Teaching Good Writing

This radio interview with Steven Pinker, author of A Sense of Style, features a neat list of “cardinal rules” for good writing (around the 12:50 mark):

  1. Clear thinking makes clear writing.
  2. Be concrete.
  3. Read as much as you can.
  4. Show your work to somebody else.

The last point has to do with what Pinker calls “the curse of knowledge”: “When you know something, it’s very hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. … You think what’s obvious to you is obvious to everyone else, but it isn’t.” This is advice that every writer and every teacher should take to heart.

The interview also raises important questions about the teaching of good writing, for example the importance of having students write drafts, give feedback, and make them re-write the draft. This may seem like an obvious strategy to teach writing, but in teaching practice, it is quite difficult to implement because it requires the teacher to spend an awful lot of time correcting texts. Any teacher will think twice about assigning students such a writing task: just imagine a class with 25 students. Make them write a text of decent length to articulate an idea, and you will end up with 25 texts. If you spend 15 minutes on each text, you rack up approximately 400 minutes or 6.5 hours (excluding breaks). Mind you, this is time spent not teaching, not preparing, and not grading.

Teachers can compensate for this by having students write the text in class instead of at home, because then you save preparation time. Say, 2 hours. But I was once told by a headmaster that by having students write in class instead of at home, I am wasting valuable time that could be used for communicative tasks (I teach English as a second language). After all, he argued, the students don’t need their classmates in order to write, but they do need them to talk, so have them do the writing at home and make sure you use your valuable lesson time to get them to do other things than writing.

There are of course other strategies to implement writing in the classroom that are less time-consuming, e.g. instead of reading the texts yourself have other students read the texts and give feedback to each other. But in my experience, this yields very meager results and can even be counter-productive. Other methods are available, but I have yet to come across a decent replacement for teacher feedback.

Another important point they address in the interview is the question, in Pinker’s words, “whether it’s good pedagogy to teach young kids things that are false and then expect them to unlearn it when they get older” (around the 21:50 mark in the interview), for example never write in sentence fragments or don’t begin a sentence with “and”. Such rules introduce more or less useful principles, but it is perfectly legitimate to flout them as long as you know what you are doing. In other words, there are many exceptions to the rules.

However, teaching rules and exceptions can be very tricky. Young students especially want definite answers and have little patience for nuance or exceptions. They want to know right from wrong. And who can blame them? After all, at exams they are punished for not knowing right from wrong; grasping nuances and knowing exceptions has hardly any bearing on exam results.

Pinker says he is sceptical whether it is good pedagogical practice to teach such rules; unfortunately he does not have time to elaborate why. I, for one, believe that as long as your students do not have much of a clue about writing and are prone to commit huge blunders (e.g. write things like “I think this is a great film. And totally worth watching. Cause it’s awesome.”), you are justified to teach them, quite dogmatically, rules you expect them to adhere to. This might come back to bite them at a more advanced level, but once they reach that level they can absorb the new information much more effectively. If a student tells you “But our old teacher told us that we were not supposed to use and at the beginning of a sentence”, you already have something to work with to hone your students’ sense for nuance and exceptions. If they come to you saying “But our old teacher told us it’s perfectly alright to sometimes write and at the beginning of a sentence”, you will have a much harder time explaining to them what their teacher meant.

We can compare this to chess. Chess teachers tell their students not to move the same piece twice in the opening, for example, because you should be using your time instead to bring the other pieces into the game; but already at intermediate level you have to realize that it is perfectly fine to move a piece twice in the opening — if you know what you are doing, that is. But if you try to cover such exceptions right from the start, you are likely asking too much of your students’ ability to absorb information.



Emerson’s Three Practical Book Rules

The three practical rules, then, which I have to offer, are — (1) Never read any book that is not a year old. (2) Never read any but famed books. (3) Never read any but what you like; or, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en: In brief, sir, study what you most affect.” Montaigne says, “Books are a languid pleasure,” but I find certain books vital and spermatic, not leaving the reader what he was; he shuts the book a richer man. I would never willingly read any other than such. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Books”, qtd. in Reading in Bed)

Far be it from me to question the wisdom of the sage of Concord, but this practical rules for reading is 60% nonsense. By all means, do read what you find pleasurable; but dare I suggest — notwithstanding Mr Emerson’s advice — that you do consider reading books younger than a year if they take your fancy, and that you indulge yourself in in authors of lesser fame every now and then? Who knows, perchance they’ll join the pantheon of famed scribblers thanks to your discovery!

I’m being unfair to Ralph Waldo, of course. After all, He was faced with the prospect of having to choose among library books whose number in his day “may easily exceed a million.” A tough call indeed! Wait a minute. 1 million? That’s actually less than a hundreth of the available items at the Library of Congress! So what remains is, once more, Shakespeare: “No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en: In brief, sir, study what you most affect.”


Elements of Style

I am rather busy as of late, and so blog updates are sparse. Thus I recommend you other reading material, such as this interesting and important article by Geoffrey Pullum on the shortcomings of Strunk & White’s classic prescriptive grammar, The Elements of Style.


Orlando’s Bookshop

Orlando by Virginia Woolf is a fictional biography of a young Elizabethan nobleman who one day wakes up a woman and in that guise lives through another four centuries. At one point, Orlando finds herself in a 20th century bookshop:

And so, leaving the post office, she turned to beguile herself into the next shop, which was a shop so common in our day that it needs no description, yet, to her eyes, strange in the extreme; a shop where they sold books. All her life long Orlando had known manuscripts; she had held in her hands the rough brown sheets on which Spenser had written in his little crabbed hand; she had seen Shakespeare’s script and Milton’s. She owned, indeed, a fair number of quartos and folios, often with a sonnet in her praise in them and sometimes a lock of hair. But these innumerable little volumes, bright, identical, ephemeral, for they seemed bound in cardboard and printed on tissue paper, surprised her infinitely. The whole works of Shakespeare cost half a crown and could be put in your pocket. One could hardly read them, indeed, the print was so small, but it was a marvel, none the less. ‘Works’ — the works of every writer she had known or heard of and many more stretched from end to end of the long shelves. (216)

The passage is set in the year 1927, and I am led to wonder how much research went into it. For starters, I am not convinced that Orlando would have been that astonished by being surrounded by cheap books; after all, published manuscripts had more or less disappeared by the end of the 16th century, and since she experienced the days of Dryden, Pope, Addison and Johnson, she would have witnessed the rise of newspapers, Drury Lane and other cheap book venues.  And rather than complaining about the small unreadable script, she ought to be surprised at the quality of these new shiny cardboard books compared to Elizabethan chapbooks with their small print and messy typefaces. Nevertheless, the scene’s a delightful thought-experiment; throwing a 16th century reader into Barnes & Noble, or even sit the poor chap down in front of a computer screen — how fascinating!


Watcha Readin’ For?

The immortal Bill Hicks on reading (0:40):


Links of the Day

Reading comics: Acephalous discusses Watchmen and Zack Snyder’s film adaptation, part I and part II.

Reading to dogs:  So Many Books tells us about the awesomeness of therapy dogs.

Reading silently: Classical Bookworm explores the origins of silent reading.

Reading experiences: The Reading Experience comments on point of view in Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides.


Delights of Reading

Otto Bettmann’s The Delights of Reading quotes Boswell’s Life of Johnson about the Doctor”s remarkable gift for reading:

He read, as he did most things, violently; he had a peculiar facility for seizing at once what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labour of perusing it from the beginning to end. He got at the substance of a book directly, tearing out the heart of it. At times he kept a book in readiness for when he should finish the other, resembling a dog who holds a bone in his paws in reserve, while he eats something else which has been thrown to him.

Samuel Johnson

The Life is one of the books on my surprisingly small to-read shelf. In another passage, Boswell tells us about the apparent haste with which Johnson read, saying that “[h]e had, from the irritability of his constitution, at all times, an impatience and hurry when he either read or wrote.” I, too, am an impatient reader — alas, I lack Johnson’s legendary mnemonic prowess!


It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers

Today, a poem! This is part of a series on “poetry of reading”, a feature I intend to use as a regular update here on this blog. Your poetry suggestions are, of course, most welcome!

It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers

While I was building neat
castles in the sandbox,
the hasty pits were
filling with bulldozed corpses

and as I walked to the school
washed and combed, my feet
stepping on the cracks in the cement
detonated red bombs.

Now I am grownup
and literate, and I sit in my chair
as quietly as a fuse

and the jungles are flaming, the under-
brush is charged with soldiers,
the names on the difficult
maps go up in smoke.

I am the cause, I am a stockpile of chemical
toys, my body
is a deadly gadget,
I reach out in love, my hands are guns,
my good intentions are completely lethal.

Even my
passive eyes transmute
everything I look at to the pocked
black and white of a war photo,
can I stop myself

It is dangerous to read newspapers.

Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,
speaking of peaceful trees

another village explodes.

(by Margaret Atwood, 1939-)

Published in 1968, “It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers” portrays a reader haunted by the atrocities reported in the news. Literate, the reader not only cannot escape the news, but likely experiences a responsibility to read them, to inform herself, and even attempts to reach her own readers so that she may make the world a better place. Yet all her attempts are futile. She cannot shake of the sense of responsibility and guilt, and although we may find it difficult to relate to her uncompromising verdict, “I am the cause”, we can certainly understand that the mere act of reading the news — of just sitting there, “quietly as a fuse”, witnessing the horrors of the world from our living rooms — has a touch of the absurd, the more so in this day an age when news has become an entertainment commodity and each war comes with its own jingle.


Flaubert and his Parrot On Reading

Traditionally, reader response theory focuses on abstract or generic readers and tends to brush over some of the more human elements of reading. This includes the reader’s relationship to the author, and so it is quite refreshing to read an account of just such a relationship: Julian Barnes Flaubert’s Parrot recounts the story of Geoffrey Braithwaite, an avid reader and amateur-scholar of Gustave Flaubert, who is visiting the writer’s home in France to search for clues about the significance of a parrot Flaubert once used to write one of his stories.

Barnes’s Parrot has  a lot to say on authors and readers, and on critics, too. Neither Flaubert nor Braithwaite make bones about what they think of the latter’s breed. In a chapter on Emma Bovary’s eyes, for example, the amateur-reader Braithwaite takes a professional Flaubert critic to task for chiding the Frenchman for sloppiness, and offers a poignant simile of the reader-author relationship for the professional reader, on the one hand, and the common readers on the other:

I must confess that in all the time I read Madame Bovary, I never noticed the heroine’s rainbow eyes. Should I have? Would you? Was I perhaps too busy noticing things that Dr Starkie was missing (though what they might have been I can’t for the moment think)? Put it another way: is there a perfect reader somewhere, a total reader? Does Dr Starkie’s reading of Madame Bovary contain lal the responses which I have when I read the book, and then add a whole lot more, so that my reading is in a way pointless? Well, I hope not. My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it’s not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can’t prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell yo one advantage we have over them. We can forget. Dr Starkie and her kind are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps this is why some critics develop a faintly patronising tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn’t said anything new for years. … Whereas the common but passionate reader  is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers,  come back and be entranced again. (75-76)

Very apt, methinks, although we should not forget that common readers can get quite obsessed and obsessive about their choice authors as well.

Gustave Flaubert

The Parrot also contains snippets from Flaubert’s letters and Madame Bovary that often broach the topic of reading, and make me want to read Flaubert, albeit not so much for the master’s portrayal of the human condition as for what doctor Braithwaite dubs Flaubert’s “confident scraps of wisdom, hand-me-down summaries for those in a hurry”. To wit:

Les livres ne se font pas comme les enfants, mais comme les pyramides, avec un dessein prémédité, et en apportant des grands blocs l’un par-dessus l’autre, à force de reins, de temps et de sueur, et ça ne sert à rien ! Et ça reste dans le désert ! Mais en le dominant prodigieusement. Les chacals pissent en bas et les bourgeois montent dessus, etc., continue la comparaison. (Gustave Flaubert, cited in Albert Thibaudet’s Gustave Flaubert, 136)

Or in translation from the Parrot:

Books aren’t made the way babies are: they are made like pyramids. There’s some long-pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it’s back-breaking, sweaty, time-consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands like that in the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it, and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc. Continue this comparison.



Danse Joyeuse, Danse Macabre

… le bonheur et l’innocence de la lecture, qui est peut-être en effet une danse avec un partenaire invisible dans un espace séparé, une danse joyeuse, éperdue, avec le «tombeau». Légèreté à qui il ne faut pas souhaiter le mouvement d’un souci plus grave, car là où la légèreté nous est donnée, la gravité ne manque pas … — Maurice Blanchot, L’espace litteraire

Via This Space, I came across the above quote by Maurice Blanchot, whose life, according to his publisher Gallimard, “was devoted entirely to literature and its peculiar silence”. Blanchot describes reading as a “joyful, frenzied dance with the grave”, a “lightness” that needs no greater sorrow, for where there’s lightness, “there’s gravity”.

The Scholar

I cannot quite decipher Blanchot’s paradoxical notions about the act of reading, and death never figures prominently in my reading experiences (not my own death, anyway, or at the very least not a conscious fear of death). Yet in accounts from other, more seasoned readers, the idea that the reader wrestles with death through the very act of reading crops up again and again. Unfortunately, I haven’t been taking notes along the way, being too young and too lucky to have been bothered by the spectre death. I do, however, know that once I pass away, I would very much like to have the epitaph of the young Benjamin Franklin written on my tombstone:

The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ’d) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.

(The woodcut is from Totentanz, by Hans Holbein the Younger.)