The Kerrigan method of ‘Writing to the Point’

by Grace

I’ve long admired the writing technique espoused by William Kerrigan in Writing to the Point (WTTP).  His simple multi-step process is so appealing as an instructional method, especially for struggling students.  After an excessive delay of several years, I finally decided to read the book and learn the method in detail.  It’s a personal project.   So far I have read and  studied the chapters that cover Steps 1 and 2.

Catherine Johnson first introduced me to Kerrigan when she posted about the book on Kitchen Table Math, where she provided an excellent summary of his six-step method in this post.  Here are the first two steps.

STEP 1. Write a short, simple declarative sentence that makes one statement. (Chapter 1, page 6)

STEP 2. Write three sentences about the sentence in Step 1—clearly and directly about the whole of that sentence, not just something in it. (Chapter 2, page 18.)


A shorthand way to refer to the first two steps is X-1-2-3, where X is the Step 1 sentence and 1-2-3 are the three sentences in Step 2.  Here are some X-1-2-3 sentences I wrote for my Chapter 2 assignment.

X  Autumn is an exhilarating time of year.
1. It is a time of colorful foliage.
2. It is a time of crisp weather.
3. It is a time of fun-filled activities.

Hosting a teen party can be nerve-wracking.
1. Hosting involves vigilance to make sure that alcohol is not consumed.
2. Hosting involves taking responsibility for other parents’ children.
3. Hosting involves taking care the house is not damaged by boisterous teens.

X  The Penn State scandal is a tragic event.
1. The scandal devastated the victims.
2. The scandal damaged the school’s reputation.
3. The scandal arose from serious deficiencies in a community’s value system.

I welcome feedback, even if you’re unfamiliar with WTTP.  I’m still not sure about Sentence 3 from the Penn State topic.  Actually, the X Sentence may be the part that needs revision; maybe “tragic” is not the right word.

8/20/13 UPDATE – All posts in this series:

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15 Responses to “The Kerrigan method of ‘Writing to the Point’”

  1. About the roadmap paragraph, I haven’t gotten to that chapter yet. 🙂

    Actually, I don’t think Kerrigan addresses roadmaps, but it seems he might say they’re unnecessary and to avoid them if possible. I personally like roadmaps, which would seem to be helpful in longer papers.

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  2. The writer also needs to be aware of formatting basics — extra spaces within sentences and the now-mandatory one space after a period rather than two.

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  3. “now-mandatory one space after a period rather than two”

    Hmm, didn’t get that memo. I’ll change sometime, but for now my old-fogey habit is hard to break. 🙂

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  4. The 1-space rule came in with personal computers! (btw, I LOVE Robin Williams’s books on design, one of which is called The Mac is Not a Typewriter.)

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  5. I think the reason Sentence 3 bothers you may be that the verb in Sentence X is “is.” ‘Be’-verbs in X-1-2-3 stacks are tricky, I think. At least, that’s what I’ve found so far, teaching composition.

    Basically, a be-verb turns Sentence X into a definition: Something is something.

    If you start with “Something is something,” then by the logic of X-1-2-3 you end up with:

    X Something is something.
    1 Something is something else.
    2 Something is another something else.
    3 Something is yet another something else.

    This stack seems reasonable, but in practice, at least in my class, it hasn’t worked out. So far, my students and I haven’t come up with a simple declarative ‘be’-verb sentence we could use as a thesis.

    Example: when I assigned a definition paper about fables, one student came up with “A fable is a short story that teaches a lesson.”

    I think that’s a terrific thesis, but it’s not a simple declarative sentence. It’s a complex sentence. But if you try to boil it down to a simple declarative sentence, you run into problems.

    A fable is a short story?

    Not exactly, and definitely not as interesting as “a short story that teaches a lesson”.

    A fable is a lesson?

    No.

    It’s hard.

    In the Penn state stack, Sentence X says that the scandal is a tragic event: Something is something.
    Sentences 1 and 2 give us reasons **why** it’s a tragic event, and both of these sentences have transitive verbs: Something **did** something.
    Then Sentence 3 gives us a reason why the event occurred in the first place (not why it’s tragic) — and it has an intransitive verb. In Sentence 3, “the scandal” doesn’t do anything bad TO anyone or anything; instead, it arises (from something else altogether).

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your Sentence X. (In fact, I wonder whether ‘be’ verbs show us the limits of the X-1-2-3 method. Not sure.) I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with shifting from ‘is’ to the transitive verbs ‘devastated’ and ‘damaged.’ To keep the stack consistent, I would come up with a third transitive verb that continues the theme of damage and devastation (the obvious candidate being ‘destroyed’).

    In the essay, you wouldn’t have to get rid of the observation that “The scandal arose from serious deficiencies in a community’s value system,” but that line of thought would be subordinate to the main points you’re making in this particular essay.

    I need to take a look at Kerrigan’s X-1-2-3s to see if he always uses the same verb in his stacks. I’m thinking he may.

    My favorite Kerrigan set:

    Power corrupts.
    It corrupts the weak.
    It corrupts the strong.
    It corrupts all the relations between the two.

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  6. “The scandal arose from serious deficiencies in a community’s value system.”

    My head hurts after spending a few minutes trying to find a better option. 🙂

    I’m certain this method has its limitations, but I’d like to wait until I finish the book until I am too willing to push beyond the rules. I really believe it’s better to know the rules before I bend or break them. I think that’s true for most learners.

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  7. Try using the same verb in your next stack(s)!

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  8. X The Penn State scandal is a tragic event. [LINKING VERB]
    1. The scandal devastated the victims. [TRANSITIVE VERB]
    2. The scandal damaged the school’s reputation. [TRANSITIVE VERB]
    3. The scandal arose from serious deficiencies in a community’s value system. [INTRANSITIVE VERB]

    OR:

    X The Penn State scandal is a tragic event. [LINKING VERB]
    1. The scandal devastated the victims. [TRANSITIVE VERB]
    2. The scandal destroyed careers. [TRANSITIVE VERB]
    3. The scandal damaged the school’s reputation. [INTRANSITIVE VERB]

    OR:

    X The Penn State scandal is a catastrophic event. [LINKING VERB]
    1. The scandal devastated the victims. [TRANSITIVE VERB]
    2. The scandal destroyed careers. [TRANSITIVE VERB]
    3. The scandal damaged the school’s reputation. [TRANSITIVE VERB]

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  9. oops – sorry – I should have edited:

    3. The scandal damaged the school’s reputation. [TRANSITIVE VERB]

    (not ‘intransitive)

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  10. Thank you! Okay, I think if I wanted to keep the idea of my original # 3 sentence, I could use a transitive verb like this:

    3. The scandal exposed/revealed serious deficiencies in the community’s value system.

    Or, something like that.

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  11. Follow-up from Catherine:

    I no longer agree with my earlier self re: ‘be’-verbs in X-1-2-3 sentences. Linking verbs work terrifically well in the Kerrigan method. As I think about it now, how could they not? The entire point of a great deal of academic writing is precisely to argue that “something is something“!

    I think your new third sentence – “The scandal exposed/revealed serious deficiencies in the community’s value system” – is perfect, and I suspect that the new stack would in fact produce a better essay.

    But assuming that’s true, why is it true?

    I’ve posted three X-1-2-3 sets:

    X-1-2-3s for a classification paper about fables

    One of the X-1-2-3 stacks is a ‘list’ thesis for a classification paper:

    Three principal types of characters appear in fables: animals, humans, and supernatural beings.

    I don’t recall Kerrigan discussing multi-part thesis statements, but I see it as a variation on his theme.

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  12. I REALLY need to finish the Kerrigan book. I got sidetracked several months ago, but maybe I can get back to it this fall.

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  13. Your comment made me go back to review transitive, intransitive, and linking verbs. This is the kind of stuff that can simply eat up my day if I let it. 🙂

    http://www.ucalgary.ca/uofc/eduweb/grammar/course/speech/1_3b.htm

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