Sunday, January 28, 2007

Don't Bring Me Down...

"In life, three things are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind." --Gil Grissom, CSI, sort of quoting Henry James.

My student's will begin critiquing their classmates' writings soon, and, I want them to be aware of this one thing: it is more important to tell someone what he/she is doing well than to find a multitude of faults with an essay.

That's not to say that criticism shouldn't point out areas that need work, but students (or anyone, really) who are providing feedback need to remember that it's the WRITING that needs the help, not the WRITER (well, the writer might need help, too, but is that your job?).

With writing, the focus should always be on how to make the writing better--what can be added, what should be removed, how can the writer pull us further into the essay? You don't have to agree with what the writer has written; you just have to help the writer say it the best way. That's all. He/she doesn't need to write the way you do, or consider the same topics, or draw the same conclusions. The writer needs to find the best way to say what needs to be said. Period.

I always caution my students to temper critisicm with praise. Start with the good stuff to make the "negative" stuff easier to take. Don't say "You need to clarify this"; say, instead, "This paragraph would benefit from more detail. What color was her dress? Her hair?" Point out places where the essay would benefit from a bit more effort. Praise fairly and truthfully.

We all benefit from serious, helpful advice. This is one time that the truth needs to be told, but it needs to be told with kindness.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Elements of Style

Many, many years ago (in a galaxy far, far away...wait, that's from a movie, isn't it?), I came across a slim volume entitled The Elements of Style. The primary author, William Strunk, Jr., compiled the book from the lectures in his English classes at Cornell University. Legend has it that his "rules" were so specific that he had to repeat them three times each in order to fill up his course time.

After Strunk's death, his former student, E. B. White (the beloved author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little) was asked to revise and update Strunk's book. The agents asked him to add a section on style and usage. This little book is so well known that all you have to say is "Strunk and White," and writers know exactly what you are talking about.

Now, forty years after I first came across that book, I want to emphasize how important it still is. In it's 100 or so pages, it distills the rules of grammar, punctuation and usage to their essences. It's not a racy read; in fact, it is rather dry. But, if studied carefully, it will provide its reader with the basics of good writing. I mean, how can you improve on the admonishment to "Omit needless words"? That pretty much covers good writing!

This book is seldom revised since White's death, and, after all, why should it be? The rules that apply to writing on paper still apply to writing on the computer screen, whether we are discussing emails or essays. Good writing is good writing, however you do it.

If you buy only one "grammar book" in your lifetime, I'd recommend this one.