everyone and anyone

Analyze the issues carefully; make sure your claims are accurate

Demonstrate your understanding of the fact that most problems, issues, controversies are complex; present multiple points of view

Remain true to your beliefs; examine where those beliefs come from

Common Mistakes -- Solutions
activity 10 technique overview
Activity 10… Technique Overview

Part 1:Identify (by explaining or highlighting and labeling on your essays) where you have used any of these techniques in your essays.

Part 2:Which of the eight techniques discussed would best fit the essay topic(s) you’ve chosen? Explain why.

Part 3:Check your essays to make sure you’ve avoided the pitfalls and common errors listed. Use original words and specific details to express meaning and change.

final bits of advice about finding meaning from business consultant francis baldwin
Final Bits of Advice about Finding Meaningfrom business consultant Francis Baldwin…

Stay aware of your internal process and feelings.

Trust that others are capable of understanding your message.

Express complex ideas in simple, clear language.

Clarify the experiences that you have already had.

We must also have in our awareness the intent, the desire, to bring clarity, make meaning and create new experiences for ourselves and our [readers]. People have such diverse life experiences and contexts. Sometimes we need to return to the models and see if our fixtures and pictures of reality are aligned.


Students often think that their stories and discoveries aren’t important, that they have nothing interesting to say or nothing exciting has ever happened in their lives. But, meaningful stories are found in everyday life and in simple discoveries, in our daily interactions with people and in our own research. Our interpretation of these events, experiences and discoveries is crucial to their written presentation.

“Trust that your way of seeing and thinking and feeling and knowing are worth writing about.”

(Rule, Wheeler 19)

final reflection
Final Reflection…

Writing with Meaning


Now that you have spent some time in this workshop, answer the following questions:

What new ideas were presented??

What information did you find most helpful and why?

What do you want to learn more about?

How do you plan to use specific information presented here to revise and edit your papers?

This evaluation, along with your activities from this workshop serve to verify that you completed the workshop Writing with Meaning.

Please give your evaluation along with the work from the activities in this workshop to your writing instructor as proof of completion.


Works Cited

Albom, Mitch. “ He Was A Champion.” Parade Magazine. 14 Sep.2003.

Axelrod, Rise & Charles Cooper. The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing Seventh Edition. 100mph, Upside Down and Sideways.

Baldwin, Frances. “Creating Meaning through Language.” Fieldnotes: A Newsletter of the Shambhala Institute. Issue 5 (2004). 7 Jul. 2004. <http://www.shambhalainstitute.org/Fieldnotes/Issue5/baldwin_I5.pdf>

Bertabnoll, Olivia and Jeff Rackham. From Sight to Insight: The Writing Process Sixth Edition. Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Bomer, Katherine. Writing a Life: Teaching Memoir. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005.

Bomer, Randy. Time for Meaning: Crafting Literate Lives in Middle & High School. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995.

“Critical Thinking and Decision Making.” IN TIME. 1999-2001. 7 Jul. 2004. <http://www.intime.uni.edu/model/democracy/crit.html>

Elbow, Peter and Pat Belanoff. A Community of Writers Second Edition. New York: McGraw Hill Inc., 1995.

Lane, Barry. After the End: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann,1993.

Ledoux, Denis. Turning Memories into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories. Lisbon Falls, Maine: Soleil Press, 1993.

Macrorie, Ken. Telling Writing Fourth Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook Heinemann, 1985.

“Patterns in the Mind.” Visual Concept. 9 Sep. 2003. 9 Jul. 2004. <www.visual-concept.co.uk/patternsmind.htm>

“Power Sharing and Empowerment.” IN TIME. 1999-2001. 7 Jul. 2004. <http://www.intime.uni.edu/model/democracy/empo.html>

Pugh, Sharon L., Jean Wolph Hicks and Maria Davis. Metaphorical Ways of Knowing: The Imaginative Nature of Thought and Expression. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997.

Romano, Tom. Writing with Passion: Life Stories, Multiple Genres. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook Heinemann, 1995.

Rule, Rebecca and Susan Wheeler. True Stories: Guides for Writing from Your Life. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000.