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Tom Romano, in a 2004 journal article, relates from his school days those first steps taken toward becoming a writer, writing and sharing stories during study hall with his friend, Jackie. I marvelled at his tale, having had a nearly identical experience back in Grade 5, writing and sharing stories with my friend, Jeremy. Each of us sought to wow the other, with every page passed. I wonder whether Jeremy still writes or, for that matter, Jackie, too. Like Tom, I eventually taught other people how to write: sometimes creative fiction, a little more of poetry, and most of all analytical prose – alas, the plight of the high school English teacher.
Of course, a lot of what I taught eventually became student work that I was bound to read, so I asked myself, Why not try to make my time spent reading as enjoyable as possible? To that end, I taught writing that I thought was readable, which I often whittled down for students to two adjectives:
Easily remembered for their rhyme, oh! what those two words convey… anxiety, fuss, paralysis, struggle and stress – alas, the plight of the secondary English student, or my students, anyway. I countered their anxiety with a plight of my own: “If I spend 25-30min reading each of your papers, do you know how many hours of my life that is?” Alas, for sympathies that were hardly mutual.
But what else these two words convey is a pithy little guideline to say no more than is necessary by saying exactly what you mean. Later, in senior coursework, once some habit-formed skills were theirs to marshal, we eased the stress – it was a relaxation I suggested as a ray of hope to younger classes: “When you know the rules, you can break the rules.” Naturally, I suspect somebody just now has read “rules” and objects to such immorally teacher-driven, back-to-basics, conservative, transactional, top-down, traditional 19th century industrialised lecturing methodology of teaching people to write. It wasn’t like that. On the other hand, people do need practise if they aim to improve what they have never tried before. So they need some boundaries to define what makes for effective practice.
What were “rules” for those early years of practice were intended to measure progress. However, while I did want students to write precisely what they intended to say as concisely as they could say it (the rules), to an audience they knew well enough (usually me, the teacher), I still wanted what they came up with to result from their own choices (voice), so the audience couldn’t really object but might only try to understand. The tension here is obvious to anyone who’s been a writer, much less a writing student: what does the audience already know-slash-what is my teacher looking for? As I write to be understood, how do I also write to get a good mark? What do I really believe about such-and-such? How much do I really know about such-and such? From that, what do I have to say that interests me? my audience? How can I derive both style and structure that the audience can manage or, further, identify as uniquely mine? What is style? What is structure? Such questions are not only common, they are useful because, in trying to respond, an author is bound to improve that piece of writing. The rules, as strictly as I presented them, had more utility than mere grading of papers.
What’s more, the promise was made that, eventually, the rules would become mere guidelines for papers, to be followed or not according to one’s purpose for writing a piece to some audience in the first place. As an aside, what was graded for more mature writers in those later school years were contextually effective choices, persuasiveness, fluency and control, and such more subjective measures. I suspect one reason why a lot of writing students grow fed up is because teachers apply these measures, maybe even unintentionally, too early in the students’ development process.
In any case, by this broader idea that I call “style,” I mean a kind of fingerprint, a unique identifying feature of a piece of writing or, given enough similarly styled pieces, of an author. Style being, by nature, a trait more clearly possessed by more experienced authors, I described it to students as a goal that learning writers might aim to reach. It’s hardly a new idea, style, but for anyone who’s learning a new thing or really honing a skill for expertise, milestones and measures are always useful to keep in mind.
What I call “style” I also call “voice,” the idea being that stylistic decisions are to be made in order to convey with concision and precision some purpose in the most effective way to some audience. In other words, any author employing style amounts to that author establishing voice, by way of choosing from alternative words, expressions, sentence options, and so forth.
In other other words, authors must make choices, and thereby, choice is voice.
Choices are being made all the time, whether or not an author devotes hours of agonising deliberation to weighing alternative words and sentences, or whether or not the author feels like the piece somehow “just wrote itself.” At issue in either of these or every other case is the depth and proficiency of the author’s toolkit and how it’s all put to use: their vocabulary, grammar skills, reading background, sense of humour, opinions, personality, perceptivity, imagination, on and on… alongside the motive for writing to an audience, the synthesis of all these traits and skills comprises an author’s resources. And the synthesis of their use, the whole sum of these separate parts, these tools, is a different effect every time. Some pieces are great, some are not.
By tools, I specifically mean diction (word choice), syntax and phrasing (word order), semantics (word meaning), vocabulary, figurative language, sentence types, and knowledge of other more grammatical details. And I suppose it’s not nearly as accurate to lump in personality traits, opinions, sense of humour, and the like with what I commonly call “tools.” But to suggest to a student when she’s staring at a blank page, trying to remember what’s at her disposal, “Hey, all this stuff is in your author’s toolkit,” just helps to keep the task of writing more straightforward.
With all this said, remember that my task was to teach writing that I would enjoy reading; marking is tedious, yet the more proficient and engaging the writing is, the smoother and more enjoyable the marking becomes. Since we all make choices while writing something down, often split-second subconscious choices, the task I posed for students was to do it instead as deliberately as possible. But I also wanted students to enjoy writing, and taking an attitude while teaching that “writing is a task” seemed counterproductive. So instead I tried to encourage ownership. “If you remember nothing else from this course,” I used to stress, “remember ‘connotation’ and ‘denotation.’”
Connotation: a word’s contextual meaning and/or all the semantic baggage that word carries
*easy to remember: connotation = context = convey (also = concise)
Denotation: the various definitions of a given word, to be found in the dictionary, that might suitably apply to this-or-that context
*easy to remember: denotation = dictionary definition
I stressed denotation more as a moot concept – which can get rather philosophical – by suggesting that words tend to convey meaning because they are mediated and influenced by the other words around them (be it diction alone, or the syntax, a metaphor, a sentence structure, and so on) as well as by the people who say that word and all the other words. So, for that, connotation was really the key to understanding voice or style. By choosing to use ‘this’ tool over ‘that’ one, a writer has deliberately made a precise decision to help convey some message to the audience, and that decision must be owned because the audience will seek no one else to account for it.
Connotation, though, is entirely in the hands of the author, as far as it concerns developing that piece of writing. On the other hand, once the piece is published or handed in, the author is done. At that point, connotation is entirely the purview of the audience. “So get it right. Be clear by being responsible. Concise and precise.” Incidentally, this is why – in the Rhetorical triangle model – I place small-‘t’ “truth” directly in the centre. This is the real pressure I think writing students face, and of course, most students more broadly: once that piece is turned in or handed over, once an assignment or production is out of my hands and into yours, once I can no longer control or adapt the message I intended to send…
But you know what? This kind of pressure is precisely what I wanted students to feel, this weight of bearing responsibility for oneself, because this is what I believe school should teach above all other lessons. I just happened to use writing as the tool.
More than just the secret to good writing, connotation sums up all I might ever hope that a student would learn from my teaching. In this single robust concept exists everything of value to be found not just in the Rhetorical triangle model of communication but in the ways we learn overall.