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Editing for word choice


In this lesson, students bring second drafts to class for close-editing on word choice. The teacher or student leader gives two mini-lessons, one on identifying and reducing use of auxiliary or “helping” verbs and one on selecting original verbs in simple present tense and simple past tense.



  • Students will identify verb trends in second-draft writing and experiment with original verbs in the simple present tense and simple past tense in an attempt to keep writing efficient, fresh and active.
  • Students will improve at least 10 verbs or verb phrases in a piece of second-draft writing.
  • Students will aim to improve the degree of originality in five or more verbs or verb phrases and simplify the verb tense in five or more verbs or verb phrases, for a total of 10 altered phrases.


Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.


CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.8 Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.5 Analyze in detail how an author’s ideas or claims are developed and refined by particular sentences, paragraphs or larger portions of a text (e.g., a section or chapter).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.


50-70 minutes



Completed second drafts of student writing

Scratch paper

Rubric: Editing for word choice

Differentiated Resources — support for ELL and special education students

Slideshow: Editing for word choice

Handout: Editing for word choice


Lesson step-by-step
1. Introduction — 10 minutes

Explain to students that not all revision is the same, and it shouldn’t be. Soliciting true change for honest writing is no easy task and requires a variety of approaches. “Surface revision” is when authors cut, move, rearrange or add sentences; expand, merge or collapse sentences; or alter details, description and phrasing. To steal a comparison from “Teaching Adolescent Writers” by Kelly Gallagher, surface revision is akin to giving a car a new paint job, reupholstering the ceiling lining or replacing the tires. It is not deep revision, and it is not final revision.

(Final revision involves proofing for grammar, spelling and AP Style and making decisions about font and paper choice. More about deep revision can be found in this curriculum.)

Revision usually happens in this order: deep revision, surface revision, final revision.

This lesson works on the level of surface revision. Generally, students will workshop writing on the surface level in two workshops: one on identifying and reducing repeated use of auxiliary or “helping” verbs, and one on selecting original verbs. Selecting original verbs adds voice and color to a piece of writing, and consistently reducing one’s use of auxiliary verbs in favor of simple present tense verbs and simple past tense verbs can add power and energy. In this lesson, students attempt both.

2. Verb activity — 30 minutes

Instruct students to circle all verb phrases in a piece of second-draft writing. This piece of writing may be the student’s own writing or a piece of writing the teacher has chosen for the class. Move around the room to assist students and clarify what constitutes a verb or verb phrase. Next, ask students to list the circled verb phrases down the left-hand side of a piece of scratch paper. When students have listed the verbs, ask what trends they see.

Students should examine their lists to look for:

  • Repeated verbs
  • Long verb phrases
  • Weak or common verbs
  • Lots of helper, auxiliary verbs
  • To-be verbs or strings of -ing verbs

Project a list of auxiliary or “helping” verbs for students to look at: will, shall, is, are, was, were, may, might, must, can, could, would, should, have, has, had, am, be, been, do, did, does.

Next, ask students to improve their verbs by rewriting their sentences to make verbs fresh and tight. Instruct them to give verbs voice and originality. Keep verbs in simple present tense and simple past tense. Consider guided practice or modeling to help students identify verbs ending with -ing, for example, and rewrite a few together as a class.

3. Analyzing professional writing — 20 minutes

Write the following paragraph on the board or project it for students to read as a class.

The morning woods were utterly new. A strong yellow light came between the trees; I saw my shadow, and then I didn’t… The snakes were out — I was a bright, smashed one on the path -— and the butterflies were flying all around…

List the verbs from the paragraph.

Were flying

Share with students that the passage is from a book called “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard — but that excerpt is not the real version. This was a modified version with weak verbs. Next, share the real version:

The morning woods were utterly new. A strong yellow light pooled between the trees; my shadow appeared and vanished on the path… The snakes meandered — I saw a bright, smashed one on the path — and the butterflies were vaulting and furling about…

Here are the verbs from the actual piece:


Note how Dillard used one auxiliary or “helping” verb and how verbs are not repeated. Her verbs are unusual and written in the simple past tense. There’s power in the simple past tense and the simple present tense.

Provide another example via whiteboard or projection device.

Bad: I had been running.
Better, in the simple past tense: I ran.
Bad: I am running.
Better, in the simple present tense: I run.

4. Application — 20 minutes

Now, allow students time to make similar changes to their own writing.

5. Debrief — 10 minutes

Ask the class to reflect together on the experience. What was hard? What was easy? Discuss as a class or use these questions as an exit ticket.



The concepts addressed in this lesson may be new to many secondary students. Using the rubric provided, evaluate students’ willingness to experiment with quality and tense of verbs and verb phrases even if the experiments are not always successful.