Kent Oswald

Writer and Writing Coach

Kent Oswald - Writer and Writing Coach

Two Plus Two Might Equal Chipmanzee

typing, behatted chimpEfficient written communication may be considered as if it were a process similar to math or chemistry. So, trying to help a student frustrated with his/her writing, I’ll often hear myself plead, “you just have to learn ‘the formula’.” A petard (perhaps canard to some) upon which I recently found myself hoist.

As in … the mother of a student recently thanked me for his SAT writing score increasing from 610 to 710. I was pleased for him and for her, but was struck with the sadden (sic) realization that a number was being interpreted as a creativity measure. One hundred more points shouldn’t define anyone as a “better” writer, when what it really measures is an improved mastering of a process.

In this case, the process is creation of a standard five-paragraph (two-page) essay, skeletalized as:

  • Address the question in the first sentence, preferably with an thought interesting to reader and not just a recitation of what is asked
  • List and create thematic links for three main arguments in the first paragraph to support what will be said on the topic
  • Begin each of the next three paragraphs by expanding on how one of the arguments is relevant, and then add two to three specific examples and evidential support
  • In final paragraph acknowledge others differ, before briefly highlighting how they focus on the question from a more limited scope, or use tainted evidence
  • Conclude a couple sentences later suggesting that the actual conclusion is at least slightly more far reaching than specifically detailed in the essay
  • Edit with an eye out for tics that put off readers. These include sentences under (somewhat arbitrarily) five words or more than 15 and paragraphs of fewer than four or more than six sentences. Reduce or eliminate qualifiers (such as “maybe,” “possibly,” “at least,” and “seemingly”), and review for spelling, grammar and repetitious use of words that can be deleted or replaced with synonyms.

Checking off the points leads to SAT score improvement and a likely ace of Freshman English. My student had written better, but from the short time in which we worked together I knew he had cared little and perhaps not at all about his subject. Effective is not necessarily affective. For that kind of communication to happen, the creator has to have passion for the subject, which is never formulaic. SAT scoring be damned, real communication between writer and reader requires that the never-formulaic be aped.

King for a Reason

Stephen King glides to the rescue for all who are flummoxed when arguing the why’s of teaching writing or English. In a frillless-and-fantastic Q&A with The Atlantic’s Jessica Lahey he explains for every level the importance of good communications skills and joys to be found in reading, as well as how to teach them to even the most recalcitrant and obstreperous (as examples of words not to use) students.

Highlights include:

  • Always ask the student writer, “What do you want to say?” Every sentence that answers that question is part of the essay or story. Every sentence that does not needs to go.
  • I would say [to high school students], “The truth is always eloquent.” To which they would respond, “Mr. King, what does eloquent mean?”

Not to throw another stick under the boil being made of the Common Core, but while Stephen King is too busy to design the common core for English and writing instructions, all the “chefs” should keep his recipes at hand.

As a note, the article grew from King’s On Writing, which those of you “cooking” at home are well-advised to keep at hand next to your Strunk & White.

Give Me An Audience or Give Me Death vs. Let Me Type in Peace

knife in bookFor the writer hoping to gain an audience and (or) money, the advice pendulum swings between two smart men.

According to James Boswell, according to Samuel Johnson, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” According to Mark Twain, “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

Caught in the middle of the sages, you have to write for yourself, but always with the hope of reaching others. You cannot count on them to care like you about what you care about. But be fair, what they care about may not inspire the most memorable brain to fingertips connections. Which, again, is why not every person who is able to type or tweet or cast pods or communicate with words gets to make a living as a writer. In most cases, it would certainly be beneficial for everyone if people in the States cared more about the written word (particularly mine … and maybe yours), but it is important not to get too caught up in what cannot be or at least currently isn’t. Often it is a hazard to actually working.

Also, if a certain story coming out of Russia is true — that a gent stabbed his friend for loving prose more than poetry — then maybe its best that writing doesn’t always inspire life or death passions and one should let the comic-tragedy serve as a reminder to put one’s head back down, one’s fingers back on the keyboard, and one’s attention back to putting out the best possible of one’s own words because that is what you do, for whatever reason you do it.

9 Ways a Writers’ Group Is Equivalent to a Haggle of Corporate Consultants

Thurber husband wife sealIt’s not that either being part of a writing group or engaging corporate consultants are bad ideas, per se. They’re just not always a good idea either, depending on how their “collective wisdom” is put to use. Not to endorse the writing or communicative form, but just to note the current fad for the Buzzfeed-like listicles currently sweeping a click-driven, social media-frenzied writing society, here are nine equivalencies between working with a peer group of scribblers and a haggle of consultants (or murder of crows, smack of jellyfish, pack of mules, etc., if any of those work better for you).

  1. Often companies hire consultants to tell them what they already know they need to do: similarly most writers “know” how to fix their work, they just don’t want to, because it includes rereading their prose with a critical eye and killing particular words or phrases they have fallen in love with, but that don’t fit, or they recognize they will have to do the hard work of rethinking and rewriting when they would really like to be done and receiving praise for their genius.
  2. Pretty much all flattery without qualification should be eyed suspiciously (at best) and accepted with an eye on  the motives of the flatterer.
  3. Corporate consultants and writing group peers most often talk a much better game than they’ll ever play. (A key to consider is that many consultants and writing group peers have limited, sometimes even no real success for the field/genre for which they are providing opinions.)
  4. Companies and writers go wrong when they take on a completely new idea, too far outside their comfort or competency zone.
  5. Neither the group nor haggle are useless, as in addition to “giving permission” to do the burdensome, they sometimes offer an insight into implementation. (As a writer, the key is to listen to the advice given by the voices in your head. If there are too many there’s a problem, if there’s only one, yours, the work will suffer. Work to discover the chorus.)
  6. Advice profferers often begin to contradict themselves when pressed to move beyond the glib and apply the details of how their solution eases the problem. (Make sure to press!)
  7. Advisors often impose their own baggage (prejudices and preferences they often won’t admit to) in their study and solution to their advisee’s work.
  8. Peers and professionals can turn the experience of “advice-giving” into a jackals-tearing-at-the-flesh one if you (or the company management) doesn’t stay firm to core mission, which, whether related to the essence of the business or most important themes, characters and conflicts of the work, is better understood before the process is begun.
  9. Corporate consultant and writing group advice isn’t always wrong or distracting from core mission and values, but it must always be intellectually ingested with a grain  (or perhaps a full tablespoon) of salt — if such as an image can be swallowed — or else it will likely cost more (in money or emotional distress) than the benefits provided.

* Thanks, of course, to the great James Thurber for the perfect illustration of how pretty much everyone should listen to advice.

Maybe Wait on Finn So You Don’t Kill Twain

(originally published  as “A Dissent on Teaching Huckleberry Finn” at Education Week Teacher, 10 July 2013)

Into the waterfall of educational concerns that current reform initiatives are unlikely to fix, add how required reading of certain literary classics often ruins teens’ potential interest in serious reading. Among the chief culprits: the book sometimes called the “great American novel” and the recipient of, among other endorsements for inclusion in the canon, Ernest Hemingway’s tribute that, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

Hemingway may be right, but during and after their two-chapter-a-night, test-in-three-weeks slog through Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, few high schoolers gain any sense of why Twain is revered, understand what the book is even about, or have their thinking changed by absorbing how differing contexts have made the tale controversial from its time through today. Huck Finn, not to be confused with the more youth-reader-friendly The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, is a very thorny book. Potential barriers for teen readers include Twain’s use of highly colloquial period-speech and subtle subversion of the religious and slaveholding conventions of his contemporaries, not to mention some highly dense sections. So where is the rationale for forcing teens to read a book whose story is more or less simple but whose context is more complex than most of them are prepared for? Where is the evidence, anecdotal or empirical, that even a substantial minority of high schoolers enjoy reading the book or are encouraged to pursue reading or literary learning as a result of experiencing this work of a premier American satirist?

And if we have to teach Twain, why Huck Finn? Inarguably, the man from Hannibal is an important American writer whom students should know about. But why present him in a way to drive away potential interest? Teachers may have an unlimited repertoire of ways to teach the book, but given the usual results, what is the purpose of that instruction? To make students feel that literature isn’t really for them? Twain did write more accessible books. Why not teach The Innocents Abroad (and perhaps use it as a way to teach connections between journalism and novels and how America in the 19th century connects to today) or a collection of Twain’s short stories as representative of the writer and his influence?

Where within the wisdom of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts does it mandate that teachers should ruin the potential for enjoying books for an academic purpose probably not served? Shouldn’t Huck Finn (and any number of other books in “the canon” for that matter) be saved as a syllabus item for college literature classes, or maybe just for students in advanced courses where its “controversies” can be considered within a challenging academic context?

Don’t get me wrong: High school students should not be kept from great and challenging works. But picking books that will work in a classroom requires more than just reliance on traditional reading lists. For exposure to 19th-century American novels students might better connect to, consider Herman Melville’s Omoo or Typee, which get students out on a whaling ship and, maybe, hopefully, on a reading voyage that will eventually lead to Moby Dick; or perhaps try to mesh with the interest in things “goth” by assigning Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat and the eerie and ever-appealing Edgar Allan Poe catalog are also picks with strong potential to engage thoughtful teens.

If a teacher has a way to teach a classic so that students respond, that is one thing. But forcing even a great author’s most highly acclaimed work on students not ready for it does no justice to the work, the teacher, or the student.

Remember your own high school days and ask today’s students what they’re getting out of Huck Finn. Then, perhaps, reconsider whether Huck Finn should continue to be steered up the Mississippi river of student interest without a paddle just because that’s the way it’s always been.

Content with Content? (hint: pronounce differently)

Sybil book coverTo connect with readers, channel your inner Sybil. Be schizophrenic with who you are and fit what you want to say to the particular form and function of the audience you aim at through a particular social media site.

Sybil, the pseudonymous and eponymous subject of the 1970s best seller and twice-made-for tv movie, (actually a troubled Shirley Ardell Mason offering herself up as a multiple personality disorder subject, gave her audience — in this case therapist Flora Rheta Schreiber who hoped to build a public reputation by chronicling her most unusual patient — exactly what was desired, exaggerating thoughts and parts of her personality in distinct forms to attract and maintain attention.

Taking writing back from the revolutionary to more traditional forms, if you understand a particular social media well enough to succeed in continuing to attract and please followers then you have distilled the essence of communication. If you’re just getting lucky then good on you and if that is all you want then move along, nothing to see here folks. However, if you can suss out what makes a great 140 character tweet, a captivating image, and caption pin, the solid marriage of paragraph and YouTube video Facebook post, Google+ thingamabob, and, of course, whatever is newest, (then use that same process to figure out how you can “pen” the 300-plus page novel or 500-word specialized encyclopedia entry — even if you don’t have enough to say for the former or couldn’t imagine the torture that would have to befall you to even consider reading the latter. The key is a connection to the audience with content you understand, and a form that complements what you are communicating so that it also engages others.

The six-words for the cork board post-it note: All writing is social media writing. The writer’s rule to keep in the back of your mind: no communication will succeed in more than three different formats, most won’t work equally well in two and even pulling off one is hard … think, write, edit and work at it.

Leonard Compels Me to Kill the Clever

typing, behatted chimpClever beats true for attention, but not for building a relationship with the reader — except, perhaps, probably, on a site like Twitter that encourages few words at the expense of complete thought.

For most people it is easy to write the amusing sentence or bon mot. Social networks are littered with them. Much harder — often only the inspired act of genius — is to build the context that morphs them into a story that compels.

So, currently, I’m enamored by the very micro

she worked her novel to death before it ever was born

and slightly more expansive

It’s a jungle gym out there: some will compete to climb to the top and stand alone; some will get stuck in the middle or fall through their own carelessness; some will stand nearby afraid to try; and some will not try, just stand, chat and judge; but the wise will see it as what it is for them.

Regrettably, I have to admit there is really nothing to them until there is more to them. It’s often, or should be, a death sentence to fall in love with your own phrasing since the joy is often impoverishing tautology, the writer puffing up the writer.

All better said by Elmore Leonard (no, that absolutely doesn’t hurt my ego to write) in his Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing“>10 Rules of writing, which he claimed via a Guardian article letting various writers on the spell out their ten rules that is best writing can be found through the maxim, “if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Core Curriculum Standards Still Need Writing Rethinking and Revisions

fountainpenalphaWhile it may seem obvious to every sentient being what schools should teach (most often, just what they learned), it turns out that most every sentient being disagrees (often in general and surprisingly often regularly) in the specifics with his/her others. Into this buzz saw runs United States educational institutions and policy.

The country is attempting to implement Common Standards, a core curriculum acceptable and teachable in schools nationwide that will accomplish the often contradictory purposes of allowing teachers some sense of not being robotic didacticals and localities to impose their own “prejudices” on what those in their community should (and shouldn’t) know, in addition to preparing all kids with a one-size fits all grounding in preparation for all possible futures, while [writer’s prejudice-alert] still helping all the standardized test makers and ancillary businesses, including book publishers, “educational” web sites and tutorial enterprises keep raking in the big bucks … and not screwing up the educational bureaucracy and current stakeholders too much either.

In addition to policy disagreements, there is also accepted educational industry adage that everyone learns differently and the less-often discussed acceptance of letting students learn different and potentially conflicting lessons (e.g., compare the high school texts on the Civil War, or War Between the States, in different parts of the country or simply walk into the fourth grade class of one state and note that it is teaching state history, facts kids in other states will never hear).

Bringing us to discussion (let’s admit it, “argument”) of what kids should be prepared for their communicating futures. Writing is a subset of skills falling under the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts (CCS for ELA). The specifics cover what are perceived as the basics on communicating via writing on subjects taught in English classes as well as how the skills can be integrated with various other academic subjects. Which, in part, is bureaucratically explained a tad bit like this

ScreenHunter_06 Feb. 03 10.19

Lovely. Inclusive. Oh, yeah, wrong. Not unimportant, just not complete or even good enough. Our forms of communication are changing and will likely continue to change. The basics of “writing” that should be taught are:

  • What do you want to say?
  • Who do you want to say it to?
  • Why will they want to read it?
  • Which medium/context/format will be best?

The last question is increasingly important and ignored by the founding fathers and mothers of the common core. While it may be too much to say books and newspapers and magazines are dying, it is silly to pretend that a proficiency in text language or memo writing or video captions or any number of other contexts is not an important, maybe necessary, skill for students to develop. Simplified: few kids will ever write or read academic essays when out of school, however, they will write in plenty of other forms for business and pleasure. This they should be able to do at the highest level possible as they multiply their potential by educational opportunity.

So common core reviewers and revisers, fix it. Fast, please. With increasing ability, as they move through school it’s important that SWBAT (students will be able to) write

  • a sentence, paragraph two-page and five-page non-fiction report/essay
  • a short story — in first, a few words, then paragraph, two- and then five-page lengths
  • a poem in at least two or three styles
  • a tweet, blog, phone text, “casual” note, complaint letter, presentation document, etc.
  • and understand the importance of visual (which was always noted in teaching paragraphs and poetry, but needs additional emphasis as how we consume words becomes ever more webbed within the screen upon which we consume it as well as the embedding or surrounding of it with visual material).

Vaya con Dios. And good luck.

Caveats for Scribblers and Their Acolytes

Content has no fair price. Each piece of writing has a bid and ask price — borrowing argot from investors. Those prices, set by writer and reader (or editorial middleman) rarely agree … and sadly, even more often can’t find any common ground at all.

Today, as newspapers, magazines and book publishers struggle most writers are completely at sea. (Which, to be fair is something of their own fault for ignoring the economic history of writing as a profession or even avocation). Once upon times, prices for subscriptions and even single copy sales returned to the newspaper or magazine publisher just enough reader money to cover the cost for paper and production and the cost of mailing or distribution. Money for writers, such as it was, came from the sale of advertising space. Book prices were set based first on the manufacturing costs (again) and then taking into account overhead that would include the monies lost on all the books that would not sell well. In neither case, unfortunately, was there a model created that put a real value on the writer’s work.

So, and horribly unfortunately in a day when the cost of mechanical production and distribution can be reduced to near-zero, there is almost no history of what makes for a fair price on a piece of writing. Writers can take whatever pennies they are offered or stick to what they think their writing is worth and hope that magically readers will come to them as publishers consult benchmarks, yardsticks or even Ouija boards.

Even given the vast amounts of writing scribblers let escape the editing phase much, much too early, there is no googlemappable path to “fair” in any sense of feeding the imaginator enough for his/her time while also providing the intermediary with enough incentive for their services and, finally, giving the readers the satisfaction of knowing that they have received good value for their money.

There’ll likely be no fair price: Type at your own risk.

Scriptoris caveat, lector caveat: Writer beware, reader beware.

Stop Before You Start

Don’t write first. Think!

The shortest time between question and answer requires waiting, at least at first.

Let your thoughts guide your pen (or keyboard), not the other way around.

Three ways of suggesting the same thing. All in reaction once again to finding myself hectoring someone on the eve of a due date as they panicked about their work — since it was neither long enough for the assignment nor specific enough in response to the question. (And, no, it was not me … not that it couldn’t have been: it just wasn’t.)

My lecture — likely to be unheeded, again — was that rather than doing some random research and then starting to scribble, the finished product would have been easier attained if they had first figured out the specifics of what they were asked to do. Then, having noted the expectations of form and content, a preliminary outline could be sketched to serve as a guide for research and note taking. When they knew they had the answer to a question they could move on if the search no longer interested them. When each part of the outline was filled in with at least a couple ideas, it would then be time to write it all up.

The problem for most people with a written assignment is that they don’t conceive a sense of where they want to go before heading off. They pick up a pen and drift until they are stopped and at a loss. Worst of all, they don’t know how to reverse course or wend their way back into the direction they want to head without sacrificing all the work (and time) they have put in. Frustration sets in and it all takes longer than it has to and angst is spewed over the process of writing ones thoughts instead of promoting the most complimentary communication of them.

Oh, and you could also think before you write to save the planet, at least according to the ad agency shilling for a new pen:

*Info on the art: A World War II Australian home front poster by Noke