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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

whither core skill?

I was daydreaming over coffee today asked myself this question: what core skill—above all else—do I want my writing students to learn? My answer (which I'm sure will change a year from now) is DEVELOPMENT—that is, students must learn how to effectively develop an idea in writing. Why?
  • Development, at least in the idealized sense, rests on the belief that people can come together and listen to ideas based not just on claims, but on how they are also supported. And, truth be told, is anything taught less in our schools than the importance of support for an opinion? We are so busy teaching our students how to make a focused and singular claim that we often fail to teach the larger lesson, which is this: Argument is not just the thesis statement, but also the collective evidence one is using to support it.
  • Effective development involves a chain of reasoning that acknowledges other perspectives exist, that wrestles and responds to such perspectives in good faith.
  • "School Writing" is often characterized by a certain flatness. The point is stated early and often and then it's over. The end. Some of my colleagues call this "circling the drain of generality" or "pained" writing. To break students of this style, a fellow teacher explains development thus: "An idea gets handed down the page, sentence by sentence—like the baton in a relay race." Totally.
  • We can't talk about development without talking about order. When a writer is effectively developing an idea, his or her discourse demands a sort of "logical sequence." Change the sequence, and the entire thing falls apart. Simply put, if the arrangement of your sentences is not bound by a certain causal connection, then you've put forward nothing more than a pile of bricks. For more on this, consider how a baseball manager puts together the lineup. The same is true for how writers put together ideas.
  • When a writer has effectively developed an idea, the logic is visible—that is, we (as readers) can take note of how the ideas are sequenced according to an intention. Rereading the text, we even able to name the precise relationship between how each sentence connects to the preceding one. What's more, we're able to summarize what larger point all the sentences add up to.
In sum, all ideas (if they're worth writing about at any length) contain layers of complexity. When we develop our ideas, what we're doing is taking our ideas apart to better see what they contain, what they're built upon, how they interface with other ideas, and so on. When we do this, we are doing more than just writing; we are engaged in rhetoric. Speaker, topic, audience, context: all the moving parts. But forget all that. All you need is this: raise questions. Raise questions while you write. It takes time, it doesn't happen overnight, but it gets easier and more natural with consistent practice. And it's the only way to get the bulb switched on.

That said, freewriting (making a mess, embracing chaos, exploring ideas to see where they go) is still the start of it all. We can't develop an idea that we don't have.

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