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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Before starting this blog, I used to vent my thoughts by writing letters to newspapers. I’ve probably had about two dozen printed, but haven’t done many in recent years.

I actually wrote several before I had one published. After that, I hit on the formula, and most every letter I sent after that was printed somewhere.

Here’s my formula:

1. Always start by referencing a specific article or previous letter that recently appeared in the publication. Random rants are the stuff of blogs, not op-ed pages.

2. Keep it short. No paragraph should be longer than three simple sentences. You might be burning to pen an intricate analysis, but it’ll never see the light of day.

3. End with a memorable sound bite: a pithy quip, quote, accusation, or call to action.

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Sideways Editing

When revising writing that I’ve labelled “awkward,” students have a tendency to practice what I call “sideways editing.”  Instead of swapping out their initial phraseology for something more fluently developed, they rearrange the existing parts into an equally awkward sequel.

Here’s an example that I now use as an illustration in class:

First draft: The article had good ideas in it and related them to us good. 

is not substantially improved as

Second draft: The article’s ideas were good and they were related to the readers in good ways too.  

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Reading a minor missive from Mark Steyn at National Review earlier today, I was struck for the umpteenth time by just how breezily loquacious he is.  It’s just a blog post, really; by no means a full-fledged article–and yet it carries the confident charm of the most polished master’s thesis.  I’m sure he merely dashed this off, yet is would stand as a major triumph for most authors.

The teacher in me suddenly wanted to footnote his work.  The world needs to see this as I do, I thought.  Those notes are below.  My humble apologies to National Review for reproducing the entire text here, but I think they’ll understand.  It’s necessary to make the point: Steyn’s writing is densely allusive and whimsically clever, and all in the succinct service of a solid point.

Looking at this after I’d marked it up, I found immense satisfaction in being a fan of Steyn’s.  He’s truly a treasure.  I’m a conservative because the ideas are solid and true, but it doesn’t hurt that men like Steyn can also make them so appealing.  One looks in vain for such a scribe on the left.

I mean, could you even imagine a similarly footnoted post called The Annotated Frank Rich?

**********

“The Last Phobia,” Mark Steyn, posted at NationalReview.com, 9/17/2013

I see David Brooks has attracted a bit of pushback for describing Ted Cruz as “the Senator from Canada,” perhaps snidely hinting at divided loyalties. The Times’s man has jumped the moose[1] with this one. As it turns out, Brooks, like yours truly, was born in Toronto. I think we can all agree that the only thing worse than a Canadian is a self-loathing Canadian[2]: It’s bad enough that the first Canadian president of America has to run around pretending he’ll be the first Hispanic president[3], but it’s outrageous that the New York Times’s only Canuck[4] columnist should be the Roy Cohn [5]of Canadians.

Anyway, as NR readers know, my position, as the presumptive senator from New Hampshire, is that, given the mess you Americans have made of the GOP, I’m in favor (actually, I’m in favour[6]) of an all-Canadian ticket next time round. But in the meantime I don’t see why we Canadians have to skulk around in a state of shame to the point where effete[7] maple-scented[8] Timesmen are forced to be more good-ol’-boy-than-thou[9] and jump the first Canuck in the Senate parking lot. Nuts to this. This is sick. What next? Elizabeth Warren forced to admit she’s one-thirty-second Manitoban?[10]

It doesn’t have to be this way. I have a dream that one day my children will live in an America where they’re judged not on the color of their skin but on whether they’ve got an aunt in Saskatoon.[11]


[1] A play on the idiom “jump the shark.” Moose are often associated with Canada

[2] A play on the phrase “self-loathing Jews,” meaning Jews who oppose things like pro-Israel policies

[3] Perhaps a cheeky reference to Toni Morrison’s label of Bill Clinton as “the first black president”

[4] A slang term for Canadians

[5] Attorney who prosecuted the Rosenbergs and worked with Senator Joeseph McCarthy; Steyn humorously implies that Brooks is persecuting his own people.

[6] A British spelling

[7] Effeminate; Steyn often derides liberals as insufficiently masculine.

[8] Maple syrup is often associated with Canada

[9] A play on the idiom “holier-than-thou.” Steyn is accusing Brooks of populist pandering.

[10] Warren, a Democrat Senator from Massachusetts, famously claimed Native American heritage as a part of her “family folklore,” despite the only known Native American in her family tree being her great, great, great grandmother.

[11] Obviously, a coy reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech.

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As the new school year starts and I assess what my new students need, I find myself growing ever more convinced of the wisdom of these two great axioms of educating:

  • Nobody ever became a good writer before they were a great reader.
  • It is far better for students to write five 1-page papers than to write one 5-page paper.

Friends, instruct accordingly.

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“Most runners run not because they want to live longer but because they want to live life to the fullest.  If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that.  Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life, and for me, for writing as well.”  

   –Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (ch. 4)

 

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A while ago, I found this passage among some notes I jotted in a journal.  I was scribbling some thoughts down about the nature of being a compulsive reader and writer.  Pretty melodramatic stuff, but I like the general sentiment:

You read and write. You have ink in your veins and stardust in your soul. You don’t need to stop and smell the flowers because you’re growing a garden in your heart. Yes, you’re giving up some of the typical twists and turns of life. Don’t care. You have speed. A speed so electric, so immediate and eternal, it’ll pull tears out of your eyes and make an hour feel like being awake for weeks at a time.

This life of outer stillness and inner intoxication will thrill you whenever you think about it and nurture you through the rest. Think about it often. And don’t leave the covers closed for too long.

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I’ve often told students that one of the most glaring scars in amateur writing is the tendency to use their favorite words too frequently.  It’s not unusual for young writers to put something like “obviously” or “perhaps” three or four times in the same paragraph, or even the same sentence.

But the problem is far worse when the word is more obscure and the writer is more experienced.

I haven’t read that many Dean Koontz books, but he clearly loves the word “preternaturally.”  He seems to use it near the beginning of every one of his books that I’ve seen.

Is he just trying to see if anyone notices?  Did he lose a bet?

Part of me wants to go to the library and take all of his books off the shelf one at a time, scanning the first two chapters, just looking for that word.

Has anyone else picked up on this, or is it just me?

It reminds me of this great Kids in the Hall skit:

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Writing is like:

  • architecture.  Form follows function; the design of the piece, especially the basic structure, should require every element to contribute to the overall mission of the creation’s existence.  A solid foundation must be established first–in writing, the introduction is critical.  An outline of major topics and examples is like the layout of various beams and girders in construction.
  • sculpture.  Michelangelo said that he saw his sculptures inside the marble blocks, and simply chiseled off anything that wasn’t part of it.  We should do the same with our drafts.
  • bees.   (more…)

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This was the advice I wrote in the margin of a couple of dozen college papers I returned to students last night.  I put the directions for their recent assignments back on the projector and showed them again that they both called for evaluating an author’s evident strategies, based on things like structure and style, for effectiveness.  Nothing in their assignments asked for personal reflection about the topics of their texts, and yet, that’s the majority of what I got.

Coincidentally, I just read this excellent essay by Mark Bauerlein, which perfectly echoes my experience.  In short, students need to be guided to write analytical work, not fluffy reactions.  Amen.

 

At one point in the discussion, Coleman paused to note a problem in the teaching of writing in English classrooms: the dominance of “personal writing … the exposition of a personal opinion … the presentation of a personal matter.”  (more…)

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Had this idea a while ago as I was thinking about America’s great tradition of dark, violent Westerns.  Worked on it in pieces for about a week.  It’s just a little snippet of flash fiction, really, but I like it.

*****

The gunman had just sat down at the table he favored when he stopped at this small town’s only saloon, when a girl scuttled over to him and started pouring out her story.

“Please help me, mister,” she said quickly, quietly, taking the seat opposite him.  “My boss is sore at me, I think he’s fixin to kill me.  Thinks I cheated him outta what I got paid last night.”  She seemed to swallow briefly and composed herself.  “I can tell you’re the kind of man can get me out of here.” She looked down into her lap. “I can’t pay,” she looked up into his face and earnestly continued, “but I’ll do anything if you save me.”

He had already noticed everything.  She was dressed in a little red gown that might have been pretty decades ago, before it had covered a hundred different professional girls.  Her hair and makeup were done in the frontier’s best imitation of mature beauty.  Her eyes were huge with fear, and she had her hands on the table in a pleading posture.  She was too young.

The saloon was tiny, really—long, but narrow and cramped.  (more…)

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“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

–Flannery O’Connor, 1925-1964

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Actually, it’s a JPEG, but still…I could teach a whole year just on this:

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The brilliant professor Mark Bauerlein scores yet another direct hit in a recent post about the value of those old-fashioned writing assignments:

In my classes I include both types of assignments, short, one-page writings and longer 7-page papers (I rarely go over 10 pages these days, but I try to make the class have 25-30 pages of finished writing overall.)  I also make students bring in their rough drafts so that we may go over them sentence by sentence, word by word.  (I’m lucky to have small classes.)  It is a novel experience for many of them.  To have a reader pause over the placement of a modifier, and to have to think about such things as a writer, is altogether new.  The deliberation simply doesn’t go along with digital communication habits.  Until we see students paying closer attention to diction and syntax, we should keep traditional writing assignments as a good portion of the work.

Actually, this quote is more of a defense of revision than word count, but it’s still the money quote in a great piece.  By far the single biggest factor holding back anyone’s writing is lack of sustained effort–we naturally feel that a simple first draft gets the job done, and that’s that…and we teachers all too often reward such sloppy work by letting it slide by.  Teaching students to care about and focus on every word is the best writing training we can give.

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A couple of months ago, a student at my school came in and asked my opinions about student writing.  I thought she was just writing for the school newspaper, but a couple of weeks ago her story ran in the local paper, the Las Vegas Review Journal.  It’s quite good.  She got some good material from a couple of other teachers, and put it together very well.  Alas, she spelled my name wrong, though.  Here’s my contribution:

However, technology cannot be blamed entirely for the decrease in writing quality over the past 20 years.

Jamie Houston, an English teacher at Las Vegas Academy, argued that technology does not affect composition as much as it de-emphasizes sustained focus and this shift in emphasis is part of society’s penchant to prefer visualization to the written word.

“School has always been like going to the gym because you do things that are repetitive, simple and uncreative, but not remotely realistic,” Houston said. “You are never going to do a pushup in the real world. You do pushups because they develop real-world muscles.”

“No one is ever going to put a gun to your head and say, ‘Quick, what’s a gerund?’ School develops thinking and communicating for the untold realms of the real world and for new technologies and innovations that haven’t even been invented yet.”

 

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A post at National Review, and some great follow up comments from readers, offers some great ideas about teaching writing:

The only way to address writing is to give line-by-line feedback. We cannot assume that students know what good writing looks like. Every time students pass a written assignment at any level with subpar writing, such poor performance is reinforced as acceptable and the poor writing ability become the next professor’s problem.

One of many astute reader comments notes:

Absolutely crucial, if we want students to improve, is that they be required to draft and revise. If they only receive comments — no matter how comprehensive and excellent — on already graded work, they simply won’t attend to them. Why bother if it isn’t going to make any difference on that essay? And they don’t always have the understanding to apply comments on one essay to the next; but if they revise *this* essay by the comments given, then it sparks some realization of how to apply those comments to other work.

Agreed.

This is the single most important thing that students need to learn about writing: every word counts.  (more…)

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