Thursday, September 11, 2008

SOS for Writers

After a recent SCBWI critique meeting, I was musing with a 14-year-old first-time-attendee that writers need to consider three very distinct elements when they write. For the sake of simplicity and creating an easy to remember acronym for teachers and writers, let's think of this as:

  • Story
  • Overview & Critique
  • Style


In other words, every writer, whether an elementary school child learning to write a story, a high school senior writing a critical essay on Spanish literature, or an adult crafting an article or novel; must consider WHAT he is writing (the "story" i.e., the content), the WAY in which he is writing it (i.e., style), and then finally, he must be able to sit back and critically evaluate HOW the piece is written (evaluating the mechanics, grammar, punctuation, etc.)

Right now I am listening to The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam. Not only is it an excellent compilation of the facts surrounding the Korean conflict (the "Story"), it is also written with great style and skill. Consider the following description of an early conflict against the North Koreans in July, 1950 that met with less than positive results:

"Operation Blue Hearts reflected a wildly optimistic view of how American troops would fare…It was planned as if the North Korean assault was nothing more than the arrival of a few mosquitoes that could easily be swatted away." With a simple metaphor, Halbersham communicated his distinct opinion of the operation.

Later, Halberstam described the arrival of a North Korean tank as it moved "steadily and majestically" toward a reporter. A majestic tank? Sounds like an oxymoron, but in his iconoclastic use of the adverb "majestically" Halberstam gave his reader a word picture of the Korean army.

Halberstam died in 2007 and can't tell of the hours he spent critiquing the words, paragraphs, and chapters which fill 20 books. His legacy speaks for itself.

As the SCBWI critique leader I have found that adult writers focus on one of these "SOS" elements at the expense of the other two. Student writers experience the same dilemma. I recently chatted about how freshmen lose their sense of writing "Style" when they enter high school. Robi Rego, the 9th grade language arts teacher at
Covenant Day School commented that they don't see the connection between "creative" and "expository" writing. They enjoy writing short stories in middle school, but fail to use these skills when writing essays. I reminded her that good expository writing needs the same flair, style, and pizzazz that fiction writers imbed in their stories.

As a teacher or writer, how can you apply these principles?

  • Make sure that the content is written in a cohesive fashion, makes sense, and grabs the reader's attention.
  • Look at your word choice. Use "Muscle Words": vivid verbs, specific nouns, image-driven adjectives, similes, metaphors, personification and onomatopoeia, alliteration.
  • Take the time to read your entire piece out loud. Look for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors.

WRITING SOS - What every writer needs.


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Anonymous said...

I liked the content on this site. Would like to visit again.

Jean said...

Thanks, Carol. SOS. I'll try to remember this.


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