Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Lessons from On Writing Well

Over the last few days, I've been checking out books on writing. At the library, I'm the guy juggling a stack of books about writing. I'll read a few chapters. Then, put the book in the return bin. Most books are wordy, boring, and are too focused on teaching.

William Zinsser is only wordy when it suits his subject. His On Writing Well works because every sentence does what it must and not one thing more. I love this paragraph:
...the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what...A clear sentence is no accident.
How can you argue with that? Reading this paragraph makes me want to go rip the guts out of something I've written. Then, put that piece back together with these points in mind.

WZ makes many valuable points. One of them suggests another idea.

Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper.

What's the Clutter in Your Classroom?

As you know, Mike Schmoker has been on a "simplicity" kick for several years. He's exhorting educators to throw out the unnecessary, focus on what we have to do. He makes that point in his September, 2019 ASCD article, Focusing on the Essentials.

What if we were to rewrite WZ's advice for the classroom?

Look for the clutter in your instructional strategies. Prune ineffective ones, ruthlessly. Be grateful for every minute of instructional time you regain. Re-examine every strategy, verify it's research-base, before you put it back into your classroom.
Ok, let me try that again...
Find what does not result in student growth. Stop doing that. Before you replace it, make sure the research says it works. Only put strategies that work in your classroom. 
Sheesh. This could take awhile.

Some Other Takeaways from On Writing Well:

  • "The point is that you have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. You must know what the essential tools are and what job they were designed to do. Extending the metaphor of carpentry, it's first necessary to be able to saw wood neatly and to drive nails. Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials, if that's your taste. But you can never forget that you are practicing a craft that's based on certain principles. If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart."

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