Not for the Faint-of-Heart

I love long sentences. I also love short sentences. In fact, give me a well-wrought sentence, and I’ll be happy for the whole time I read it.

In Joseph Williams’ book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 8th edition, he includes a chapter on “shape.” Prior to the chapter he includes these quotations:

“The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.” John Stuart Mill

“Sentences in their variety run from simplicity to complexity, a progression not necessarily reflected in length: a long sentence may be extremely simple in construction–indeed must be simple if it is to convey its sense easily.” Sir Herbert Read

Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if we don’t want our writers to write as though their readers never move from the free throw line.

In this chapter on shape, Williams offers some counsel on how to make long sentences effective. However, in spite of his introductory paragraph, I came out of this chapter not having been touched by the heat of a passion for writing. In other words, I didn’t get the impression Williams loved this topic. It’s a tepid chapter.

However, it begins well:

If you can write clear and concise sentences, you have achieved a lot, and much more if you can assemble them into coherent passages. but if you can’t write a clear sentence longer than twenty words or so, you’re like a composer who can write only jingles. Despite those who tell us not to write long sentences, you cannot communicate every complex idea in short ones, so you have to know how to write a sentence that¬†is both long and clear.

He goes on to provide counsel on long sentences in four areas:

  1. Revising long sentences
  2. Reshaping sprawl
  3. Troubleshooting long sentences
  4. Innate sense

To revise, he offers three rules of thumb (with plenty of examples):

  1. Get to the subject of the main clause quickly
  2. Get to the verb and object quickly
  3. Avoid interrupting the verb-object connection

To reshape he suggests that the writer cut out anything that can be eliminated or shortened,¬†change, whenever possible,¬†clauses to modifying phrases, and coordinate words, phrases, and clauses. Coordination, he points out, is “the foundation of a gracefully shaped sentence.”

Thus, to troubleshoot long-sentences, he offers the following guidance: Look for and correct

  • Faulty coordination
  • Unclear connections
  • Misplaced modifiers

Finally, he points out that “not even the best syntax can salvage incoherent ideas,” so you have to be sure that what you are saying makes sense, regardless of the elegance of your expression.

I know I have presented this to you abstractly with no examples to speak of, but if you are an experiened writer or teacher I hope it has given you some suggestions you can implement or reflect on. If you are new to some of these terms, then I hope I have done you the service of raising some questions, the answers to which will enable you to gain more control over the craft of writing.

That control is the source of genuine writing confidence. Nothing else will suffice.

To get a copy of this book, which I recommend for its very practical guidance and plethora of samples, follow this link.

The Five Paths To Writing Excellence

Careful observation over my lifetime has confirmed that there are five paths to writing excellence, neglect of any one of which will undermine any writer’s potential. I’m reflecting on a possible sixth.

  • The Theoretical path
  • The Practical path
  • The Critical path
  • The Literary Path
  • The Linguistic Path

I suspect that many of my readers have a visceral reaction to the inclusion of the theoretical path, so I’d better say a word or two about it.

First word: the use of the word “theoretical” to describe something impractical arises from inattentiveness. If a person says, for example, that something is fine in theory but not useful in practice, he has placed his intellect outside of his mind. He has spoken nothingness.

If something does not work, it is a bad theory.

Second word: Theory is a Greek word that means “to behold or contemplate.” Theory arises, not from the whims of the theorist or from his predilections, but from the act of contemplation. When a person contemplates, he attends to something, he looks at it, he beholds it.

The object of his contemplation is the source of his theory.

Writing theory arises from watching what people do when they write. Of course, the writer also watches himself write. Then the theorist starts asking bigger questions, like

  • Why are some people better at this than others?
  • What does it mean to be better?
  • Why do they do things that way?
  • What habits lead to good writing?
  • What experiences?
  • What studies?
  • What beliefs?
  • Why am I such a lousy writer?
  • How can I make the good writers depend on me and thus make a parasitic living off them.

From those questions asked by a careful writer arises a discussion that leads to profound theories and amazing insights into the depths of the human soul. The reason for that is at least two-fold: first, our language-faculty is perhaps the most mysterious and revealing power we human beings possess, and second, nothing is excluded from what we write about.

Third point: theory differs from practice in that it excludes nothing from its view. The practical writer has a specific goal in mind and wants to accomplish that goal. In this, he is honorable and just, and I don’t know of any higher praise you can bestow on a man.

However, the theorist is looking at the whole nature and purpose of writing. So he has no choice but to look beyond the immediate and practical needs.

So when we talk about the theoretical approach to writing, we are referring to questions that a master writer needs to answer. Questions like these:

  • What is writing?
  • What kind of thing is writing?
  • What are the kinds of writing?
  • Which of those kinds am I working on right now?
  • How is this kind of writing similar to and different from other kinds of writing?
  • What is the purose of writing and its various kinds?
  • How do writing¬† and its various kinds relate to other human activities?
  • What is the relationship between writing and the natural, moral, philosophical, and theological sciences?
  • How have people written in various ages and why did they writer that way?
  • What were the powers and potentialities of that type of writing?
  • What is the history of writing and why did/does it develop as it does/did?

Does all of this really matter to the writer?

Only if he wants to know what he’s doing and why. Only if he wants to attain greatness.

One thing I’ve noticed about all the great writers about whom we know anything is that they understood at an extraordinarily high level the art they were practicing.

A new movement in literature always arises from a new paradigm or a new theory.

For example, why did the middle ages not produce any novels and why does the 21st century have such generally low regard for poetry? Or, in fact, does it?

And here, perhaps, is the crucial point for those who want to remain practical (like me): When you are walking the practical path to writing, why do you believe that certain practices, lessons, or tools will make you a better writer and others will interfere?

For example, why don’t modern writing programs teach invention, even though it was considered the main part of rhetoric for such a long, long time.

Is it because there theories have driven a wedge between writing and rhetoric that conflicts with the nature of things?

Is it because the quasi-Romantic theorists separated creativity from discipline?

Is it because people hold to a popular notion that writng just happens, that the genius is the power of writing? (Perhaps you can see the contradiction between that and the other popular notion that all teaching should be practical).

Writing is a craft. That is my theory. Therefore, it must be taught practically. And it must also be taught theoretically.

When I’m with Andrew Pudewa next week in San Antonio, Bryan, Houston, and Dallas I’ll be developing these thoughts further. The Houston workshop is full, but I understand seats remain for the other three. Bryan is pretty close to Houston.

Computers create boring teaching!

A shout out to Touchstone’s Mere Comments for this wonderful article:

When Computers Leave Classrooms, So Does Boredom

Assessment and Feedback for a Written Composition

The Teacher’s guide for level II of The Lost Tools of Writing has been demanding an inordinate amount of my time these past few weeks so it’s been difficult to enter any sort of a lengthy post in here (to the relief of many of you, I’m sure). In particular, I’ve been writing about assessment this week – inventing, ordering, reordering, drafting, reordering again, redrafting, inventing some more.

It’s such a huge issue, assessment is. To begin with, assessment is not the same thing as grading. In the guide for level II you’ll see a distinction between evaluating, correcting, and grading. Evaluating is on-going and done by multiple people: the writer himself, his peers, perhaps parents and others, and the teacher. Evaluation is far, far more important than grading. So is correcting.

One rather common practice that jumped out at me is the way teachers often wait until after the students have received their¬†grades to have them do corrections. To me, that is unkind at best and seems to involve a loss of clarity on the teacher’s role.

Writing is a skill. The teacher, therefore, is a coach. As coach, the teacher looks good when his “athlete” performs well. The downside of this formula is that some teachers get mad at students for not doing well and use the grade to punish the students.

The upside is that the teacher who realizes her role as coach will coach and not manipulate or engage in other arbitrary, tyrannical behavior.

So rather than wait until the time arrives to grade¬†students papers to tell the poor kids what they did wrong, the coach/teacher is instructing them every step of the way. It doesn’t take very long. Glance at their invention materials while they are working on them. 20 seconds would be more than enough to determine the quality of most inventions. 1 or 2 would assess the quantity just fine (depending on the quality of your glasses).

Students should receive ongoing feedback throughout the writing process. In my opinion, virtually every essay or narrative that¬†students hand in should have been reviewed and challenged and corrected enough times that they will all score in the 90’s on the grading rubric.

So in level II we go into quite a bit of detail about how to go about assessing students work. Keep it objective. Assess virtues, not gifts (though you should certainly acknowledge the latter). Make sure your students understand your feedback, whether it be evaluation, correcting, or grading. Make sure the grade is no surprise. Make sure you don’t grade anything for which you haven’t prepared your students. Make sure both you and your students know what you are looking for when you assess.

All of these will prevent you from being that foolish coach who waited until his team lost the game before he told them how to play.

the trouble with balance

Balance¬†implies equality and it’s static.

More often, we need integration, which is dynamic.

Integration implies purpose.

Balancing your life is usually good. Integrating it is always good – it’s better. Same with your teaching, reading, planning, cooking, etc.

Practical Benefits of the 2009 CiRCE conference.

Heads of school prudently ask me, “What will my teachers take from your conference on nature? Will there be anything practical?”

To that I joyfully respond, “I think so.”

But I’m being mischievous. I’m happy to say that the conference will be full of practical workshops. For example, my wife, Karen, will be presenting a talk on the development of the moral imagination in young children. She gave this talk the other day at Covenant Classical School where she teachers and already a number of parents have told her that they have changed the way they read to their children¬†– and that, following the change, their children have begun to like reading! In this talk, she describes what to read to young children and how to read to them.

In addition, Debbie Harris will be coming back to talk about developing a classroom culture. I think it was two years ago, Debbie described how to cultivate a sense of beauty in the child’s soul by the way you teach and arrange the classroom. It was one of the best workshops I’ve ever heard. I was driving along Independence Blvd. while I listened and I kept shouting: “Yes!” and punching my steering wheel. Debbie has a perception into the child’s soul that is clearly a gift from God.

I’ll describe more speakers and topics as time passes, but there’s something else I want to add. There is nothing more practical for a teacher than sound ideas. Let me repeat that.

There is nothing more practical for a teacher than sound ideas.

To refine that thought a little bit, the good teacher is the one who understands reality as it relates to her responsibilities. For that, she needs words and concepts that clarify instead of confusing. She needs to understand things according to their nature. Oh, there’s that word again!

That’s why we are dedicating the entire 2009 conference to “A Contemplation of Nature.” What is this neglected, misapplied,¬†and even forgotten idea? Why does it matter so much? How can having this idea clarified in our minds serve to clarify every other idea? How can clarifying our ideas help us teach better?

The teacher who understands the Christian classical conception of the idea of nature has a tool that will help her do everything she does more effectively, especially teach.

Why You Need The Lost Tools of Writing

The Lost Tools of Writing, being a modern version of¬†classical¬†rhetoric and an application of¬†the “Organon” (tool – these are the “lost tools” Dorothy¬†Sayers was writing about)¬†of Aristotle,¬†is the¬†foundation of everything you will study with the possible exception of mathematics.

It is the trivium.

LTW is, by far, the most efficient and the most essential curriculum material you will ever use.

  • It is the foundation for traditional, formal logic, because it teaches material logic.
  • It is the foundation for science, because it teaches scientific reasoning.
  • It is the foundation for literature, because it teaches how to read and imitate great writing.
  • It is the foundation for philosophy, because it teaches how to think through issues and gives the tools for doing philosophy.
  • It is the foundation for historical studies because it teaches how to read and respond to historical texts.

Let me push it a step further and say what I really think.

The Lost Tools of Writing provides tools for students without which they are not really educated.

And on top of all that, every teacher needs it because teaching is a rhetorical and thinking activity. Every teacher.

Give us a call and we’ll let you know how your school or home can plunge even more deeply into the glories of Christian classical education. (704) 786-9684.