Hello again. One rule that my students find unusually helpful is: One thought per sentence. It's hard enough for today's manic multi-taskers to grasp even one idea. Give them time to process thought #1. Then stop. Then give them the next fact that they need to know. That fact should develop or amplify sentence #1.
Be grateful for the period. The writer's natural impulse — such is the flood of information we are eager to impart — is to use a comma, followed by "and" or "but," followed by a phrase that slowly drifts down some bayou from which there is no easy escape. Be content to build a logical arrangement, one short sentence at a time; there's no sentence too short to be acceptable in the eyes of God.
I mention this because the national epidemic that's most on my mind right now isn't swine flu. It's the slow death of sequential thinking. My students, especially younger ones, go out on a story and come back with a million notes and a million quotes and absolutely no idea what the story is. Where is its narrative trajectory? The cause, I suspect — for which I don't expect a Nobel Prize in deductive reasoning — is that most people today receive their information from random images on a screen — windows, pop-ups, icons — and from haphazard messages dispatched by iPods, YouTube, Facebook, and wires stuck into their ears. Sequential thinking is a dying skill.
But the hard part of writing isn't the writing. It's the thinking. And that won't go away, no matter how many "new media" get invented. Tomorrow I'll be going up to Columbia University to attend the commencement exercises at the School of Journalism, where I tutor foreign students who need extra help writing English. I like to watch them walk across the platform to receive their hard-won diplomas, and then to meet their parents and grandparents and sisters and brothers from all the countries they have told me about and whose pictures they show me when I ask about their families back home.
The dean of the school, Nicholas Lemann, will tell the new graduates, as he does every May, that they are going forth into a journalistic career that will barely resemble the traditional newspaper model, where reporters wrote for one print medium that had one deadline every 24 hours. Today they will need to possess multiple skills, equally adept at writing for round-the-clock web sites and blogs and at making and editing videos and photographs and audio recordings to accompany their stories, which can be instantly transmitted to an editor from any part of the globe.
But they will still need to write all those web sites and blogs and video and audio scripts; nobody wants to consult a web site that's not clear and coherent. More than ever, they will need the ability to think sequentially. I remind my students that they're not practicing some exalted form such as "journalism," or "nonfiction," or "communications." They're in the storytelling business. We all are — all of us who do any kind of writing. It's the oldest narrative mechanism, from the caveman to the crib, endlessly riveting. Goldilocks thinks someone has been sleeping in her bed. What's that all about? Mister McGregor is in the garden with his gun looking for Peter Rabbit. Will Peter escape?
My students of all ages — memoir students at the New School, journalism students at Columbia — are in near-despair, paralyzed over their inability to impose a narrative shape on their past or on the events they are sent to write about. It comes as a surprise that they have to think. But as we work over their papers together to build a logical construction, one step at a time, they begin to glimpse the beautiful logic of the English language and their salvation in the simple word and sentence and the active verb that pushes the story forward.
For my foreign journalism students, the hardest lesson is that simple is good. Most of them come from cultures that have an entirely different notion of what constitutes good writing. "What kind of language is Arabic?" I asked a student from Cairo; I wanted to know how to reconfigure her thinking to my way of thinking: plain English. She said, "It's all adjectives." Of course, it's not all adjectives, but I knew what she meant: it's decorative and ornamental. Those are lovely qualities in a language, but they will be her ruin as a journalist trying to write storytelling English. She had to be given the bad news about sentences with no unnecessary words. Spanish-speaking students justly regard their language as a national treasure for its long and melodious nouns of generalized meaning. Nobody has told them that those long and melodious nouns will have to be cruelly shortened and converted into Anglo-Saxon verbs.
All of which has started me musing about what I might try to do next. America has been enriched by new tides of immigration, and many programs exist to teach "English as a second language." I suspect that those programs mainly focus on teaching the new Americans to speak English as a second language. But is anybody teaching them how to write English — clearly and simply enough to move into decent and upwardly liberating office jobs?
So ends my fifth and last journey into Blogville. Thanks for dropping by. Take care.