Teaching with Text Messages and Tweets

Over the weekend, Andy Selsberg—author and instructor of English at John Jay College—wrote an op ed for the NYTimes online called Teaching to the Text Message.” In this short post, he explained that he has characteristically taught five-paragraph essays and research papers, and only recently introduced very brief assignments to help students hone their concise writing. Over time, he’s gone from giving “two-line” assignments to asking students to write Amazon reviews that exclude “gratuitous modern argot and emoticons” and short YouTube video comments.  He mixes these in with longer assignments, saying that he sees value in rewarding concision.

It’s interesting to consider both what Selsberg did and what he didn’t do. What he did is take the very short genres seriously and consider how writing well in them could be efficacious for (and interesting to) his students. What he didn’t do by excluding the diction, orthography, and emoticons that are characteristic of some very short genres, is treat these genres as distinct genres—only as shorter versions of academic-style writing, and through this, he lost an opportunity.

Teachers complain that students can’t distinguish formal from informal diction, that text messaging lingo slinks into their school essays, that they can’t spell. It’s arguable that treating the SMS and tweet seriously enough to discuss the language characteristics—how and why the abbreviations, slang, and orthographic ingenuity work well in the context—and addressing head-on the question of when these adaptations of the standards are appropriate and why is a more productive approach.

This is one of the topics addressed in the new first chapter I’ve written for the third edition of Painless Spelling (due out in August). Titled “Spelling in the 21st Century,” the chapter clarifies for students what the attributes of informal writing and spelling are, why it works well in the genres in which it was developed, and why it makes teachers (and parents) upset. By placing the orthography used in text messages and tweets in the context of:

• an understanding of speech registers and contextual expectations ranging from extreme formality to extreme informality;

• the reality that many words have multiple accepted spellings in American English (hoofs/hooves);

• the intermingling of British and American English without labels on the Internet, so that students may see acceptable spelling variations (color/colour) that may be considered wrong in the classroom; and

• the history of altered spelling in vanity license plates and trade names (Dunkin’ Donuts),

the discussion avoids the framing of falling educational standards and is placed in the frame of making appropriate choices from a range of possibilities.

Anyone who has had access to the news in recent days has probably seen (here arranged in alphabetical order):






—an opportunity to realize that spelling is not a settled issue. Helping students to understand not only the skills of spelling but also the strategic choices involved is, in my opinion, the best means for students to become good spellers in the context of being thoughtful communicators.

The new edition of Painless Spelling is available for pre-order from Barnes and Noble online.

What Is a Graphic Narrative?

In a story in Library Journal titled “Graphic Novels for Reluctant Readers: 33 Titles” on 18 March 2010, Martha Cornog includes The Invention of Hugo Cabret. (She calls them “graphic narratives” in the introduction, which might be slightly less recognizable as a term, but more accurate in describing how this particular book is configured, given lengthy unillustrated narrative passages in a book in which illustrations are, nevertheless, an essential element.

So, I wonder: how much illustration does a fictional work need to be considered a graphic narrative?

Take, for instance, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman. Sterne includes black pages in memoriam Yorick, an illustration of the flourish the corporal gives his stick, and other elements without which the narrative would undoubtedly be altered and diminished.

I don’t have an answer, but I thought it a question worth posing.

Meanwhile, if you know of a child or student who particularly enjoys illustrated works or would be encouraged and supported in reading by the graphic elements in books, check out the LJ list.

NaNoWriMo: Writing Fiction vs Writing Nonfiction 1 Audience and Sequence

In my interview with  Chris Evans on WRUV (University of Vermont radio) yesterday, the subject of the differences in writing fiction and nonfiction was touched on. I’d like to expand on it a bit here.

During NaNoWriMo, I began writing a novel, a genre that I had not worked in since my bachelor’s paper—a mystery set at the Quadrangle Club, the faculty club at the University of Chicago, where I was an undergraduate. Since writing is one of the chief ways that I earn a living, one might think that I would apply a similar process and approach to writing for NaNoWriMo as I do to writing in general. In fact, most of my writing is nonfiction, and as a result, some aspects are quite different.


Similarities include the concept of audience. In nearly all the projects I do that I originate, I am aiming for a broad audience—usually middle school and up. A lot of my nonfiction writing is either informative in a general way or explicitly instructional—though marketed as trade books rather than textbooks. People who are at the very beginning of learning about a subject and have had the motivation to find the article or buy the book, be they 13 or 73, are in something of a similar situation and need more or less similar insights and knowledge to learn about whatever-it-is.

With this novel, I am aiming at a similarly broad audience. But whereas with nonfiction, engaging the audience means telling them what they need to know about the subject, engaging an audience in a work of fiction is a very different process.


Another similarity—though a limited one, in this case—is the need (at least, I feel that it is a need) to be able to maintain a sense of the way that material is coming across to the reader (i.e, what they know and don’t know at any given point), what inferences they may be making, what needs to be defined, and the order in which the revelation should occur for maximum effect. In both fiction and nonfiction (as opposed to, say, a photograph or painting), the audience encounters the material in a specific order over time—an order over which (unless they jump ahead on the page) I have some control.

But when we get to particulars of creating the sequence, writing fiction parts company from most of the nonfiction that I write.

My characteristic set-up for writing non-fiction is categorical. Whatever I’m writing about, I figure out either the or a means of dividing it into logical and coherent segments that readers may be seeking or that will help them take in the information in a comprehensible sequence. When I say “the or a,” I’m referring to the fact that some topics and some genres may set the categories pretty tightly. For example, my last published work was a reference work, Barron’s American Slang Dictionary and Thesaurus. Dictionaries have some pretty standard elements that you expect to find in each entry, including entry word, pronunciation, part of speech, definition, etc.

So do how-to articles. An article on “Making Salt Crystals” will not meet reader expectations unless it includes a list of ingredients and a sequence of steps in the proper order to achieve the advertised results. Of course, if I’m writing about an unfamiliar subject, I start by learning enough about it that I can write about it with some authority and have a sense of a good way to present the information to the reader.

All gone with fiction.

Writing my first novel, I’ve been working from a rough sequence of events—what Mieke Bal in Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative refers to as the fabula—and rearranging them into the order in which the reader will meet them, a story in Bal’s terminology, which is quite different from the chronology. Where should the story start? How and when are past events revealed? Who is conveying them? These questions are much more open than they are in the kind of nonfiction I write. The process has proved to be quite different than organizing an article or a dictionary. And the order of presentation is quite a bit more malleable.

By the time NaNoWriMo began, my story didn’t begin where I had been planning for it to begin. I had spent three and a half years planning, writing notes in journals and on scraps of paper, researching, etc., before I started writing the first novel of my quintology (it started as a single volume fairy tale—but that’s a topic for another article), and up until the day I began what will be the first chapter of the first novel, I had thought that the first novel was going to be set mainly in another world. In my first draft of the first chapter of the first book in December, 2008, the first two sentences read:

There was quite a lot of speculation when Master Bartholomew took up residence in the turkey coop. Granted, it was his turkey coop.

Both Bartholomew and his turkey coop, by the way, are on the planet Irrelya, rather than Earth and this particular incident is not likely to be come into the story until Book 3, although it happened before Book 1 begins.

By the time the first draft of the “real” chapter one of the first book was written in May, 2009, the location had changed to Earth and the book opened in the midst of an argument between teenage twins, a boy and a girl. It now begins:

“We have to make an exception,” the girl exclaimed.

“No,” said the boy, quietly but resolutely.

Changes this drastic are simply not possible in the non-fiction I characteristically write.

But . . . other topics and subgenres of nonfiction are more open-ended. Look at what I did with the chronology in organizing the last bit of this blog:

1. By the time NaNoWriMo began – Nov. 2009
2. I had spent three and a half years planning . . . before I started writing – Fall, 2005 to May, 2009
3. (it started as a single volume fairy tale) – Fall, 2005
4. the day I began what will be the first chapter of the first novel (May 24, 2009)
5. I had thought – Fall, 2005 – May, 2009
6. In my first draft of the first chapter of the first book – December, 2008
7. By the time the first draft of the “real” chapter one of the first book was written – May 24, 2009
8. It now begins – Today

NaNoWriMo: How I Made It Work for Me

I knew from the start that winning NaNoWriMo in NaNoWriMo terms was not possible for me this year. First of all, I had begun thinking about a novel in 2005, it had grown to a set of five since then, and I had been drafting the first chapter (and redrafting and redrafting) since May. It didn’t make sense to begin another project when this was the one I had been tinkering with—smoothing out an idea here, changing a character there. But NaNoWriMo gave me a framework in which I could choose to focus on it and do some writing in earnest, and I took up the challenge for that reason.

Besides the fact that my novel was already started, I couldn’t get signed in until November 7. Since doing NaNoWriMo only seriously entered my thoughts when my daughter, who won last year, mentioned it to me a couple of days before it began, So I really couldn’t get a drop on the great November 1 sign-up rush, and consequently got caught in the great November 1 NaNoWriMo site slowdown. Oh well.

In addition, not rewriting when rewriting was needed did not make sense for my project. With four following books and four years of planning, coherence was more important to me than volume. I write for a living. I know that the words will come, in time. But leaving core issues in a tangle could mean a whole lot of untangling later.

A fourth reason that 50,000 words was not my prime goal is that while a good portion of my stories depend on what I make up from my imagination, a large segment also depends on research. In about mid-November, I “discovered” unexpectedly that one of my characters had gotten hold of of a set of cards made by another character and was using them to tell fortunes. In order to a) make the two disparate uses of the card set work and b) make the fortunes viable, I had to design the card set. Four days for research on an element that is almost entirely visual.

So ending with 37,068 words, which is what I have now, and what I’ll have 59 minutes from now when midnight strikes in Vermont, is fine for me. I’ve made a lot of progress in a way that’s consistent and well-integrated with the entire story I plan to tell.

I’ll be reading an excerpt from my novel on WRUV on the show “Proximate Blues” on Thursday, December 3 at 10 a.m. Two other Verwrimos will also be there: Chris Evans, who hosts the show, and another guest besides myself. Hope you can join us: http://www.uvm.edu/~wruv/ or listen the MP3 posted after the show.

The Art of the List

The general concept of a list, I think, connects it with the mundane and a style that is art-less. To-do lists, laundry lists, shopping lists, and wish lists are useful, but not something that we usually invest any craft in—they’re functional, not artful.
Yesterday evening, lists came to my attention because of the incessant posting of one particular follower to one particular Twitter account, the owner of which had invited responses. I stopped following, but also started thinking about other lists, ones that I have actually admired.

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