• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


The True Basics of Writing

It's not the sentence.

April 20, 2017


In grade school, we were required to try our hand at playing an instrument. I, along with about 30 of my fellow 4th graders, wanted the drums.

I ended up with the clarinet. I did not want to play the clarinet, even when my teacher told us that Benny Goodman, the greatest musician/composer/arranger of all-time, had played the clarinet.

Absent choice, I accepted my clarinet and began weekly in-school lessons (a different era, for sure). For those of you unfamiliar with the clarinet, unlike a saxophone, or a trumpet, it is easy to make sound with the instrument out of the gate. Unfortunately, it is much easier to make a “goose in its final death throes sound” with a clarinet than it is to make a clarinet sound with the clarinet. Basically, put your mouth over the end and blow and, woila! Instant mortally wounded waterfowl.

To make a clarinet sound like a clarinet, you must be able to make a clarinet “embouchure,” which involves a combination of proper lip and tooth position and breath control, something I could not do successfully even by the third lesson while others had essentially gotten it the first day.[1]

To play the clarinet, you need the basic skill of the embouchure. Without it, no clarinet playing.

If writing is also a skill, and I believe it to be, it’s worth asking: what is its foundational unit?

Some believe that it is the sentence, and if we want to teach students to write, we need to first work on those “basics.” 

I disagree.

I understand the allure of this idea. Teaching sentences is straightforward, explicable, and when you drill sentences (as I have done in the past), you fairly quickly see a kind of progress, as all those “correct” sentences begin to look something like writing. Perhaps this really is the equivalent of the clarinetist’s embouchure. We may not be making music, exactly, but at least that terrible honking noise has stopped.

And of course, this approach is validated by standardized tests that preference surface-level “correctness” over depth of ideas or student engagement. It’s a good strategy to help students make things that at least resemble writing, which is pleasing indeed when they were previously making things that did not resemble writing.

Nevertheless, the sentence is not the basic skill of writing.

The idea is.[2]

In fact, as most everyone has experienced, the specifics of the sentence are often the very last thing that takes shape in a piece of writing, and the struggle over sentences is not about “correctness” in the way we teach developing writers, but in lassoing the words that best express the idea. Even for experienced writers, perhaps especially for experienced writers, the earliest sentence-making attempts in a draft are often provisional and unsatisfactory.

My own drafts are riddled with this reality, half-formed ideas expressed in half-formed sentences with notations such as: SOMETHING LIKE THIS, BUT NOT SAYING IT SO DUMB. GET IT TOGETHER IDIOT! WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY?

By telling students that first you should know your sentences and only then can you start to write gets writing backwards. When we have an idea worth expressing, the desire to share it provides the necessary intrinsic motivation to find the language to do so.

Yes, students early on struggle with making sentences, but every writer, regardless of their level, struggles with making sentences.

By making sentence mastery a pre-requisite to actually getting to the best part of writing – the ideas – we are withholding the most pleasurable and motivating part of the act itself.

Writing is thinking, and I have yet to meet a writer who thinks in sentences. To suggest that we must know sentences before we start to write is a lie.

We are also perpetuating an additional fiction, that writing is first about “correctness,” or that correctness is what separates writers from non-writers. The examples of correctness we point to are often the product not only of significant revision by the original writer – again, who is not in search of correctness at all – but also of teams of people helping shape and polish the final product.

Why do we hold students to a standard we wouldn’t accept for ourselves?

Playing the clarinet and writing are both skills, but the analogy has limits. Unlike learning an instrument, where replication can be (but need not be) a bridge to the more sophisticated work of composition[3], writers of every age and experience are composing from their earliest attempts.

Writers aren’t practicing at something that’s equivalent to merely playing the clarinet. No, even from the start, they’re practicing at being Benny Goodman, musician/composer/arranger. Of course, most of us won’t become the writing equivalent of Benny Goodman, but if we’re not making the attempt and engaging with writing in all of its messy, confounding dimensions, it’s hard to argue we’re truly writing at all.

Unfortunately, we have a system the creates perverse incentives, where “correctness” and compliance has very real value, particularly when attached to high stakes standardized assessments. No doubt those tests are important, but that doesn’t make them meaningful.

Students know this better than anyone.

When we lament that students can’t grapple with the sophisticated kind of argument we expect in college, perhaps it’s because we’ve not let them have enough time truly engaging with interesting ideas before (or even upon) arrival.

I’ve seen students rise to the challenge of creating knowledge when given not only the tools, but the freedom to do so.

Give students a problem worth solving not for a grade or to please the instructor, but because they want to know the answer for themselves, and in my experience, they’re absolutely up to the challenge.

[1] Fortunately, that year I had chronic tonsillitis, which resulted in surgery and recovery which kept me out of school and lessons so long that everyone agreed that it was okay to quit the clarinet.

[2] I see the “idea” as something like writing at the atomic level, but there’s also subatomic parts which I call “notions” or “inklings” the material which sparks the belief that an idea is to be had, but is also too small or fleeting to be captured in language. An actual idea is the smallest fundamental unit to be worked with in a piece of writing.

[3] A musician can achieve expertise on their instrument without also mastering the composition of music.


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