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This essay is a chapter in Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Volume 2, a peer-reviewed open textbook series for the writing classroom.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Writing spaces : readings on writing. Volume 1 / edited by Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky. p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-60235-184-4 (pbk. : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-60235-185-1 (adobe ebook) 1. College readers. 2. English language–Rhetoric. I. Lowe, Charles, 1965- II. Zemliansky, Pavel.

PE1417.W735 2010
808’.0427–dc22
2010019487

Ten Ways To Think About Writing: Metaphoric Musings for College Writing Students by E. Shelley Reid

1. A Thousand Rules and Three Principles

Writing is hard.

I’m a writer and a writing professor, the daughter and granddaughter of writers and writing professors, and I still sit down at my keyboard every week and think, writing is hard.

I also think, though, that writing is made harder than it has to be when we try to follow too many rules for writing. Which rules have you heard? Here are some I was taught:

Always have a thesis. I before E except after C. No one-sentence paragraphs. Use concrete nouns. A semicolon joins two complete sentences. A conclusion restates the thesis and the topic sentences. Don’t use “I,” check your spelling, make three main points, and don’t repeat yourself. Don’t use contractions. Cite at least three sources, capitalize proper nouns, and don’t use “you.” Don’t start a sentence with “And” or “But,” don’t end a sentence with a preposition, give two examples in every paragraph, and use transition words. Don’t use transition words too much.

When we write to the rules, writing seems more like a chore than a living process that connects people and moves the world forward. I find it particularly hard to cope with all those “Don’ts.” It’s no wonder we get writer’s block, hands poised above the keyboard, worried about all the ways we could go wrong, suddenly wondering if we have new messages or whether there’s another soda in the fridge.

COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS:

  1. What is the “hook” of this essay? Please state it in your own words. Why do you think Reid starts the essay this way? Was this hook interesting to you and/or did it connect with you in any way? Why or why not?

  2. Which of these “writing rules” have you heard before? Did trying to follow those rules makes writing harder for you? Why or why not?

We can start to unblock the live, negotiated process of writing for real people by cutting the thousand rules down to three broader principles:

  1. Write about what you know about, are curious about, are passionate about (or what you can find a way to be curious about or interested in).
  2. Show, don’t just tell.
  3. Adapt to the audience and purpose you’re writing for.

When we write this way, we write rhetorically: that is, we pay attention to the needs of the author and the needs of the reader rather than the needs of the teacher—or the rules in the textbook.

Everything that matters from the preceding list of rules can be connected to one of those three rhetorical principles, and the principles address lots of aspects of writing that aren’t on the list but that are central to why humans struggle to express themselves through written language. Write about what you know about so that you can show not just tell in order to adapt to your audience’s needs and accomplish your goals. (Unless you do a good job showing what you mean, your audience will not understand your message. You will not meet their expectations or accomplish your goals.) Make clear points early so that your audience can spot your expertise or passion right from the start. Write multi-sentence paragraphs in which you show key ideas in enough detail that your audience doesn’t have to guess what you mean. Use a semicolon correctly in order to show how your carefully thought out ideas relate to one another—and to win your reader’s confidence.

Writing will still be hard because these are some of the hardest principles in college; they may be some of the hardest principles in the galaxy. But if you write from those three principles, and use some of the strategies listed below, your writing will finally have a fighting chance of being real, not just rules. And that’s when writing gets interesting and rewarding enough that we do it even though it’s hard.

COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS:

  1. Explain Reid’s 3 writing rules in your own words.
  2. How do you think Reid’s rules can help simplify your writing process?

2. Show & Telepaths

What does that “show, don’t just tell” idea really mean? Let’s try some time travel to get a better idea.

Can you remember being in kindergarten on show-and-tell day? Imagine that a student gets up in front of you and your fellow five-year-olds, empty-handed, and says, “I have a baseball signed by Hank Aaron that’s in perfect condition, but I can’t bring it to school.” You’re only five years old, but you know that she’s got two problems, right? Not only can you not see the ball to know exactly what “perfect condition” looks like, to eyeball the signature and smell the leather and count the stitches, but you have no reason to believe this kid even if she describes it perfectly. If you tell without showing, your reader might not only be confused but might entirely disbelieve you. So you’re two strikes down.

Another way to explain show vs. tell is with a story. There is a very, very short science fiction story in a collection of very short science fiction stories entitled “Science Fiction for Telepaths.” This is the entire story, just six words: “Aw, you know what I mean” (Blake 235).

“Wah-ha-ha!” go the telepaths, “what a great story! I really liked the part about the Martian with three heads trying to use the gamma blaster to get the chartreuse kitchen sink to fly out the window and land on the six-armed Venusian thief! Good one!” Since the telepaths can read the storyteller’s mind, they don’t need any other written details: they know the whole story instantly.

This story is a little like when you say to your best friend from just about forever, you know what I mean, and sometimes she even does, because she can almost read your mind. Sometimes, though, even your best buddy from way back gives you that look. You know that look: the one that says he thinks you’ve finally cracked. He can’t read your mind, and you’ve lost him.

If you can confuse your best friend in the whole world, even when he’s standing right there in front of you, think how easy it could be to confuse some stranger who’s reading your writing days or months or years from now. If we could read each other’s minds, writing wouldn’t be hard at all, because we would always know what everyone meant, and we’d never doubt each other. If you figure out how to read minds this semester, I hope you’ll tell us how it works! In the meantime, though, you have to show what you mean.

COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS:

  1. Explain the two examples of “show v. tell” in this section in your own words.
  2. According to Reid, why is it important to always show your readers what you mean instead of just telling them what you mean?

3. The Little Green Ball and Some People: Doing Details Right

Now we know: I can read my own mind, and you can read your own mind, and this self-mind-reading is even easier to do than breathing in and out on a lovely April morning. When I write something like “I have a little green ball” on the whiteboard, I read my mind as I read the board, so I understand it—and I’m positive, therefore, that you understand it. Meanwhile, you read my sentence and your own mind together and the meaning is so perfectly clear to you that it’s nearly impossible to imagine that you’re not understanding exactly what I intended.

I have a little green ball. Even a five-year-old could read this sentence and know what I mean, right?

Try something. Bring both hands up in front of your face, and use each one to show one possible size of this “little” ball. (You can try this with friends: have everyone close their eyes and show the size of a “little” ball with their hands, then open their eyes, and look around.) Hmm. Already there’s some possible disagreement, even though it seemed so clear what “little” meant.

Maybe “green” is easier: you know what “green” is, right? Of course. But now, can you think of two different versions of “green”? three versions? five? In the twenty-five minds in a classroom, say, we might have at least twenty kinds of little, and maybe a hundred kinds of green, and we haven’t even discussed what kind of “ball” we might be talking about. Those of you who are math whizzes can see the permutations that come from all those variables. If I sent you to Mega Toyland with the basic instructions, “Buy me a little green ball,” the chances are slim that you would come home with the ball I had in mind.

If I don’t care about the exact ball—I just need something ball-like and not too huge and somewhat greenish—then it doesn’t matter. I can leave it up to you to decide. (Occasionally, it’s effective to avoid details: if I were writing a pop song about my broken heart, I’d be deliberately vague so that you’d think the song was about your heart, and then you’d decide to download or even buy my song.) But the more I care that you know exactly what I’m thinking, the more the details matter to me, then the more information I need to give you.

What information would you need to write down so that someone would buy the exact little green ball that you’re thinking of while he or she is shopping at Mega Toyland?

If you’re going to show me, or each other, what you’re thinking, using only language, it will take several sentences, perhaps a whole paragraph—filled with facts and statistics, comparisons, sensory description, expert testimony, examples, personal experiences—to be sure that what’s in your mind is what’s in my mind. After my students and I finish examining my ball and choosing rich language to show it, the whiteboard often reads something like this: “I have a little green ball about an inch in diameter, small enough to hide in your hand. It’s light neon green like highlighter ink and made of smooth shiny rubber with a slightly rough line running around its equator as if two halves were joined together. When I drop it on the tile floor, it bounces back nearly as high as my hand; when I throw it down the hallway, it careens unpredictably off the walls and floor.” Now the ball in your mind matches the ball in my hand much more closely.

Showing is harder than just telling, and takes longer, and is dependent on your remembering that nobody reads your mind like you do. Can you think of other “little green ball” words or phrases that you might need to show more clearly? How do you describe a good movie or a bad meal? How would you describe your mother, your hometown, your car? Try it on a blank page or in an open document: write one “you know what I mean” sentence, then write every detail and example you can think of to make sure that a reader does know what you mean. Then you can choose the most vivid three or four, the ones that best show your readers what you want them to understand.

COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS:

  1. Explain the example of the “little green ball” in your own words.

  2. Why does Reid give this example? Did it help you understand the importance of giving enough detail in your writing? Why or why not?

There’s another kind of description that requires mind reading. If I write on the board that “some people need to learn to mind their own business sometimes,” would you agree with me? (By now, you should be gaining some skepticism about being able to read my mind.) In my head, I’m filling in “some people” and “their business” and “sometimes” with very specific, one-time-only examples. It’s like I have a YouTube clip playing in my head, or a whole season’s worth of a reality TV show, and you don’t have access to it yet. (I might as well be saying “I have cookies!” but not offering to share any of them with you.)

If I give you a snapshot from that film, if I use language to provide a one-time-only example, I show you: “My ninety-year-old grandmother needs to stop calling up my younger cousin Celia like she did last night and telling her to persuade me to move back home to Laramie so my mom won’t get lonely and take up extreme snowboarding just to go meet some nice people.” Does that help you see how the one- time-only example you were thinking of, when you read my boring sentence along with your own mind, is different from what I wanted you to think? As writers, we need to watch out for the some people example and the plural example: “Sometimes things bother me” or “Frederick Douglass had lots of tricks for learning things he needed to know.” If an idea is important, give an exact one-time snapshot with as much detail as possible.

COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS:

  1. Explain the example of the “exact one-time snapshot” in your own words.

  2. Why do you think Reid gave this example? Did it help you understand the importance of giving enough detail in your writing? Why or why not?

In a writing class, you also have to learn to be greedy as a reader, to ask for the good stuff from someone else’s head if they don’t give it to you, to demand that they share their cookies: you have to be brave and say, “I can’t see what you mean.” This is one of the roles teachers take up as we read your writing. (One time during my first year teaching, one of my students snorted in exasperation upon receiving his essay back from me. “So, like, what do you do,” he asked, “just go through the essay and write ‘Why? How so? Why? How so? Why? How so?’ randomly all over the margins and then slap that ‘B–’ on there?” I grinned and said, “Yep, that’s about it.”)

It’s also your job as a peer reader to read skeptically and let your fellow writer know when he or she is assuming the presence of a mind reader—because none of us knows for sure if we’re doing that when we write, not until we encounter a reader’s “Hunh?” or “Wha-a-a-?” You can learn a lot about writing from books and essays like this one, but in order to learn how not to depend on reading your own mind, you need feedback from a real, live reader to help you gauge how your audience will respond.

COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS:

  1. Explain how Reid ends section 3 of this essay in your own words.

  2. How will you respond to instructor or peer feedback from now on when you receive comments that say your idea is not clear?

4. Lost Money and Thank-you Notes: What’s in an Audience?

Writing teachers are always going on and on about audience, as if you didn’t already know all about this concept. You can do a simple thought-experiment to prove to them, and to yourself, that you already fully understand that when the audience changes, your message has to change, sometimes drastically.

Imagine that you’ve done something embarrassingly stupid or impulsive that means you no longer have any money to spend this semester. (I won’t ask you what it is, or which credit card or 888 phone number or website it involves, or who was egging you on.) You really need the money, but you can’t get it back now. If I just said, “Write a message to try to get some money from someone,” you might struggle a bit, and then come up with some vague points about your situation.

But if I say, “Ask your best friend for the money,” you should suddenly have a very clear idea of what you can say. Take a minute and consider: what do you tell this friend? Some of my students have suggested, “Remember how you owe me from that time I helped you last February?” or “I’ll pay you back, with interest” or “I’ll do your laundry for a month.” Most of my students say they’ll tell their friends the truth about what happened: would you? What else might you say to your own friend, particularly if he were giving you that skeptical look?

Suppose then that your friend is nearly as broke as you are, and you have to ask one of your parents or another family adult. Now what do you say to help loosen the parental purse strings? Do you tell the truth about what happens? (Does it matter which parent it is?) Do you say, “Hey, you owe me”? Some of my students have suggested choosing messages that foreground their impending starvation, their intense drive for a quality education, or their ability to learn a good lesson. Would your parent want you to offer to pay back the money? What else might you say?

Notice how easy it is for you to switch gears: nothing has changed but the audience, and yet you’ve quickly created a whole new message, changing both the content and the language you were using.

One more try: when your parent says there’s just no extra cash to give you, you may end up at the local bank trying to take out a loan. What will you tell the bank? Should the loan officer hear how you lost your money, or how you promise you’ll be more responsible in the future? Should you try looking hungry and wan? Probably not: by discussing collateral (your five-year-old Toyota) and repayment terms (supported by your fry-jockey job at McSkippy’s), you’re adjusting your message once again.

COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS:

  1. Explain the example that Reid gives to explain the concept of “audience” in your own words.

  2. Why do you think Reid gave this example? Did it help you understand the importance of knowing who your audience is? Why or why not?

Sometimes writing teachers talk about a “primary” and “secondary” audience, as if that were really a complicated topic, but you know all about this idea, too. Take just a minute and think about writing a thank-you note. If it’s a thank-you note to your grandmother, then your primary audience is your grandmother, so you write to her. But if your grandmother is like mine, she may show your note to someone else, and all those people become secondary audiences. Who might see, or hear about, your note to your grandmother? Neighbors, other relatives, her yoga group or church friends? If you know your note will be stuck up on the fridge, then you can’t use it as a place to add snarky remarks about your younger brother: you write for a primary audience, but you also need to think for a minute to be sure your message is adjusted for the needs of your secondary audiences. (If you haven’t written a thank-you note recently, try to remember the last time someone forwarded your email or text message to someone else, without asking you first.)

In a writing classroom, everyone knows that, in reality, your primary audience is the teacher—just as during rehearsal or team practice the primary audience is the director or coach who decides whether you’ll be first clarinet or take your place in the starting line-up. Your classmates (or teammates) may be part of a secondary audience who also need considering. It can be tempting to take the middle-of-the- road route and forget about any other audiences. But in all these cases, you won’t be practicing forever. It helps to imagine another primary audience—sometimes called a “target audience”—outside the classroom, in order to gain experience tailoring your performance to a “real” audience. It also helps to imagine a very specific primary audience (a person or small group or publication), so that instead of staring at the screen thinking vague “some people” thoughts, you can quickly come up with just the right words and information to match that audience’s needs, and it helps to consider some exact secondary audiences so that you can include ideas that will appeal to those readers as well. (Who do you suppose are the specific primary and secondary audiences for this essay? How does the writing adapt to those audiences?)

COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS:

  1. Explain the concepts of “primary and secondary audiences” in your own words.

  2. Based on Reid’s explanations and examples, how can knowing who your audience is help you write better?

5. Pink Houses & Choruses: Keeping Your Reader With You

Once you’ve identified a target audience, and put down all the detail you can think of to help show your ideas to those readers, you need to focus on not losing them somewhere along the way. Earlier in your writing career as you worked on writing cohesive essays, you may have watched writing teachers go totally ballistic over thesis statements and topic sentences—even though some teachers insisted that they weren’t requiring any kind of set formula. How can this be? What’s up with all this up-front information?

The concept is actually pretty simple, if we step out of the writing arena for a minute. Say you’re driving down the interstate at sixty-five miles an hour with three friends from out of town, and you suddenly say to them, “Hey, there’s that amazing Pink House!” What happens? Probably there’s a lot of whiplash-inducing head swiveling, and someone’s elbow ends up in someone else’s ribs, and maybe one of your friends gets a glimpse, but probably nobody really gets a chance to see it (and somebody might not believe you if she didn’t see it for herself!). What if you had said instead, “Hey, coming up on the right here in about two miles, there’s an amazing huge neon Pink House: watch for it”? They’d be ready, they’d know where to look and what to look for, and they’d see what you wanted them to see.

Writers need to advise their readers in a similar way. That advice doesn’t always need to be in a thesis statement or a topic sentence, but it does need to happen regularly so that readers don’t miss something crucial.

COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS:

  1. According to Reid, why is it important to inform your readers of points that you will make in your essay?

  2. What examples did Reid give to illustrate this concept? Please explain it in your own words.

“But,” you say, “I’m not supposed to repeat things in my essay; it gets boring!” That’s true, up to a point, but there are exceptions. Have you ever noticed how the very same company will run the exact same advertisement for light beer five or six times during one football game? It’s not as if the message they are trying to get across is that complex: Drink this beer and you will be noticed by this beautiful woman, or get to own this awesome sports car, or meet these wonderful friends who will never ever let you down. The ad costs the company hundreds of thousands of dollars each time, but there it is again. Beer: sports car. Beer: sports car. Contemporary Americans have a very high tolerance for repeated messages; we even come to depend on them, like football fans relishing the instant replay. Beer: sports car.

If you’d rather think like an artist than an advertising executive, consider popular music. Pick a pop song, any song—“Jingle Bells,” for instance, or whatever song everybody’s listening to this month—and the next time you listen, count the number of times the chorus, or even the title phrase, comes up. Do we get bored by the repetition? Not usually. In fact, the chorus is crucial for audience awareness because it’s often the first (or even the only) part of the song the listener learns and can sing along with. Repeating the chorus helps bring the audience along with you from verse to verse: the audience thinks, “Aha, I know this!”

Now, what you’re trying to say in your essay is much more complex than beer: sports car or I will always love you. If you only say it once or twice—there, in the last paragraph, where you finally figured out the most important point, or maybe once at the start and once at the end—we might miss it, or only get a piece of it. Here you’ve spent hundreds of minutes working on this idea, and we zoom past it at sixty-five m.p.h. and miss it entirely! You have to bring it back to our attention throughout the essay. Of course, you don’t want to repeat just anything. You certainly don’t want to repeat the same examples or vague “some people” theories, stuffing baloney into the middle of the paper to fill it out. But the core idea—beer: sports car—needs to appear early and often, using the same key words, even, as an anchor for all the complex ideas and examples you’re connecting to it, as a place for the audience to recognize the main idea and find a way to “sing along.”

So as you’re revising, add your chorus back into some key middle parts of your essay—the beginnings and endings of paragraphs, like commercial breaks, can be places that readers expect repetition—until you start to really feel uncomfortable about your repetition . . . and then add it one more time, and it might be enough, but it shouldn’t be too much. (Since you read the essay dozens of times and you read your own mind, you’ll get antsy about repetition long before your readers will in their one trip through your essay.) If you get a good balance, your reader—the same person who keeps laughing at the beer ad or mumbling the chorus to the pop song without knowing the rest of the lyrics—won’t even notice that you’re repeating. When I work with my students, I say: “I promise to tell you—no harm, no penalty—if you’re ever too clear about your main point.” I find that very few people make it that far, but they like having the encouragement to try. You and your peer readers can make the same agreement.

COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS:

  1. According to Reid, why is it important to repeat keywords/keyphrases and main ideas in your essay?

  2. What examples did Reid give to illustrate this concept? Please use your own words.

6. Fruit Jell-O: Balancing Arguments & Examples

“Great,” you say, “so I’m supposed to have all these examples and to have all these Pink House reminders, but it’s hard to keep it all straight.”

That’s a very smart observation—because one of the main challenges writers face, when we can’t read someone’s mind or get them to read ours, is learning how to balance the writing that states our theories and arguments with the writing that provides our evidence and examples. It turns out that it’s easier to do just one of these things at a time when writing, but having theories and arguments without evidence and examples is a recipe for confusion and misunderstanding.

I find that it helps sometimes to think about fruit Jell-Oâ„¢, the kind my mom used to take to family get-togethers: lime Jell-O with mandarin orange slices in it, or berry Jell-O with cherries in it. Fruit Jell-O is a pretty good balance of foods to take to an informal family gathering: it meets the needs of the audience.

You wouldn’t want to take plain gelatin to show off to your family, after all. Think of the last time you ate plain old Jell-O, with no additional food (or beverage) added to it. Weren’t you in a hospital, or a school cafeteria, or some other unhappy place? Hospitals serve plain gelatin because it looks and behaves like food, but it has so few ingredients that it won’t irritate your mouth or upset your digestion. That same blandness means that not a lot of family members will choose it over the tortilla chips or the macaroons.

Writing just your opinions, theories, and arguments is a lot like serving plain Jell-O: it seems like you’re doing something productive, but there’s not much substance to it. Politicians often write plain Jell-O speeches with no details or examples, because that kind of talk motivates people but won’t irritate voters with tiny details about time or money. Talent-show contestants sometimes choose to sing plain Jell-O songs for the same reason.

On the other hand, if you took a bowl of cherries with you, your family might perk up a bit, but cherries are kind of hard to serve. They roll out of the bowl and off of those flimsy paper plates and end up sliding into the cheese dip or being squished into the new carpet by your two-year-old cousin. People finger all the cherries but take just a few (using tongs on cherries just seems too formal!), and it’s hard to know how to handle the pits, or to eat gooey already-pitted cherries with your hands.

Writing just your examples, reasons, and details is a lot like bringing cherries to the party: it’s interesting and lively, but readers don’t know what to make of it all. Some of your reasons or stories will roll out of readers’ heads if they aren’t firmly attached to an argument; some readers will meander through all your details and just randomly remember one or two of them rather than building a whole picture.

Good writers blend argument and evidence as they write, so that readers get both elements together all the way through. Good revisers go back and adjust the recipe, seeking a workable combination. Sometimes as you’re revising it can feel odd to be just adding cherries: it can seem like you’re packing in too many extra details when there’s already a perfectly good piece of fruit there.

Other times it seems weird to be just adding Jell-O, because all those “chorus” sentences sound the same and have the same flavor, and you don’t want to repeat yourself unnecessarily. It’s hard to get the balance right, and you’ll want to have your readers help you see where to adjust the ingredients. But if you remember that the fruit/evidence is the tastiest part (so you want the most vibrant examples), and the point of Jell-O/argum