Style, and when to talk about it

We worked on style in my class today, and I thought I’d share the exercises we did, because on the off chance that any of you decide to experiment with them, I’d love to hear how it goes for you (particularly if you try them at a different point in the whole draft/revision/editing process). My students are turning in the final version of their first essay on Friday, but as soon as I finished this class, I realized it probably would’ve been more helpful to do something like this earlier in the writing process. Here’s what we did:

Basically, this was a series of 3 short writing exercises. First, I had them write up a how-to guide for a simple task of their choice (how to cook an egg, how to post something on facebook, etc). Then I had them write a paragraph beginning a letter to a loved one they miss — a parent, a sibling, a high school friend, boyfriend/girlfriend at home, etc.

Once they were done, we read the how-to’s aloud and talked about the style. What’s consistent across all the examples? What assumptions are made about the reader? How is the writing organized? etc. Then we did the same for the letters to loved ones, and noted how big the differences were in all these basic features (for example, addressing a general, unknown audience vs a specific person you’re intimate with; proceeding in a clear step-by-step fashion vs. a less directed and more loosely associated progression; talking only about concrete steps/actions vs foregrounding thoughts and feelings, etc).

Then I asked them to do a mash-up in either direction. Either write a how-to in the style of a letter to a loved one, or a letter to a loved one in the style of a how-to. The idea was that they should try to communicate the same thoughts as before, only switch the style. As you can imagine, this produces some funny stuff, but the point of this step is that it’s almost impossible to do. If you try to write a set of instructions in the form of a love letter, it’s pretty difficult to actually communicate how to do something. And as one student pointed out, if he were to actually write a letter to his mom in the “how-to” style, she would probably get upset at him because it’s so cold and lifeless. One student added that what he had produced when he turned his letter home into a how-to was really more like a poem than either a letter or a set of instructions. I thought this was right on, and a great way of getting at the larger takeaway that style is not simply window-dressing or a fancy costume that you put on your writing; it actually determines what you can and can’t say, in a very real sense.

These exercises led to a brief discussion of the kind of writing we’re doing for this class, which is when I realized this exercise probably would fit better at the beginning of the essay-writing process than the end. What it really seems to do is get students to feel how the style they’re using either facilitates (or impairs) their ability to say something. If we had done this earlier on, I wonder if they would then be in a better position to observe certain features of academic writing as style in these terms — practices or conventions that contain assumptions about who is reading and why, and that make it possible to say some things better than others. I think many of our students have been encouraged (either intentionally or unintentionally) to adopt a style that feels formal and academic, without being asked to consider why, or towards what end. I think an exercise like this might be a good way to open up that kind of a discussion.

If any of you are still in the early stages of drafting or revising, consider giving it a try and let me know how it goes!

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First day takeaways

First day of class yesterday, and all in all I think things went pretty well! The mood was upbeat and by the end of the hour students were beginning to interact with one another as actual peers. As in, people with names who think thoughts that are worth discussing. Success!

The big takeaway for me was a better sense of the impact of apparently minor details in the instructions I give. Even a single word added or omitted can make quite the difference. Here’s what happened:

I decided to begin class with some writing. So, I wrote “Writing is…” on the board. Then I asked everyone to take a piece of paper, begin by writing “Writing is,” and continue that thought in whichever direction they wanted, for 7-8 minutes. I suggested making an analogy, or describing an emotion that reflected their sense of what it feels like to write. I stressed that they might very well take things in a more positive or negative direction, depending on their own experiences — no judgment. Once everyone was done, we went around the room and read our paragraphs out loud, and then discussed what we noticed.

I had expected to hear some funny comparisons, and some feelings about the difficulties or challenges of writing (and perhaps here and there an expression of satisfaction or discovery). And this happened, to some extent. One student described writing as “an interminable road trip” (exhausting, tedious, but some hidden gems here and there along the way), one compared it to “a dark night, but a bright morning,” and another compared it to an obstacle course he hoped to master. But the majority of students came out with statements more akin to definitions: writing is an expression, a communication, a kind of speech you can’t do in-person, a process of self-reflection, an attempt at understanding, an artform.

This probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. In retrospect, I think I was so concerned with giving students a wide enough playing field that I hadn’t really considered how I might end up inadvertently narrowing their sense of what I was going for. Of course they’d try to put together something like a definition of writing — I asked them to write down what “writing is,” and they’re good students trying to do what the teacher says! If I were to do this again, I would make a small change, and instead of telling them to begin with “Writing is…” I’d say begin with “Writing is like…” I bet that would make a big difference.

I’m happy to say, however, that the repeated emphasis on definitions and processes (revising, editing, and the like) ended up becoming an opportunity for us to talk about the fact that we all seemed to be thinking of writing as something that eventually takes the form of print media. Writing, in this academic setting, was essentially academic. Given the shared sense of writing as a form of expression, was there any particular reason why we weren’t thinking of the many other forms of communication that we do on a daily basis as writing — texts, emails, comments, etc? When I raised this question, one student reported that lately she found herself using a particular emoji (😂) in messages to her friends, because it just seemed to express her feelings best. This resonated with a lot of students, led to a discussion of the way different forms of writing are suited to different audiences and capable of expressing different things. All of which is to say that what I initially felt was a flaw in my instructions actually ended up producing a pretty worthwhile conversation about the very thing we’ll be spending the semester exploring together. 😂.