Once in a while I’m called upon to teach a course in English composition at our small seminary. It’s one thing to do something, another thing to try to tell people how to do it. It reminded me a bit of my wife’s experiences as an undergraduate working at the Jay Nolan Center for Autism. She regularly found herself called upon to teach the autistic adults there how to accomplish things that most of us take for granted. For instance, one day she was asked to teach one of the clients how to brush his teeth.
We are often half-asleep when we do this mundane job, but try to imagine teaching the process to someone who has severely limited cognitive skills or knowledge, who will start hitting you if you ever utter the phrase, “no, that’s not how you do it.” Some autistic adults will become violent, and have very short fuses.
So think about the details involved in tooth brushing: finding the tube of toothpaste, untwisting the cap, finding the toothbrush, squeezing the tube so that only a certain amount gets on the brush—and making certain that it gets on the brush, not on the handle or somewhere else. Then there’s the wetting of the brush, putting it in your mouth. And this is before you actually get to the rather complex motions and details involved in actually brushing the teeth. It’s a remarkably complex process.
So it is in trying to teach someone to write. Thankfully, seminary students tend to be non-violent. They also already know the basics of writing, such as grammar, punctuation and spelling.
But how do you teach style? How do you explain the elements of making something interesting enough that anyone is going to want to read what you’ve put down? It’s one thing to come up with enough words to satisfy the requirements for an English composition paper, but how do you write an academic paper for publication in a technical journal? Or how about putting together a newspaper column? Or a short story? Or, since this was a seminary class, how do you write a sermon that will keep your audience awake on Sunday morning? After all, pastors really shouldn’t be planning to put their congregations to sleep.
So, besides issues of formatting and grammar, I spent most of my time lecturing on how to show rather than tell, one of the key elements in writing fiction. But it is a technique that is useful in most non-fiction as well. Rather than simply telling readers that “Sally is angry,” a good author tries to show the reader that Sally is angry:
“I do not.” Sally yanked the plate from the counter and plunged it into the water. After a quick rinse, she slapped it onto the dish drainer with a loud clank. She picked up the next plate, rinsed, and slapped. It shattered in her hand. “I do not.”
And she picked up the next plate.
The reader easily understands that Sally is angry; the further context of the story would make it clear why she was angry, or what incident set her off. Another point to notice in the excerpt I just created is that with dialogue, it is not necessary to simply comment, “she said” before or after a statement. Instead, the author can put the dialogue into the midst of an activity or description. In fact, it can be a useful way to convey a scene, or details about the physical appearance of the character. For instance, rather than say:
Sally said, “I think you’re cute.”
The author might write:
Sally twirled a strand of her blonde hair between her fingers. “I think you’re cute.”
Such details of the writing craft are relatively easy to teach to the students; it’s the sort of thing that any writer might eventually notice and start practicing if he or she reads a lot of fiction. But I have found that beginning writers rarely think of most of these techniques, no matter how well read they might be. Their grammar, their spelling, the nuts and bolts of writing are easy. It is style that is hard.
In class, the method I use to teach style is to take short passages that the students have written themselves, put them on the board, and then ask directed questions about what might be done to improve the writing. I also bring in examples from a variety of authors to illustrate certain techniques.
Over the weeks of the course, I try to teach them about effective openings for both fiction and nonfiction, how to bring it to an end, how to keep it going in the middle. Sometimes, as I have taught, I could not help but wonder whether or not I always manage to use the tools and tricks I was giving my students. Is my own writing living up to the techniques I’m trying to instill in them? Do I sometimes try to pack too much into a single sentence that would be better broken up into two? Did I lose track of my purpose in that essay? Did I use the right word or settle for an almost right word?
Writing is also the practice of constant second-guessing, and never being quite satisfied. Writing is constant rewriting. I also taught them that.