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  • Lance Mannion
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Lance, I loved this. It resonates for a number of reasons. First, yesterday I happened to catch the end of Writer's Almanac on NPR and thought about how poems shouldn't be read silently but aloud. (I actually can't read any Shakespeare silently, I have to mutter it under my breath.)

I thought your descriptions of helping your former students find their writing voices interesting, too. I was lucky to be a reader, so I don't think I struggled with this as much as some of my peers. I remember several of my freshman college classes being chastised about people not being able to write a 5 paragraph essay. I silently thanked my high school English and journalism teachers.

I also *love* Caps For Sale. It was a favorite for some of my old babysitting charges. I think I still have most of it memorized.

minstrel hussain boy

i have the same stuff going on with my intermediate strings students at the local jc. i'm working very hard with getting them to actually listen to what they are playing. i have them bring in the music they are listening to right now (because of where we are it's heavy on norteno stuff) and we play along with it. slowly, they are catching on to the difference between notes on a page and music in the air.

i don't teach beginning strings because my nerves can't stand it. there's a special place in heaven for beginning strings teachers. or, maybe they're just masochists.


I suspect I struggle with the "writing should be smarter than talking" syndrome.

OTOH, when I delivered a weekly throwaway paper in West LA in the early 1960s I used to recite "Gunga Din" aloud for three blocks, so there's that.


I wonder if email and text-messaging will change this? Up until about 1995, millions and millions of people could go for months, even years, without ever writing anything except a grocery list and a cheque for the groceries, and reading nothing more than the TV schedule. Email changed all of that, and now text messaging.

Ken Muldrew

That's funny, I have been thinking just the opposite; that a person needs to see what they're writing for it to make sense. When I get blind reviews, some of them are written by physicians and the way they write is to dictate into a little recorder and then have their secretaries transcribe what they have said and render it into English as best they can. Because the reviews are blind, I don't know beforehand whether it has been written by a physician or a scientist, but reading gives away the game in an instant. The letters written by dictation are largely incoherent (and sometimes even approach gibberish) whereas the letters written at a keyboard are easily understandable (the confusion of ideas and general assholery of the writer remains an enduring mystery, but their words do convey their intentions clearly).

That being said, I guess this doesn't really argue against your point. The incomprehensible aspect is due to the transcriber not being familiar enough with the material and the unwillingness of physicians to edit their text. Still, it's an amusing comparison.

Kevin Wolf

Like clairehelene7, I always loved to read (though not ambitiously - no Shakespeare - hey, I was lazy) and I believe that helped hugely when writing. I think my art history teachers in college were thrilled to read some of my test essays, and I'm not bragging. They actually made sense.

If you read enough, and essentially internalize good writing, you'll pick up on what it is that's so good about it. (A savvy teacher can obviously point the way.) I don't think I ever had a particularly terrific English or Composition teacher in school, but with basic training, a lot of reading, and practice, I was able to learn how to write. That I still struggle with certain sins - like passive voice - is very much true but at least I'm aware of it.

More folks should read more. It's that simple. If everybody read more James Thurber, for instance, even terrible writers would be a little less terrible.


The issue of student voice - both literal and figurative - is something that I see my students struggle with on a regular basis. Their writing is either stilted and artificial, or bled dry of anything that resembles a personal opinion, and a lot of it is I think due to the factors you mention. I think too that they are actively discouraged from expressing their own voice - the use of the first person is forbidden (for reasons that have to do with teachers being too lazy to explain the difference between an unsupported opinion and a reasoned argument based on evidence) and all too many papers are about summarizing what other people wrote, rather than analyzing them and using them as support for one's own point.

Often my students are incredulous and suspicious when I tell them that I want to hear what _they_ think, in their own words - and they are right to be suspicious, because there are still too many teachers who want bland, narrative papers written in the passive third person.

On the sound of the language, I often suggest that students read their drafts aloud as part of the editing process - or, better yet, have someone else read them aloud. Listening to someone stumbling through your writing throws the confusing parts, the long awkward phrases, the inappropriate or lacking punctuation, etc. into high relief, and thus makes it easier to correct them.

Of course, many academics have problems with the written/spoken language issue, as sitting in on any academic conference will demonstrate. For every person who gives a lively, dynamic presentation of their ideas, there will be at least one and probably more who read their ideas directly from the page in a stilted monotone. It's rather sad, actually.


For all that - it occurs to me belatedly - I am myself one of those people who often thinks more clearly when I can SEE what it is I am writing/saying. One of the reasons why I prefer email over telephone conversations, for example, is that it allows me to keep track of the various leaps and jumps in my thinking, and it increases the odds that my thoughts will come across in a clear, linear fashion. Verbal arguments are my particular weak point - often I will lose track of what I was saying only a few minutes earlier, unless it was a particularly crucial point, and sometimes I'll talk myself into an outright contradiction of something I said before. (I would make a lousy politician, for this reason alone.)

I'm more of a visual thinker generally, so it's not surprising that my brain prefers the concreteness immutability of text to the ephemeral nature of speech.


Make that "concrete immutability" - obviously even seeing my words isn't enough to prevent tangles!

Ronzoni Rigatoni

As a long-term substitute teacher, I was given all the "bandits" in JHS, and of course I inherited an English class. It was the best time I ever had. "Just write the way you would tell me," I told them, exactly as you would say it." "Swear words and all?," they asked. "Of course. That's what God invented editors for. We'll discuss it when we see it."

Worked for us, but I'll never teach again LOL. I left the next year for a position in law enforcement, for which this particular class was perfect preparation.


James Herndon wrote The Way It Spozed To Be in 1968. You'd love it Lance.

By the way, I read this book after finding it on my Dad's bookshelf.

joel hanes

Richer than I you can never be
I had a mother who read to me.

Mike Schilling

Odd. I find that I write far more clearly than I talk, largely because I can go back and edit my ramblings into relative coherence.

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