The wife just sent me a link to a very boss article in The Atlantic about teaching writing in secondary schools. It talks about how all that write-about-yourself and express-yourself and peer-editing (gawd!) shtuff assumed that by just writing and enjoying writing and talking to each other about writing, kids would somehow just “catch” the mechanical and structural and logical aspects of writing along the way.

A great quote from the article:

“Common Core’s architect, David Coleman, says the new writing standards are meant to reverse a pedagogical pendulum that has swung too far, favoring self-­expression and emotion over lucid communication. “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think,” he famously told a group of educators last year in New York.”

I couldn’t agree more. I always tell the kids very early in the year that there’s an old saying that goes, “Opinions are like butts: everybody has one, and nobody cares about yours.” Unless you can explain your reasons and your logic, I have no use for your opinion.

I wanted to talk more about the ideas in this article; it’s similar to a lot of what Kate Kinsella does, but the latest debate done took up dinner time. So for now, here’s a repost of some other writing advice from an expert (October 2009), and the link to the Atlantic article.

You can tell Susan Hinton was young when she wrote The Outsiders. Even as I read it aloud for the 70somethingth time (and still laugh and tear up), I see the repetitions and the plot holes and the shmaltz. But I don’t care, and neither do the kids. It’s the characters she created that bring the book to life. They are realistic, sympathetic characters who represent all the things that kids feel. They can see parts of themselves in various aspects of Pony (loner, spacey, high expectations for him that he has trouble living up to), Johnny (pushed around, bullied, but protected by the gang – sort of the runt of the litter), Dally (rebellious and angry, impetuous, loyal, confident), Soda (blessed with charisma, but not school-smart), Darry (the provider, the rock, but still unsure of how to play his new role as parent), Two-Bit (immature, yet wise and funny), Cherry (trapped by her image, unsure of who the real Cherry is), and so forth. (Boy howdy, as Pony would say, that was one heck of a sentence.)

So I like to remind the kids of this as we read the book. It’s really all about the characters. Steve Martin, back in 1996, wrote a piece for the New Yorker called “Writing is Easy!” Sometimes I like to share the following excerpt with the kids, just for fun, since they now know what an adjective is.

Creating Memorable Characters

Nothing will make your writing soar more than a memorable character. If there is a memorable character, the reader will keep going back to the book, picking it up, turning it over in his hands, hefting it, and tossing it into the air. Here is an example of the jazzy uplift that vivid characters can offer:

Some guys were standing around when in came this guy.

You are now on your way to creating a memorable character. You have set him up as being a guy, and with that come all the reader’s ideas of what a guy is. Soon you will liven your character by using an adjective:

But this guy was no ordinary guy, he was a red guy.

This character, the red guy, has now popped into the reader’s imagination. He is a full-blown person, with hopes and dreams, just like the reader. Especially if the reader is a red guy. Now you might want to give the character a trait. You can inform the reader of the character trait in one of two ways. First, simply say what that trait is–for example, “but this red guy was different from most red guys, this red guy liked frappes.” The other is rooted in action–have the red guy walk up to a bar and order a frappe, as in:

“What’ll you have, red guy?”

“I’ll have a frappe.”

Once you have mastered these two concepts, vivid character writing combined with adjectives, you are on your way to becoming the next Shakespeare’s brother. And don’t forget to copyright any ideas you have that might be original. You don’t want to be caught standing by helplessly while your familiar “red guy” steps up to a bar in a frappecommercial.

So there you have it. The essay was included in Steve’s book called Pure Drivel. I highly recommend it.