Saturday, June 30, 2012

Everybody Needs an Editor! (repost)

This post first appeared here in November, 2008. I am going to re-post select items from long ago as I enjoy them and hope you will, too.  Since I posted this I read Christopher Buckley's very moving Losing Mum and Pup, which suggests that perhaps WFB was indulged and not edited sometimes when he should have been, especially in the last years. CRM

Let me start by saying I admire William F. Buckley, Jr., and was sad at his passing. We have subscribed to National Review Magazine since before we could afford it, as I am fond of telling people. But I have a love-hate relationship with WFB's writing. He is famous for his impressive vocabulary, and that is kind of fun, but I think he writes some of the worst sentences I have seen in print. In the excerpt below describing the religious background of the Reagans' son Ron, who became an atheist in his teens, the first sentence is perfectly fine, but I'm not sure what he means by the second. Does the "it is popular" suggest that the belief so described is faulty? What risk are people assured of being eliminated? Which people?

We do not need to assume that a familiarity with history recalls the Ninety-Five Theses of Luther, or the causes of the Thirty Years’ War. It is popular in quarters of young America to believe that deference to individual religious inclinations eliminates any risk of submitting to indoctrination.

The next sentence, in the next paragraph, is also fine. But the final sentence is just poor, violating my teacher sensibilities about the need to enliven prose and to use more active verbs and clear nouns, and not to turn verb phrases into noun phrases. Note WFB's use of the passive voice, which has its place, but in sparing doses:

When Ron Jr. went on to reject his father’s political positions, ruing the Reagan presidency, it was not necessarily the result of alienation from the family per se. Weight by the son to his father’s principles is here given, here withheld, after thought is paid to them, cursory or profound, and how they figured in the allegiances of the parent.

From The Reagan I Knew, by William F. Buckley, Jr.
At the National Review website November 26, 2008

So how would YOU fix that last sentence? Here is my try, preserving much of the language of the original:

The son thought-- sometimes cursorily, sometimes profoundly-- about his father's principles and about how they figured in his allegiances, and he gave them weight or withheld it accordingly.

I still don't like it much, though, so here's another try, with more freedom of vocabulary:

Ron Reagan watched his father's principles at work, especially in his allegiances, and, with a teenager's alternating deep and shallow thought, respected or cast off those principles accordingly.

So can you do better? I probably can, though the exercise shows me that WFB's words "principles," "allegiances," "figured," "weight," and "accordingly" were very carefully chosen! :-)

Are there some famous writers who just don't appeal to you--people whose writing leaves you looking around bewildered, wondering what you're missing?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Scrabble Poet

Here's a great game idea. But it's more than a game -- it's an art form.

Use the tiles from a Scrabble game to create a poem.  Mike Keith, in "Scrabble Tile Poem," did several stanzas of iambic pentameter, each using all 100 tiles.  Now THAT is a challenge!

Can you think of other ways to play with these tiles?

Thanks to Abraham Piper's 22 Words for this piece.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Inspiring Introduction

Read this introduction to a 900-word essay by an 11th grader and consider what works and doesn't work for you:
Coiled about the globe, a conglomeration of desktop computers, mobile devices, wireless signals, cables, and data centers form the complex, interconnected network known as “the internet”.   By seamlessly streaming information to over 2 billion of the world’s population, this mammoth machine has snaked  its way into nearly every aspect of our lives.  According to a Pew Internet & American Life Project Survey, over 80% of American adults use the internet and another 80 % of that utilizes  it daily (Trend Data [Adults]).    The primary appeal of the internet rests in the convenience of being able to access endless information at the tap of a finger.  However, this mass accessibility and abundance of information has been detrimental to society by catalyzing the propagation of plagiarism, pirating, and porn.  (Nathan Wakefield)


The alliteration at the end is obvious and memorable, and it would be especially effective in a speech. It might not be quite to your taste, though. And yes, the paragraph has a few errors, especially in subject/verb agreement. But let's look at more . . .
What about that opener?  "Coiled about the globe."  You can visualize that, can't you? Does it fit what it's talking about -- the internet? I think so.  What "coils?"  A snake, of course.  Look at the next sentence, where the "mammoth machine has snaked its way" into our lives.  And of course most of us* have visceral negative reactions to snakes -- theological ones, too.  So it's pretty clear that this writer intends to say negative things about the internet, as those three P's at the end confirm.
The overall effect is a vivid, energetic image that binds the assertions to our minds in a persuasive way.  This is an effective introduction.  And a great conclusion would remind us of the snake image, and probably the P's as well. Although the author has another metaphor in his title and conclusion, he does link the conclusion to this intro with the idea that the internet is an agent of temptation. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

*Our family members actually like snakes.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What Revision Can Do

Revision is one of the least-appreciated parts of the writing process, but it is so important that every student should be required to revise.  However, revising without guidance is just about as frustrating as getting the favorite old assignment: "Now just take out a piece of paper and write whatever you want to!" Instead, students who need to revise need to know WHAT they need to revise.  A good evaluation can show the way.

Paper Weaving

I have just posted at Writing Assessment Services a file that will give you a peek into the process I have done with just one student, in just one course, in just this last school year.  Check out the file here, and note that I'm remodeling the site, so it's inconsistently spiffy just now.

Here's a taste of what the file includes.  First the original conclusion, and then the new one.  I think you'll see a great difference!

All in all, soccer is the most entertaining sport there is.   It is suspenseful and ever changing.  There are plenty of other reasons why soccer is well liked, but without a doubt this reason is the most appropriate one. Whether it is the cultural background, or simplicity of rules, soccer is currently favored by numerous individuals.

In conclusion, it is the rarely made goals, required teamwork, and the ever-changing possession of the ball that makes soccer an entertaining and suspenseful sport for everyone.  When compared to basketball, soccer games do not have as many points flying around.  This makes soccer suspenseful, and easier to follow.  When compared to swimming, soccer is more of a team sport.  This makes soccer a good learning experience for younger player.  Compared to football, soccer is more unpredictable and ever changing.  Yes, hockey games have rarely made goal, baseball is a team sport, and basketball is unpredictable.  Nevertheless, all these aspects together make soccer the best for anyone interested in sports.   

Many thanks to Elizabeth Siddiq for allowing me to share her hard work!

In case you missed it, get the whole file here.

"The Generosity of Criticism"

Judgment leans back in its chair and, exerting the bare minimum of energy, points a thumb up or down. But critique leans forward in its chair, poised and attentive, heeding and contemplating, digesting and imagining.

--Daniel Coffeen, in "The Generosity of Criticism," * on Thought Catalog

Thanks to Rachael Webster for this piece.

*Note: noxious ad and a bit of language at the source

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Essay Grades and Olympic Times

Over the years I have discussed with other writing teachers the reality we know -- that it is just plain difficult to get high grades on essays or creative writing. A piece of writing is an incredibly complex thing, and we as writing coaches want to urge our students to keep pushing for something better, something more successful, something more perfect.  I wrote this to an "A" student yesterday who was discouraged that she had not improved her essay grades over the year:
The fact that you have A grades on all your essays shows that you are an exemplary writer. . . . Once you're a really great writer it's difficult to make incremental improvements.  Think of runners or swimmers who try to "shave" their times once they're in the elite ranks. :-)  Yes, it's dramatically impressive when students make dramatic improvements -- and I wrote notes of congratulation to several who went from low B or high C grades early on to high B or low A grades by the end. They need to be encouraged about their strides. You just need the encouragement that you're continuing to do a great job, as you have from the start. You came into the course well equipped to do what we were looking for, and you have gone out of the course continuing to do it very well.
Bottom line: it's just about impossible to score a 100, and a 95 is rare -- because we writing teachers want to encourage students to keep pushing for excellence and beauty.  However, we should do what we can to structure the grades in a course so that students can succeed with their final grades even if their writing is not the best of what they do. In Composition 2 at Veritas Press Scholars Academy, essays count as 40% of the grade, exams as 20%, and participation and homework as 20% each.  The participation and homework grades are "faithfulness grades"* that allow even struggling writers to succeed in the class.

Olympic Winner Statue

All run the race, and all can finish well, but the ones who have "Olympic potential" will get more vigorous coaching to that end, not just a grin and a pat on the back.

*Thanks to husband Glenn Marsch, physics professor at Grove City College, for this concept.

Related:  Jack Lynch:  "Getting an A on an English Paper"

Monday, June 4, 2012

Welcome to Summer!

At last I'm done with the teaching year at Veritas Press Scholars Academy online, and I'm ready to spend some time developing Writing Assessment Services for you.

Wouldn't you like some help learning how to do what I do -- evaluate writing?  That's part of what I have in mind.

Wouldn't you like some actual instruction to go with my tutorials -- visuals and audio?  That's part of what I have in mind.

Wouldn't you like some freebies? That's part of what I have in mind.

Stay tuned!

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