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Saturday, March 10, 2012

see carefully, write accurately

Teaching the "descriptive essay" can be wonderful. It can also be maddening. Without careful guidance, the students often produce details for details' sake, bloated adjectives, and trying-too-hard similes. All of which misses the point. Why? Because descriptive writing seeks to balance accuracy with emphasis. The two must work in harmony; otherwise, you can end up with writing that's "verifiable" but lacks a "purpose" or vice versa.

So how do we craft effective descriptions? I start by asking students to appreciate how even the most rich and sensory details begin from awareness—the author's. And, thus, as developing writers, we should make sure that before we start to describe, we have observed. When syntax truly sings (in any genre), the writing is, at root, well observed.

OK, fine, but how exactly (as writers) do we effectively observe? Borrow the journalist's approach: Who, What, When, Where, and Why (and, sometimes, How). Such a concern for basic "facts" and "objective givens" might seem so obvious as to be moot. But let me be clear: I'm not suggesting opening your actual essay (or article or whatever) with the 5Ws; rather, I'm suggesting that the 5Ws is an invaluable tool in the prewriting stage, the stage in which you must thoughtfully observe. Put another way, use the 5Ws to brainstorm, to help you discover what you're truly looking at. Once you've generated lots and lots of observational notes, then you can make description choices—what to specify, how to present, etc.

A final note: below is something I've copied-and-pasted from Dartmouth's "Material for Faculty." I think the "Elements" outline is priceless for observational writing (even though the particular material in question is labeled under "Teaching Argument"). The document says:

     In order to help students successfully and critically interrogate their ideas, professors may want to  
     employ critical thinking pedagogy in their classrooms. Critical thinking pedagogy breaks down a
     student's existing critical thinking into discrete activities, and then shows students how to reflect
     carefully on each of these activities in order to sharpen their thinking skills.

  1. Observations. From a series of observations, we can come to establish:
  2. Facts. From a series of facts, or from an absence of fact, we make:
  3. Inferences. Testing the validity of our inferences, we can make:
  4. Assumptions. From our assumptions, we form our:
  5. Opinions. Taking our opinions, we use evidence and the principles of logic to develop:
  6. Arguments. And when we want to test our arguments and to challenge the arguments of others, we employ:
  7. Critical Analysis (through which we challenge the observations, facts, inferences, assumptions, and opinions in the arguments that we are analyzing).

1 comment:

Jabiz said...

Another succinct and helpful post.
The following line, really resonated with me, "When syntax truly sings (in any genre), the writing is, at root, well observed."

That list at the end could be a great classroom display and useful for students.

Keep'em coming.