Should you name with different words?

Suppose you are writing about Mae babysitting.  Should you write:

Mae looked at the little boy.  This experienced babysitter wondered when she should put the child to bed.  The tired girl wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should the young woman do that?

Or should you write

Mae looked at the little boy.  She wondered when she should put the child to bed.  She wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should she do that?

Writing experts say to write the second way.  Why?

Normally, when we speak, at the second mention of a person, we substitute a pronoun for the person’s name.  If we use another way to describe or name the person, the reader thinks we are talking about a new person.  That is because we are so used to hearing a pronoun used as a second reference.

What does the first example add that the second doesn’t?  “Experienced babysitter,” “tired girl,” and “young woman.”  Do those descriptors add anything important to the meaning of the paragraph, namely, whether Mae should put the little boy to bed?  Not really.  Do they distract the reader from the real meaning of the paragraph?  Yes.

At second reference, use a pronoun.  At third reference, use a pronoun.  If other people are involved, especially another person of the same gender, use the persons’ names to avoid confusion.  Occasionally repeat the original person’s name to remind the reader who you are writing about, but most of the time, use pronouns for subsequent references.  If you must use a noun, use the most generic noun–girl, woman–at second or third reference.

Sometimes the simplest, least “clever” way is the best.

Words of the year 2017

Several dictionaries announced their “word of the year” as 2017 closed.  Here are their choices, in no particular order.

Youthquake:  “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.”  Oxford Dictionaries (British)

Complicit:  “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others.”  Dictionary.com

Feminism:  “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”  Merriam-Webster Dictionary (American)

Fake News:  “false, often sensational information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”  Collins Dictionary (British)

Another word to consider is “whatever,” not as a choice for word of the year but for the ninth consecutive year, as Americans choice for the most annoying word, according to the annual Marist Poll.  “Fake news” came in second.

Turning around student achievement through structured writing

Several years ago, a high school principal investigated why so many of her students were failing.  After staff-wide research, the reason became clear:  bad writing, an inability to turn thoughts into sentences, paragraphs and essays.  A rigorous program of writing in every subject except math ensued, and within two years, final statewide exam scores rose 10 to 20 points.

Teachers began this new program by teaching a simple skill:  how to turn ideas into simple sentences.  When students could do that, they learned how put ideas into compound and complex sentences.

Students learned how to identify the main idea in a paragraph next, and then how to write a paragraph with a main idea.  Once paragraphs were mastered, it was on to essays, learning how to develop an introduction and controlling idea (thesis) and how to write body paragraphs to back up that controlling idea.  Students learned how to incorporate details into their writing, especially examples.

What students were taught was to think critically through structured writing—a point of view with facts to back it up.  To do it well takes planning and organizing ideas.  It is the kind of writing which the Common Core State Standards expects all high school students to master.

To find out more about this amazing success story at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, go to Peg Tyre’s article in The Atlantic.  Though it was published five years ago, the story–and the method to improve thinking through structured writing–is just as relevant today.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/309090/

Do you write in the classical style?

Do you write as if you are talking to someone, not preaching, not teaching, not arguing, but rather having a conversation?

Do you treat that someone as if he or she is your equal, except that you have knowledge which your friend lacks?  For example, do you write much like Elizabeth Bennett speaks to her sister, Jane, in Pride and Prejudice?

Do you simplify difficult concepts by making comparisons to everyday concepts, much like a teacher lining up a flashlight, an apple and a grape to explain an eclipse to children?

Is your meaning clear during the first read without a need to reread?

Do you let facts do the persuading, much like the charges against King George III did in the Declaration of Independence?

Is all the work of your writing hidden so that only the finished product shows, much like the elegant dinners at Downton Abby?

Do you exploit the natural structure of English sentences and paragraphs, putting the stress on the last word or phrase, much like Robert Frost in his poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

Are the facts which you present verifiable, much like a scientific experiment which can be replicated to achieve the same result, or like spectators who can be interviewed about what they saw and heard?

Do you use the perfect word or analogy, believing that with a bit of work you can find it?

Is your writing unpredictable, delighting with clever insights?

Is the structure of your writing inconspicuous, allowing the truth of your ideas to shine, much like the stitching of a beautiful garment?

Classical style is one of many writing styles (romantic, oratorical, and practical, among others).  Its roots date to ancient Greece and to 17th century France.  It has influenced American writers like Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain but has not dominated English writing the way it has dominated French writing.

If you want to know more abut the classic style, read Clear and Simple as the truth by F. Thomas and M. Turner, Princeton University Press, 1994.  Most interesting is a section called “The Museum” which quotes varied sources to show what classical style is and is not.

Transferring what the writer knows into the mind of the reader

One of the hardest skills to teach child writers is to give enough information to make the reader know what the writer knows.  Young children expect their readers to know what they mean.  “Well, everybody knows he’s my brother.  I don’t need to say that.”

I was having a conversation with a fifth grader who was writing a first draft about golf clubs and was considering what to say about loft.

“Don’t the woods have more loft?” I asked.  “They hit the ball the farthest.”

“No, shorter clubs have more loft because the face tips back.  The more it tips back, the more loft it has.”

“Maybe you should explain that.”

“Why? All golfers know that.”

“Yes, but I’m not a golfer and I’m going to be reading your essay.”

Some parents think students should write their essays alone, and that I should become involved later, during revising, not while students are writing a first draft.

But sometimes the most important work I can do as a writing tutor, is to make the student consider what his audience knows and doesn’t know, to put the student in the shoes of the reader.  I told the student above that if I were Rory McIlroy reading his essay, he wouldn’t need to explain loft because Rory McIlroy knows all about loft.  (He was impressed that I knew who Rory McIlroy was.)  But since I have played only miniature golf, I told my student, I don’t know about loft.

Because of this “gap” between what the student knows and what the student writes, I find it useful to sit next to a student when he or she writes the first draft.  I let the student write a few sentences, and then we discuss them—sometimes for grammar or tone, but often for knowledge the student is not sharing but which the reader needs to know to understand the essay.

Discussing the “gap” while the student is writing allows the student to fix it in the early stages of writing, rather than finishing a draft and then needing to make big changes later on.  Clarifying information during the composing process saves time and effort later.

As the old proverb says, “A stitch in time saves nine.”

 

How to speed up or slow down meaning

Which sentence is easier to understand?

  • Before I went to the movies, I ate dinner.
  • After I ate dinner, I went to the movies.

Each sentence has the same number of words, nine.  Each sentence uses common one- and two-syllable words.  Each sentence starts with a dependent clause.

Yet the second sentence is easier to grasp than the first.  Why?

The second sentence relates the information in the order in which it happened:  ate dinner first, went to the movies second.

Relating events in chronological order parallels how we experience life.  We eat breakfast first, then lunch, and later dinner.  So it makes sense to mention breakfast before lunch and lunch before dinner.

In the first example, “Before I went to the movies, I ate dinner,” what happened second is mentioned first, and what happened first is mentioned second.  Can we understand this sentence’s meaning?  Yes, but only after a moment’s hesitation while we reconsider what we just read.  That moment’s hesitation slows down the written action.

So what?

So if you are writing about fast moving action or fast thinking, you can enhance the speed which the reader perceives by using sentence structure strategies which enable the reader to understand faster.  Using chronological order is such a strategy.

On the other hand, if you are writing about slow-moving action or confused thinking, you can slow down events even more in the reader’s mind by choosing sentence structures which force the reader to reconsider before moving on.  Writing about actions out of order is such a strategy.

Red, white, and blue around the holidays

Ever notice that when you are writing a series—usually of three—the shortest item goes first, the middle-sized item goes second, and the longest item goes last?

That’s not a coincidence.  It’s good writing.

Thomas Jefferson knew this when he wrote, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

So did whoever wrote the pledge “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Why does this way of saying a series—shortest item to longest item—work?

It has to do with our brains.  It’s easier to keep in mind a short-named item than it is to keep in mind a longer-named item.  (Prince William v. Prince William Arthur Philip Louis Mountbatten-Windsor) If you say a longer item first in a series, our short-term memory can’t easily process it while taking in other items, even if those other items are shorter.

This principle is sometimes called “light before heavy.”

Another way of thinking about this is to put the item you wish to emphasize last.  When an emcee introduces entertainer Taylor Swift, the emcee might say, “the singer, the composer, the winner of nine Grammy awards, Taylor Swift.”

Still another way of thinking about this is to put what is known before what is new information to the reader or listener.  “The Harvard drop-out, the co-founder of Microsoft, the donator of more than 30 billion dollars in grants to make the world a better place” might be a way to introduce Bill Gates.

We are so used to hearing a series listed from shorter to longer or from known to new or from light to heavy that any other way sounds wrong.  It sounds unbalanced to say “the first President of the United States, the general, the farmer, George Washington.”

By the time we are adults, we have learned what sounds right, but for children this is a new concept and must be taught.