Writing Advice for New Freshman

Students in my English 303 “Advanced Expository Writing” course study rhetoric, style, and writing for the web.  This quarter they

  • Read Performing Prose: The Study and Practice of Style in Composition by Holcomb and Killingsworth and did quite a few of the writing exercises contained in it.  Here is a review of the book by one of my former students.
  • Read Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts by Joseph Harris.  This book is not about revision.  It is about interacting and using the texts of others.
  • Created a WordPress blog.
  • Kept an online commonplace book of quotations with responses.
  • Wrote five major assignments, each of which was posted to Blackboard for feedback from me, then posted to their blogs, most of which are open to the public.

The five major assignments were as follows:

  1. An introductory piece called “A Brief History of Myself as a Writer”
  2. A review of a product or a service
  3. A rhetorical and stylistic analysis of a prose piece using concepts from Performing Prose.
  4. A research piece on a case of disputed authorship.  These posts were on anonymous publications, pseudonyms, pen names, plagiarism cases, and ghostwriting.
  5. A reflective piece on “Advice for High School Writers and New Freshman.”

After all of this work on rhetoric and style and writing assignments with different genres and purposes, plus their experiences in Freshman Composition and other courses, the students had a lot of interesting advice for upcoming students.  Perhaps the three best were by theprickliestpear, indecisiveturtle, and wordpanini.  Readers may not agree with everything they say, or how they say it, but they certainly have advice to give.

I have more about this course on my guitarsophist blog.

Where Does Writing Go?

Do you want to be a writer?  Do you want to get paid?  Is it even possible in an environment of internet publishing that has brought traditional newspapers and magazines to their knees?  You might want to look up Dr. Sarah Mesle, visiting professor in English at UCLA, Senior Humanities Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), and co-editor of avidly.org, who gave an informative talk on publishing in the digital world to students, mostly English majors, at Cal Poly Pomona, last Wednesday, May 14, 2014.

Dr. Mesle said that the purpose of the Los Angeles Review of Books is to “revive and re-invent the book review.” Avidly.org, which she started with Sarah Blackwood, and which exists as a “channel” of LARB, “specializes in short-form critical essays devoted to thinking and feeling about culture.”   Articles on both sites tend to be written in first person and take a subjective gonzo-style approach.  For example, a piece on Avidly called “Silly Theory” by Jordan Alexander Stein describes his friends in grad school learning about theory by making jokes about it (The illustration for the piece is a parody of the the Obama “Yes We Can” poster that says “Yes We Lacan”).  Dr. Mesle’s latest piece on LARB is about the latest episode of Game of Thrones and is called “Ten Things I Hate about My Favorite Show.”

I am jumping ahead in the presentation, but Dr. Mesle discussed the importance of developing a voice, a persona, perhaps, though she did not use the word, a “brand.”  However, Dr. Mesle noted that she presents herself differently in different contexts.


Here is her photo from UCLA:                       Here is her photo from LARB:

1   2

Dr. Sarah Mesle at UCLA                         Dr. Mesle at Los Angeles Review of Books


Dr. Mesle had lots of solid advice for students aiming at publishing careers on the Internet.  She said

  • Know your readers, know your effect.
  • Basic strategies don’t change in different registers.
  • Writing isn’t magic.  It’s a craft.
  • Believe in your voice.
  • Keep it in perspective.

The first two points are basic rhetorical concepts of audience and purpose.  It is true, but not obvious, that whether you are writing a sermon in the high style or assembly instructions in the low style, or conversation in a dialect, rhetoric applies.  The latter three points are good advice for those who are intimidated by writing itself and by the blank screen.  You don’t have to be a genius.

The next set of points were about a particular stance toward the world and toward text.  She says

  • Be interesting (and college is where you go to learn to be an interesting person).
  • Learn to be interested.
  • Learn to love sentences and stories.

One could dispute the assertion about college, but the rest is hard to question.  To write, you must be interested in ideas, people, and things.  Knowledge brings interest, interest leads to more knowledge.  Language is the medium of learning, and of expression.  And without doubt, the world is made of stories.

The last point she added to this set was “Grammar matters.”  Don’t submit material or post it to your own sites with obvious, or even not so obvious, grammatical mistakes.  That doesn’t mean you can’t play with language, use dialect, or break so-called rules.  Just make sure you know what you are doing and understand the effect on the reader.

Dr. Mesle advised students to read the Internet and read their own reading.  In other words, pay attention to how what you read affects you.  What makes you excited? What makes you bored? What do you learn from that?

She also said that she wishes now she had taken a design course and a programming course.  Writers who publish on the Internet are probably going to be involved in visual design as well, and maybe even coding.  At any rate, those who know these things will be more marketable.

Dr. Mesle closed with some ideas about getting published.  These were

  • Pick the low-hanging fruit: Easy places to publish.
  • Start your own site (Learn WordPress).
  • Pay attention to what succeeds and why.

She noted that posting to Twitter is good practice because it forces you to be concise.  It is hard to be funny in 140 characters. She also recommended writing captions for the New Yorker cartoon contest for the same reason.

Finally, she had some suggestions for pitching a piece to a website:

  • Try to get an introduction to the editor (This helps you get out of the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts).
  • Write your email in the style of the piece you are submitting (It also helps to be familiar with the style of pieces that are usually published on that site).
  • Tell the editor your audience and effect.

At the end we had some discussion about what she means by “effect” here.  Is this the purpose?  Is this what Aristotle calls “pathos,” the effect on the audience?  Is it the effect of the persona of the writer has on the audience, an effect of ethos, or a kind of schtick? I think it is a bit of all of these.

It was an interesting and useful talk that left the students in attendance with much to think about.

Analyzing Everyday Texts

Note: Now there is a mini-module that uses some of the ideas from this book.  You can find it in this newer post “How Texts Construct Readers.”

English professors spend a great deal of time and energy teaching and analyzing complex literary texts.  Rhetoricians often focus on great speeches delivered on momentous historical occasions.  However, the vast majority of texts produced in our society are ignored by scholars.  Such texts facilitate the business of the world, yet are considered too ordinary, uninteresting, and mundane for study.  One of the goals of my “Pedagogies of Reading” seminar is to change that view.

This week I succeeded in doing so, at least for my 22 students.  I gave them an official letter written by Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. to Toyota owners about hazardous floor mats.  I divided the students into groups and asked them “What is going on in this letter?  How does it work?” and lively discussion ensued.  We ran out of time before we could discuss all of the insights we had about this letter.  More about this letter below.

Much of what my students had to say derived from a book I regularly assign in this seminar: Analyzing Everyday Texts: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives, by Glenn Stillar.   This is a short but very ambitious book.  Stillar’s analysis triangulates linguistic theory derived from M.A.K. Halliday, rhetorical theory from Kenneth Burke, and social theory from Pierre Bourdieu.  Stillar’s task in the book is to explain how each theoretical perspective works and fit them together into a complementary whole so that we can understand the linguistic, rhetorical, and social functions of any text we encounter.  The presentation appears to be orderly and logical, but there are some problems.  Stillar’s structure is essentially that of an outline, but in presenting an outline in prose, it is hard to maintain the different levels of subordination.  That problem is hard to fix.  Another problem is that Stillar shifts the order of topics without apparent reason or warning.  For example, the subtitle of the book is “Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives,” and indeed that is the order of presentation in the book.  However, on page 10, as he summarizes his approach, he discusses rhetorical theory first, then social theory, and then discourse.  This kind of shifting about happens several times.  A third source of confusion derives from shifting  between Halliday’s terms and his own.  Stillar says that a text performs three functions: organizing, representing  and interacting . Halliday calls these functions “textual,” “ideational,” and  “interpersonal.”  Stillar uses both sets of terms.

Confusion about levels of subordination, shifts in the order of presentation, and shifts in terms, especially in the early chapters, make this ambitious book a difficult read for students.  However, it is well worth the effort.

I ended up making an outline of Stillar’s theory of discourse analysis so that my students could keep the categories straight.  The chapters on Burke and Bourdieu are less problematic.  In fact, the Burke chapters gather together into one discussion useful concepts from a number of important books, no easy task as Burke has new theories in each book.  More about this in a future post.

What I would like to do in this post is work toward a presentation of some of the basic insights of Stillar’s adaptation of Halliday that would allow undergraduate students to use these concepts.

What Stillar calls the “organizing” function is mostly about devices of cohesion and coherence, things such as article usage, pronoun reference, and demonstratives that make text stick together.  Let’s put that aside in our focus on teaching undergraduates.  Stillar is building a set of tools for research in discourse analysis.  In our pedagogical orientation, we want to focus on what students can be taught to notice, and what they can do in responding to a text and in their own writing.

Stillar says of the “representing” function that a text is “about” something in that it “names and arranges participants, processes and circumstances” (18).  The “interacting” function constructs “forms of interaction between an addresser and an addressee in particular social roles” (19).  Exploring these functions is clearly relevant to teaching students to understand and deploy the rhetoric of everyday texts.

Let’s look at the first paragraph of the letter from Toyota:

This notice is being sent to you in accordance with the requirements of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Toyota has decided that a defect which relates to motor vehicle safety exists in certain 200_ through certain 200_ model year [name of model] vehicles. The defect is the potential for an unsecured or incompatible driver’s floor mat to interfere with the accelerator pedal and cause it to get stuck in the wide open position. Toyota has determined that this defect does not exist in vehicles in which the driver side floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured.

The first sentence indicates that the letter is being sent in compliance with a law. Toyota does not want to write to the addressee, but is being compelled to do so by another agent, in this case the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).  This statement “arranges” the participants: the NHTSA as the coercive authority, Toyota as the unwilling correspondent, and the car owner as the hapless addressee.  Stillar suggests that in determining “what is going on” in a text, we first look at the main verbs, which he says will represent action processes, mental processes, or relations.  The “action” in this sentence is cast in passive progressive, “is being sent,” making the grammatical subject “this notice,” clearly reducing Toyota’s agency in this matter.  The two verbs which do have “Toyota” as subject, “has decided” and “has determined,” represent mental processes rather than actions.  The “defect” which is the motivating theme of the letter simply “exists” without cause or culprit.  Stillar would characterize this use of “exists” as relational, although it represents a non-relation more than any relation to any participant.

The final sentence of the paragraph indicates that the defect does not even “exist” in vehicles with the right floor mats properly secured.  Up to this point, the text has done everything possible to keep Toyota from being a responsible agent.  This last sentence begins to renegotiate the interaction among the parties.  If the defect does not exist in vehicles with floor mats of the right type properly installed, but does exist in some vehicles, then the defect is caused by whoever installed the floor mats.  That is likely to be the car owner.

Toyota is in a difficult rhetorical situation.  They don’t want to be responsible.  They want to blame the customer, but they can’t do that overtly without potentially losing future sales.  This leads to a very carefully constructed letter, in some ways as rich in complexity and nuance as a literary text.

I think that this sort of analysis reveals more about the rhetorical effect of a text than what is offered by the tools that students are normally taught, such as the Aristotelian appeals and Toulmin argument.  More on this in future posts.

Note: I created a “Document Analysis Checklist” that draws mostly on the traditional rhetorical categories of audience, purpose and form, but includes a “Stylistic Choices” section at the end that draws on insights from the Stillar book.  I wrote questions that are designed to help students do the kind of analysis I did with the Toyota document above.  I will test it this quarter in my English 301 course.

Genre Fiction: Reading, Writing, and Criticism

By John Edlund

I have been teaching a General Education science fiction course, English 222, “The Literature of Science Fiction” since the winter of 2002 when Stephen Whaley, the original designer of the course, passed away of a heart attack in the second week of the quarter.  I was the only person in the department who had read any of the books!  However, English majors kept asking if there was a course in science fiction they could take that would count as part of their major coursework.  I designed something a little broader than that: English 304, “Genre Fiction: Reading, Writing, and Criticism.”  I wanted a course that could be taught in different ways by different instructors, depending on their interests, and I knew that fantasy, romance, and other genres would also be popular.

The course is also designed to be either a creative writing course or a traditional literature course, depending to a certain extent on the interests of the student.  The final project can be either a short story or a critical paper.

For winter 2014, the creative writing part of the course will involve
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, a new book by Jeff Vandermeer, and  Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussion on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Wonderbook is a full color illustrated guide to writing fiction, engaging and beautiful enough to serve as a coffee table book.  The Le Guin book is a collection of very inventive writing exercises that she uses in her own fiction workshops.

Barnes and Noble Review published an interesting interview with Jeff Vandermeer about Wonderbook.

We will start with a couple of Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, then continue in fantasy with The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien.  In science fiction we will read Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (who unfortunately passed away recently) and stories from the newest Gardner Dozois anthology, The Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection.  Dozois’s collections always begin with a useful summary of what happened in the world of science fiction publishing. In noir detective fiction, we will read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Finally, we will read Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Finch, which combines the genres of science fiction and detective fiction.

Whatever purpose students have in signing up for this course, I can guarantee interesting discussions, a lot of good reading, and rigorous exercise of the writing muscle.

Here’s a flyer for the course.