Sunday, March 20, 2011

Writing Short

There were a lot of op-eds in the New York Times today that I wanted to comment on: Tom Friedman on how idiotic it is that the US still has no energy policy; Nick Kristof on what can be learned from the Japanese; Maureen Dowd on the Hollywood adventures of the former Senator from Connecticut, Chris Dodd. But the one I settled on both charmed me and offered up a solid strategy for helping college writers that I look forward to putting to good use sometime soon. That piece was Andy Selsberg's aptly titled "Teaching to the Text Message" in which he argues for teaching students how to write a sentence before introducing them to, say, the paragraph. By focusing on a single sentence (or two - more about that in a minute), as Selsberg says, "there's nowhere to hide," and the brevity allows the instructor to give everyone meaningful attention. Such a focus also teaches students concision and economy, still missing in much writing despite the pervasiveness of text messages and twitter.

Selsberg mentions that a few years ago he introduced writing assignments that required students to compose very brief responses. In one case, he asked them to "describe the essence of the chalkboard in one or two sentences," inspiring one student to write the following: "A chalkboard is a lot like memory, often jumbled, unorganized and sloppy. Even after it's erased, there are traces of everything that's been written on it." In his op-ed, Selsberg says, "that was great, but I want to go shorter." And I'm thinking but what about those two sentences? They're clear, creative, arresting, and metaphorically fresh. I mean those sentences deserve our attention. We should dwell on those sentences until we understand how they work and can provide a model for others. Consider those sentences: their looseness, their complete accessibility, their engaging rhythms; their accurate description. When sentences come out like this, it just makes me think that perhaps we can be a little tolerant of the student who chooses to use two sentences to get his idea across instead of one. This is no criticism of Mr. Selsberg, just admiration for the sentences his assignment elicited and a recommitment to helping my own students learn to write a good sentence, even it ends up requiring two sentences to get there.

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