Imitation: the Highest form of …Writing?

“I am the best writer in my classroom.  You are the best writer in your classroom.  Our children need to stand next to us and see how we write.  And in addition to standing next to us, your students should stand next to and study other expert writers”

This passage from Kelley Gallagher’s wonderful, new book, Write Like This, gets to the heart of a critical component of learning how to write:  imitation.  I once asked a friend of mine, a former editor-in-chief at an internationally famous publication, how he’d learned to write.  He responded with an anecdote about the first journalism piece he’d ever written. He submitted it to his editor, who shortly thereafter handed it back to him, telling him he’d done a very good job.  But when my friend looked at what his editor had returned, it bore very little resemblance to the original.  “He had entirely rewritten it.  It was much better than what I gave to him, and I studied everything he did so that I would become a better writer,” he said.  He observed that the really good writers he knew got that way by paying close attention to how their work was improved in the editing process. In other words, great writers became great by imitating great writing.

As Gallagher points out, teachers are the best writers in the classroom.  Therefore, the best gift we can give our students is showing them how we write, by talking through the process as we craft a written piece in the classroom. And it’s OK to show them that sometimes you get stuck and need to think things through a little more.  You might even quickly write a less-than-perfect piece and then challenge “teams of editors” (say, four students to a team) to collaborate and improve it.  Students like nothing better than to criticize their teachers.

Gallagher also emphasizes the importance of incorporating real world texts into the writing instruction process. When he wants his students to write an editorial, he presents them with an extremely well-written editorial for them to imitate.  The lesson begins with a discussion of what makes the editorial great, and then students write their own.  English teachers have told me they have used this approach with short pieces of literature with great success. By analyzing what makes the written piece so good and then imitating it, students not only improve their writing style, but also their understanding of literature. 

The bottom line?  When teaching writing, imitations can be as valuable as the originals.

Fun with Style: More Fictional First Drafts

This post is a follow-up to an earlier one which featured a fictional first draft of the Gettysburg Address.

It is never too soon to begin talking about style to students, but until they know how to  structure a coherent argument,  focusing on style is like putting lipstick on a pig.  However, it is fun to make students aware of what good writing sounds like.  So here are a few more examples of fictional first drafts (ffd) followed by the actual quotes we are all familiar with.  Ask your students to describe the difference. 

  • Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.  When you think about it, it probably makes more sense to say that he as dead as a coffin nail, but the convention is to say doornail. So let’s just say Marley was as dead as a doornail. (ffd)

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

  • Not this time.  This time we want to talk about how to get better schools for all children of all races creeds and colors so they can get up to speed.  This time we want to talk about how to get everyone health care for everyone – rich and poor.  This time we want to talk about how to keep Joe six pack working and reminding him that prejudice won’t solve anything.(ffd) 

 “…Not this time” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.  This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together. This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men  and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.  –Barack Obama’s speech on race. 

  • It’s time to let everyone know that our generation is in charge now.  And we’re the generation who fought in a war and we don’t want it all to be for nothing.  So let the world know we will do anything at any price to protect freedom. (ffd)

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.        

 Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.  This much we pledge—and more.  — John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address

The takeaway for your students? Inject a little fun once in a while. Paint with words. Be as specific as you can be.

Step Four: Top Ten Rules for Adding Bling: Abe Lincoln’s First Draft

What’s your point? How do you support it? So what? 

 If the piece you’ve written can answer those three questions, you are off to a good start.  But really good writers go one step further: they add some bling.  Consider, for instance, one of the most famous American speeches of all time, the Gettysburg Address.  What if Abe Lincoln had delivered this version – we’ll call it Abe’s first draft: 

The United States of America was born in 1776.  It was based on the idea that all men are equal.   But now our states are fighting each other and so it is hard to see how this is all going to last.   Today, we are here to dedicate this cemetery in honor of our great soldiers.  And it’s the right thing to do.  But, when you think about it, this whole ceremony is a sham. Who are we to stand here and say “this place is special?”  It’s really special because our soldiers died right here, where we stand.  No one is going to remember us being here – but you can bet everyone will remember the people who died for us. That’s why we have to remember them too and keep our country together.  We must make sure we are always free so our democratic government doesn’t simply go away.  

Let’s face it:  If Abe Lincoln had delivered these words at Gettysburg, he would have been absolutely right — no one would have remembered him being there.  So what is it about the Gettysburg address that makes it so good?  

Well, for starters, Abe did not violate any of the top ten rules for how to add bling to  prose when he wrote it.  Here they are: 

The Top Ten Rules for Adding  Bling 

  1. Start with a wow.  If your first paragraph doesn’t really grab the reader, you are in trouble. There are countless ways to draw readers in. You can make a shocking claim, contradict yourself, write a poetic sentence, ask a probing question.  The important point is to read your first few sentences carefully.  Do they make the reader think, “Wow, interesting.  I want to keep reading?”  If not, rewrite for the wow.
  2. Be specific.  This is perhaps the most important and most difficult rule of all – you must strive to write exactly what you mean.  Beware of vagueness.  Instead of “He was tired of his job,” try “Whatever ambition he had was crushed along with the countless bottles he fed into the jaws of the compactor. ” 
  3. Vet your verbs.  One easy way to make your prose more interesting is to go through and check your verbs.  You can probably replace 90 percent of them with verbs that are more specific, more appropriate, more precise – and less tired — than the verbs you used. 
  4. Replace or define tired nouns and modifiers.  This is similar to the verb check.  If you must use a common word, define it for us in a fresh way – e.g., instead of “our democracy,” try “this government, of the people, by the people, for the people.” 
  5. Use the active voice.   It’s an old remedy that never fails to perk up a sentence.  
  6. Pepper in a little poetry.   Strive for prose that has a rhythm that you can hear as you read it aloud.  Look for opportunities to include alliteration and rhyme when you replace those tired verbs, nouns, and modifiers. 
  7. Paint a picture (show, don’t tell).   One of the Barack Obama’s great rhetorical talents is his ability to paint a picture with words. Instead of saying “We need to create more jobs,” he talks about “the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, and every walk of life.” You can see why we need more jobs, he doesn’t need to tell you.  
  8. Stay away from cliches and don’t mix metaphors.   If, on one bright and sunny day, you find yourself standing on a well-manicured lawn with a smile beaming from ear to ear, run for your life. This place will not bring out the best in you.  And, by the way I’m not just saying that because I see the glass half empty with sour grapes and would rather curse the dark than light a candle.   
  9. Punch up your transitions.  Never underestimate the power of the transition.  In a long paper, a good, “one-liner” transition can perk up your prose and renew your reader’s interest.    In a short essay, a powerful transition (e.g., “But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.”) will keep your audience riveted. 
  10. End with a bang.  The last paragraph is often the “so what?” of a well written piece.  The last line should leave your readers in awe – you made your point so eloquently, they are speechless.   

With those rules in mind, let’s suppose Abe is looking over that first draft to see how to revise it.  He might proceed as follows: 

Problem:  The United States of America was born in 1776.  It was based on the idea that all men are equal.  

Hmm… A little boring – no, a lot boring.

 Solution:  Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Ahh, much better “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation” says the same thing as “Our country was born in 1776” but it says it with rhyme and alliteration it makes the opening line sound like a poem! Now, let’s get specific — if a nation is born, it must first be conceived – how about a nation conceived in liberty?  And let’s get rid of that passive voice – who gave birth to our country?  Our fathers – oops they can’t give birth — so let’s just say they brought forth a new nation. And let’s replace that boring phrase, “based on the idea” with “dedicated to the proposition.”  (“Dedicate” but the way is a much-repeated verb in this address – can you guess why?)

Problem:  But now our states are fighting each other and so it is hard to see how this is all going to last.   

Again, a little boring  – especially the verbs — and not specific enough.

Solution:  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

Wow, what a few word replacements (with an ear for rhythm) can do“Engaged in a great civil war” is much more specific and eloquent than “we are fighting.”  “Testing whether that nation so conceived or so dedicated” is much more specific than “hard to see how it is all going to last.”    

Problem: Today, we are here to dedicate this cemetery in honor of our great soldiers.  And it’s the right thing to do.  But, when you think about it, this whole ceremony is a sham.  Who are we to stand here and say “this place is special”?  It’s really special because our soldiers died right here, where we stand. 

Aghh.  Boring, general, clichéd,   Today we are here?  Where are we? Why is it the cemetery dedication the “right thing to do?”  “When you think about it” is a weak transition that just sounds silly.  And using the word “special” twice in one paragraph? Even in 1863, before everything was special, that would have been the lazy thing to do.

Solution:  We are met on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

Great changes! Language is much more specific and powerful.  If we are in a great war, we are meeting on a great battlefield.  And, instead of dedicating a“cemetery” (overused word), we dedicate a “final resting place” which puts a more human image in the minds of the audience.  And “all together fitting and proper” is altogether more interesting and rhythmic than “it’s the right thing to do.” 

But perhaps the most important improvement to this section is the transition. To replace “But when you think about it” with “But in a larger sense” is to remind everyone that this cause is bigger than all of us.  And what does it really mean for Gettysburg to be “special”? It means it is sacred ground – ground it has been sanctified by the blood of our soldiers, not by a speech.  To make that point, Abe adds three synonyms for “sanctify” in a row — dedicate, consecrate, and hallow.   Wow. Then he adds that wonderful line about our poor ability to add and detract – great verbs that turn us into number crunchers compared to the brave men who spilled their blood for liberty.  

Problem: No one is going to remember us being here – but you can bet everyone will remember the people who died for us. That’s why we have to remember them too and keep our country together.  In the end, my fellow Americans, we must make sure we are always free so our democratic government doesn’t simply go away.

Here we go again:  too boring, too vague and does not end with a bang.  Who are “we” and what does it mean to “keep our country together?”  What exactly is “our democratic government?”  And the final line is so vague, it begs the question: where might our democracy go?

Solution:  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Much better. The first sentence is wonderfully alliterative (world will, little note nor long).   And instead of simply using the word “us,” Abe reminds us that we are still alive (unlike those dead soldiers), and we have a task, “ rather for us to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”    Then he cleverly rearranges the first half of that sentence to begin the next sentence (It is rather for us to be here dedicated…).  He replaces that tired word, “democracy,” with a fresh definition of it– a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  And then, for the last line, he gets really dramatic when he vets his verbs.  The risk is not that our government will go away, but that it will perish, from the face of the earth. Bang! 

And so Abe arrives at his final draft: 

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. 

Now that’s adding some bling!