Friday, November 1, 2013

Reading as a Writer: Beginnings and Endings

Writing is an enormously imaginative exercise--even writing nonfiction! It’s not about me putting my thoughts down on paper, however articulately. It’s about me imagining what it’s like to be you reading those thoughts, and figuring out how to translate my thoughts into words on a page that you will then translate into thoughts in your head, that will be as like as possible to the thoughts now in my head.

Reading like a writer is a lesson I’m just beginning to get my head around as far as targeting teaching it to my students--planning for it, providing scaffolding and plenty of practice. But last week I used one of my earliest lessons--one I’ve been using for years--and it was as practical, fun, and varied as ever. The lesson was on beginnings and endings, and the occasion was the day I returned an initial draft with revision comments. (Having told them on the first draft not to get hung up on a good beginning--just start.)

This year’s students clearly know that a question is often a good hook, but many of them hadnt exercised the imagination to put themselves into my shoes and wonder how many papers would begin “What is shalom?” I ask how many of them continue reading a blog or a magazine article if the first line doesn’t grab them. I reassure them that I’m paid to keep reading their papers, but in any real life writing, if they don’t grab their reader in the first sentence, they’ve lost her.

I read a couple of brief excerpts from the chapter on beginnings and endings in William Zinnser’s On Writing Well and tell students to take notes. They particularly like the list of possible qualities in an opener: “freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question” (56). They take furious notes and ask me to repeat. 

Next I pass out a stack of old Time magazines, one per student, that I can borrow from our school library for the morning. I instruct students to look at articles that are at least three paragraphs long--not ads, not captions, not news-in-brief or obituaries. Read first lines until one grabs them. Then look back at their notes and see if they can find the principle that made that line interesting so they can apply that principle to a similar hook, possibly in the piece of writing I just handed back.

Finally, look at last lines and find one with a satisfying sense of conclusion. Endings are more difficult than beginnings for all of us, and especially for students--how to sum up without being mind-numbingly redundant; how to be interesting without introducing inappropriately new material. (My favorite example was an article about scientifically engineered food that started with a quote from Winston Churchill about being close to the day when we could do away with the absurdity of raising a whole chicken just for the use of its breast and concluded with the suggestion of calling such an engineered dish a McChurchill.)

Collateral benefit from the exercise is introducing digital natives to an intriguing medium: print magazines. In one period a student asked whether he couldn’t just look up an article on While part of me was so elated he was aware of articles on that I nearly acquiesced, I steeled my heart and refused. 

There is an art of deciding when the targeted learning should momentarily give way to the unintended learning, and I don't always make the right calls, but I think I made a few right ones in this lesson last week. One student called me over and asked incredulously about a graph of world religions showing Christianity to be the most prevalent. I stifled my urge to remind him of the ban on captions, and instead briefly discussed why that graph surprised him and where the data might have come from. 

Another student raised his hand and asked, “What if the title in interesting but the first line is not?” He showed me the first line he found dull: “Neil Gaiman remembers being punished.” When I told him Neil Gaiman is a popular author, that I've read a couple of his books, and that the line made me wonder whether this is a long ago childhood memory that inspires his writing, and made me relate by thinking of punishments that I remember, his eyes lit up, and he got a bit more background information on the world. 

Something else I noticed: There were surprisingly few articles that did not follow Zinnser’s advice of closing with a quotation. I, however, will not. I’m imaginatively wondering how that will strike you--and with that, I have followed the other bit of Zinsser’s advice, “to bring the story full circle--to strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning” (67). And now I’ve done the other thing, too.

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