Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Models for Writing

Randall Stephens

When I teach writing I use a short piece by William Zinsser from the American Scholar: "Writing English as a Second Language" (Winter 2010). Yes, my students are native speakers.  Regardless, this essay is spot on for college students. (I've blogged about it before here.)
A WPA poster from 1937. Courtesy
of the Library of Congress.

Zinsser offers up a host of great tips:

Cut horrible, long Latin-origin words: "communicated, conversion, reconciliation, enhancements, verification."  When these are used/overused they lead to stilted or stuffy prose.

Use good, short, simple nouns: "infinitely old Anglo-Saxon nouns that express the fundamentals of everyday life: house, home, child, chair, bread, milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road."

"I have four principles of writing good English. They are Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity."

"So remember: Simple is good. Writing is not something you have to embroider with fancy stitches to make yourself look smart."

Undegrads and grad students need to hear that advice over and over again.

Zinsser also remarks "We all need models. Bach needed a model; Picasso needed a model. Make a point of reading writers who are doing the kind of writing you want to do."  I like to add that if a student is not interested in reading and makes no effort to read good prose, then he/she will most likely never become a good writer.

The point about reading and having a model is excellent.  I have had students in my history methods/historiography course bring in one or two books--fiction or non fiction--that they have enjoyed and that we can use to spark a discussion. We go around the table and ask, "What makes this a good book?  How does the author set the scene and use color?  What do I like about the writing, organization, etc?  How could I model my own writing, in some way, on this?"

Here are some of the authors and books that I enjoy reading.  (I've brought a few of these titles into class for the above exercise.)  I can only hope a little of the style of these authors will rub off on me.  

Jane Smiley, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998)

Thomas McMahon, McKay's Bees (1979)

Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1995)

David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (1998)

Richard Russon, Straight Man (1998)

Mary McCarthy, The Groves of Academe (1952)

Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood (1952)

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (1973)

Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1998)

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (1919)

John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel (1930)

What about you?  What models do you have? 


Ian Hugh Clary said...

George Orwell, especially his essays. Evelyn Waugh, in particular "Brideshead Revisited." I also think that Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis are excellent writers. Of course Hemingway for his simplicity and ability to say much with few words.

Philip White said...

Still digging a lot of historical fiction writers for their effortless blend of fact-based details and literary flair, including David Liss (The Coffee Trader), Matthew Pearl (The Last Dickens) and Robert Harris (Fatherland). Fast reset the old ego/humility balance (i.e to realize how far I have to go/how I wish I could do dialogue and jump into this genre) when I read any of these fine authors' work.

Randall said...

The Dusty Bookshelf in Lawrence Ks has a great hist fiction section.