Machete or Scalpel?

Two and a half weeks from the end of the school year and I’m lucky enough to have kids clamoring to learn! A testament to my mad teacher skills? Unfortunately, no. Rather, they are desperately motivated by the elusive “perfect” college application essay. Several years ago my colleagues and I started finishing our year in AP Language with work on college application essays because we discovered that it is one of the easiest ways to keep the kids invested after the test in early May.  We don’t actually grade them or even collect final drafts, but we spend our last weeks of school knee-deep in writer’s workshop as the students struggle through this high stakes writing and work to produce something of which they can be proud.


This year, I’ve been doing daily Google Form “Status of the Class” check-ins to get the pulse of the class and figure out what they need from me in the form of mini lessons. In a recent form, a common theme quickly emerged: word count. They are all way over the dreaded 650 Common Application word limit.  They all need to cut things, but I realized that they needed  some focused instruction on which tool to use: machete or scalpel?


Being Concise




I feel for these students. These are the ones who have a thousand words of genius and no idea where to start cutting. I’ve been there. I wish I’d caught these kids a week ago and helped them figure out how to plan a little more deliberately. Next year, I’ll do a mini lesson on pre-planning for word count:

  • Write a paragraph
  • Count the number of words
  • Plan how much of the piece is left
  • Think about how realistic it is to tell the rest of your story in X many words.


Since it’s too late for them to do that, they have some hard choices to make. Whole chunks need to go. Thwump. Perhaps the story/event/idea itself is too big. Thwump. Maybe all that “exploding the moment” is overkill. Thwump.

For some students, machete-style cutting is too painful and they may just wish to start over. Frustrating, for sure, but it’s a reality of high-stakes, word-limit driven writing.




Most students, thankfully, are more in need of a scalpel.  These students are over by 100 words or so and just need to be more concise.  The problem is that in their desire to be concise,  many of them remove the best things! Lovely little details that add an air of authenticity are often the first to go because the students deem them unnecessary. Students need practice finding places to tighten up their writing and about small changes:

  • Trimming out unnecessary words
  • Combining sentences and playing with punctuation
  • Swapping wordy phrases for stronger verbs


To help my students see the process of precision cutting, I walked them through the process in a student’s essay. She and I had been talking about her need to trim the essay the day before in a writing conference, but she wasn’t exactly sure where to start.


Her original:



There are a lot of nice details in there, but the whole essay is well over 700 words at this point. Some hard choices have to be made. First, I walked them through the process of trimming out excess words or repetitive phrases. Things  cut were marked in red and things added or changed were in green.



That was a great first step, but then it was time to get a little more creative with the syntax. There were some places in the second paragraph where some parallel structure might make things more succinct and a short fragment might call attention to the main idea:



At this point in the lesson, the students were ready to get a little wild with their scalpels. Could we combine the two paragraphs into two? Let’s see if it works:



By the end, I wondered how the student writer felt about all the carving up we had done on her draft.  Her meaning hadn’t changed, but the flow had. This was a great place to address a writer’s choices and peer revision. Peer revision is about giving suggestions; writers can take those suggestions or not.  Perhaps she will keep some of the changes and abandon others. Maybe the changes will inspire even more.  The key with this type of careful trimming is to consider the possibilities. When writers are thoughtful and careful with their cuts–when they use the precision necessary for a scalpel–they can move their writing in a more concise, focused direction.




How do you encourage careful revision when students have a tight word limit? Do you have any tricks to share for helping them see the possibilities? Comment below or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie


  1. Great metaphor for kids, and I enjoyed the student example.

    I’m more intrigued right now by your Status of the Class Google form. I’d love to hear more about that. Do students complete it upon entering? Beginning of independent work time? What recurring questions do you pose? Thanks for any info!

    1. Thanks! I use it a few different ways. Sometimes, when I need to know who needs to confer with me the most, I have students complete it at the beginning of class. I usually ask them what they’re planning on doing during workshop time and then have them give a scaled response for how much they need to talk to me (1=no need to 4=mayday, mayday!). Other times, I ask them to complete it by the end of class to get a feel for what they need from me for next steps. I’ve had most success when I give them 3-4 options from which they can choose. I’ve found that open ended questions usually elicit less specific responses. Hope that helps! Let me know if you need more info! Google forms have saved me so much time with workshop and I feel like I have a much better handle on who needs what.

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