Karen Glass’ new book, Know and Tell: The Art of Narration, if the two chapters I’ve read are any indication, is going to be a great help in closing this gap. But today, I’m not talking about Karen’s book. Instead, I want to highlight another book: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, an option listed in the upper years of AmblesideOnline. The question is what to do with it. Just read it, narrate it, and move on?
I don’t know exactly what AO wants us to do, but we’ve been having a good time with the book, and so I thought I’d share.
The Part I preliminary chapters are what you’d expect, laying out the principles of good writing. My student didn’t just read and narrate these chapters. I also asked him to put what he read into practice. So, for example, after reading the chapter on clutter, I asked him to review a week’s worth of written narrations (all unedited first drafts) and find his own clutter. His next written narration was to aim for “clutter-free.”
We had good discussions about clutter after that. We discovered that aiming for clutter-free in a first draft might be a bad idea. It can slow you down, impeding the flow of words. Perhaps it is better, we decided, to let the whole mess out first and then edit down from there.
Part II focused on methods. We found less to work with here, but the chapter on leads and endings was our favorite. We tried our hands at perfecting our endings according to Zinsser’s advice.
Part III is where we are now. It covers different forms of nonfiction writing — travel writing, sports writing, science writing, and so on. We don’t travel much, but travel writing is actually writing about places, and what place does a person know better than their own hometown? We live in a city that people talk about in a derogatory manner — California’s equivalent of flyover country. Could he describe this place with love and respect, sans jargon? That was the challenge, and his first draft impressed me.
“How did you come up with this?” I asked. (It was seriously good.)
“Mary Austin,” he said. You never know when those old narrations will come in handy.
This week, we read the chapter on science writing. Choosing an assignment was not hard because Zinsser says this early on:
The science assignment that I give to students is a simple one. I just ask them to describe how something works. (p. 148)
I underlined these sentences and wrote in the margins, “And this is what YOU get to do this week!” He knows the drill: replace one written narration with this assignment.
We’re only in tenth grade. I still don’t know that I’ve done well, or done enough. But I’ve seen beautiful growth so far this year, and never once have I had to ask for formulaic writing to get it.
Before he leaves home, I know we’ll have to cover longer papers (I’m assigning one this year, actually, and I’ll write about that after we’ve done it). I know we’ll have to learn proper methods of citation. But for now, my student is improving his writing the way I improve my writing: reading books and essays on the subject and applying the ideas with my own pen.
I think of this as “organic” writing instruction because it’s born out of our real life interaction with books and other sources, rather than any structured writing curriculum. I’ve tried prepared curriculum (mostly out of fear that I was Missing Something), and I’ve always tinkered with them to make them more Charlotte Mason … almost to the point that they were no longer recognizable. I’ve plundered them for great ideas, used them to improve conversations, but never could I bear the thing they seemed to ask for most: bad writing.
There. I said it.
I feel like there has to be a way to learn to write that always asks for the best the student can give — that always draws out of the student his best expression and ideas — that isn’t boring, and doesn’t make him think writing is a chore.
So I keep circling back around to this book-based approach. For now, I’m happy with my student’s progress. Ultimately, good writing shouldn’t be so hard to attain, if we’re giving our students the habit of thinking. After all, Zinsser himself said:
Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all. (p. 147)
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