My science project
Last night, my son and I completed ground breaking scientific research on his fourth grade project.
You remember those science projects, right? For mine, I caught harmless bugs, killed them, and pinned them to a piece of cardboard, with their appropriate scientific names.
My son was overwhelmed by the assignment sheet that was six pages long. I wanted to start immediately because the project was due the next morning. At first, I tried to coerce my son to construct an old school project where we would make a car that ran on a 9 volt battery, from scratch. That was the kind of project I wished I had done instead of bugs.
I drug him reluctantly to RadioShack and purchased all the parts we would need: a switch, wire, a motor, binding straps, and a rubber gasket to connect the tiny motor to the (homemade) axles. We would use a pinewood derby kit for the wooden body.
We made it to the point of attaching the axles (my most ingenious idea) to the wooden car, and I, feeling proud for finishing this part, looked up into my son's eyes. He wasn't with me, and the project had become mine. It was my car and they were my ingenious axles.
Although I felt passionate about the project and the learning that could have taken place, the whole idea was mine and it was old school. My ambition to make something from bits and pieces of old technology did not appeal to my son at all.
Little Red Riding Hood
"And they all lived happily ever after." What a crock! This cliche conclusion fails in every time. Events rarely end happy in real life. Nobody is happy forever, and real life stories often end horrifically. The statement means nothing
Still, because the stories are for children, the ending works. Kids enjoy repetition, and they need to believe that life is going to work out just fine.
So, the woodsman cuts granny and LRRH out of the wolf's belly, and everything is fine? Does the wolf have only gums and swallowed them whole? In real life granny and Hood are ground beef.
Something in the human mind craves a happy ending, and you only need look at Hollywood movies to see it. As writers, however, we don't always have to end on this happy note. One positive aspect of "happily ever after" is that it points toward the future. It anticipates what is to come.
This is the most effective way to end a story because it leaves the reader thinking after the book is back on the shelf (but avoid "happily..." at all costs. Nothing is more boring than a conclusion that simply restates the story or message. Check this out as a conclusion:
In conclusion, LRRH did well in obeying her mother by taking the food to granny, but she erred when she disobeyed and spoke to the stranger. The result was that both granny and LRRH were gobbled up by the evil wolf. If it were not for the man who came to their rescue, they would have been digested.
This is a wretched, summary conclusion. If we are reading a short work like a fairy tale, we remember events well enough without rehashing them in the conclusion. The story spirals down with a thud because, as readers, we receive regurgitated bits or cliches about what we have just read.
In articles, essays, and blog posts the same thing happens. How many times have you read a formal essay that restates the thesis statement in the end? Seriously, we are not stupid readers, and we remember the story, beginning to end.
While LRRH does well in looking to the future, it fails in provoking thought at the end of the story. Provoking thought is far more complicated than simply summarizing
Folk stories and fairy tales often end like this because they were originally retold in oral form. In oration, it's desirable to restate the conclusion because we remember less efficiently, and we don't have the pages in front of us. It also makes the moral clear and memorable - a lasting lesson for young people."If you are obedient, you will be happy and wolf-free."
In blog writing, readers remember, so don't repeat. The question is what to do in the conclusion, and I'll share some effective ideas with you below.
The quest: A solid source for topics
Quests are stories of journeys and searches. They are deeply embedded in the human brain from our ancestral past, and all cultures have them. They are examples of what scholars call cultural universals, stories, rituals, language features, etc. that exist across every culture.
Quests come in many forms, but they offer challenges, temptations, risk, and the possibility of reward.
Not only are there knightly quests, but we have quests we face daily. Life is a quest.
Recently, I pondered the quest after an engaging experience in social media. I spend time on Quora when I'm in a cantankerous mood. Quora is a social media question and answer venue, among other quirky things. The patrons seem an educated bunch who like to question, answer and debate. So, when I'm in the mood to argue, that is where I head.
I wrote and answered a few questions on skepticism, and then I found the following intriguing question:
What is the correct quote and the source for the following philosophical statement on altruism: in a kind and generous manner creates no obligation on the part of the universe to reciprocate?
The snarky little quote got me thinking, and the words sounded vaguely familiar. I couldn't pin down where I had heard them. The ideas made sense to me on an intellectual level: giving can be purely altruistic, without expecting reciprocation. This quote suggests that paybacks do not occur regularly, nor should they. While the idea conflicts with theory in economic anthropology, I hold off on an explanation in order to pursue my quest.
I thought the task simple: I needed to Google his quote and scan the results. This would be so easy, and I wondered why thy questioner had not already tried. Had I thought it through, I would have realized that this he had already tried this, unsuccessfully. Google's results were random, unrelated, or contradictory.
I love this feeling of cognitive dissonance: when what I thought and assumed turns out to be wrong. I was presented with a challenging task that I thought would be easy, but proved more complicated. At every turn lurked dead ends (or barely living ends). I began a 2 hour long, intense search. I didn't mess around.
In a fascinating Google Hangout interview, Darin picks the brain of a true scholar of the English language - Marcia Riefer Johnston. She has just published her new book on language, Word Up!
Marcia Riefer Johnston: Author of Word Up! about the use of modern English.
Article first published as The Mind of the Reader Is the New Journalist by Darin L. Hammond on Blogcritics. Traditional Journalism
Before social media obliterated traditional journalism, we would probably just now be receiving the images: plumes of smoke, fear, and chaos. Details of the event would slowly and intermitently trickle down to the reader or audience. Journalists traditionally have been the collectors, shapers, and distributors of information. The publishers would disseminate the story, polished and refined, to the public. The Boston Marathon Bombing
"Holy shit! Explosion!" That was the first Tweet reported from the scene in Boston by Kristen Surman, seconds after the bang. Then, the red horror of the Boston Marathon bombing bled through Instagram snapshots, the atrocity shouted across Twitter, videos transmitted instantaneously. News spread through the social media channels raw, real, surreal, like lightning. First-hand reports, photos, and videos informed the audience, fitting a more familiar model for current news media. Information flowed through the now familiar channels, instantly, as if one were in Boston, without journalists as middlemen.
Although we are accustomed to the new media, consumers on the receiving end of information are met with a remarkable challenge, burgeoning in the past few months and years. Through social media, we first hear the stories as if we were present, which places us in the role of near eyewitnesses, close to the event and details. Data flies at us from all directions, mimicking the chaos one feels when actually present at a traumatic event. With the bits of information, we begin to weave a narrative in our own mind. We are the reporters piecing together the story, and the journalists are obsolete at ground zero. They stand on common ground with the public. The New and Old Journalists Discover the Story Simultaneously
The instantaneity of reportage places a burden on the common person, who must piece together the story on the fly, time fragmented by the influx of texts. This sharply contrasts with the traditional journalism that Merriam-Webster defines as "the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media." Implied in that definition is a slow, linear chronology of events as depicted in the blue section of the illustration above. However, the fragmentation of time, due to the fluid social media, places "we the people" as the eyewitnesses and the first journalists on the scene. We are the ones working the story out of chaos.
Thesis Statements do not have to be a pain.
Does the mere mention of the words "thesis statement" piss you off? Most of us have lingering memories of red ink on papers from high school saying something like "Where's your thesis statement?" Back in 1989, Dr. Mooney made me revise one of mine about 50 times. I still received a B+ on the paper, but I was proud. I knew that my thesis was an A and that the other crap was a B+.
Where we get it wrong
Our teachers drilled us on thesis statements because they are so important to make an essay work. They keep both you and the reader focused on the essence of the paper. As a teacher of college students, they groan when I broach the topic. I find euphemisms that are less painful, "the focus sentence" or the "intent statement," but they are too savvy. This applies to you too, so stop moaning. Yes, they are essential in blog posts, but they do not have to be a pain.
The problem is that most of us were never specifically taught how to create one. When I ask a student to point out their thesis to me, they hunt around the introduction area for a sentence that looks thesis-ish. This is the first problem. A thesis does not accidently land in your blog post. You have to create one specifically. But, most students are simply told that a thesis statement is what their papers are about. That's no explanation.
How to get it right
Try writing 10 sentences (not really) on what your post is about, and every single one will be lame. So, forget all your preconceptions about them, and let's start from the beginning with a graphic.
A thesis statement captures the essence of a piece of writing by revealing the topic, point of view, and plan in a single sentence.
The communication triangle connects us.
I wrote a letter to my wife once listing 100 reasons why I loved her, and I had my audience pegged. Sweet, right? I had known her for eight years by then, and I knew the buttons to pound.
I succeeded marvelously. This was not a farse, toying with her emotions, because I meant every word on the pages. The letter is an example of a message targeted to a specific reader by a caring writer. My kids get a big kick out of it now.
My favorite item, looking back 10 years now, is "98. You apologize to pillow when you are mean to him." Let me just say that I have an unusual attachment to my pillow, though not severe enough to put me on a reality show.
The statement exemplifies a moment of intimate connection between reader and writer, with a unique message: powerfully silly. The communication was effective.
The problem when you turn to blogging is that you lack intimacy. Far from writing to your wife, you are writing to strangers oftentimes. You write daily or weekly, but how often do you really know the person you are communicating with? Not only are you unfamiliar with the people you write to, but even worse: sometimes you don't even think about it.
The problem is obvious. How do you persuade and engage an audience you are unfamiliar with? The image demonstrates the complex interaction between the writer, reader, topic, and context.
The two most significant elements are writer and reader, a person you don't know and who does not know you. As a writer you must be a mind-reader to understand what your audience's values, beliefs, and interests. The context surrounds the entire frame, and influences every word. Change any element in the diagram, and you change the written message.
Revised 4/7/2013. A teacher's perspective
As a teacher of college English, my students moan and groan when I mention the topics of grammar and usage. The reflexes of fear
, dread, and disgust are guttural and instinctual.
I feel the intense collective downer that I release upon the classroom environment, and I always regret having mentioned the words at all in the classroom. The collective classroom mind slams shut.
But, I understand the repulsion they feel. Grammar and usage are matters that we are always told we screw up. Teachers often broach the topic as they would the rules of classroom behavior - write and wrong, success or failure. Of course, I overgeneralize. A student's perspective
Students perceive a separation between the way they speak and write in the real world and the rules of grammar and usage, which are closer to Greek than English. These are topics outside their own environments and inside the confines of authority.
Pollock in artistic flow.
First published on BC Blog.
Artistic states of block and flow are infamous and strike fear in creative people. Just after the end of WWI, Jackson Pollock shocked the world in 1947 with a subtle artistic innovation, emerging from a block of his own. His art studio was an old, messy farm shed littered with paint cans, brushes, and canvases, nothing else. Flowing Rivers of Color
After a period of block in his painting, Pollock broke through ingeniously. Unable to achieve the ultimate abstract vision he held in his mind using conventional strategies, he tossed the traditional vertical canvas on his shop’s floor, puffs of dust flying up around the white square. Focused, Pollock made familiar tools foreign, canvas and paint, body and brush, rivers of color, entering his work, embodying the process. Paint flew. Pollock was the painting, the painting Pollock.
He wrestled with the flat canvas, dancing around the perimeter, trouncing in the red and black swirls and splotches, yellow and gray patches spotting him head to foot. He armed himself with multiple buckets and brushes, a can of paint in the left hand, brush, arm, and left hand merging into a single instrument, dripping, slapping, and flinging color against the white.
Pollock worked fast, the vision of the work etched in his focused facial expressions. He entered a fluid zone, where all was color and creativity. His passion flowed like small rivers of red and yellow, filling the blank space with the process of art.
Pollock’s famous drip paintings fundamentally disrupted the art world, and his creative brain was declared ingenious.
What was happening in Pollock’s mind? Cognitive studies suggest that the zone of creativity, in whatever medium of expression, reside in the same brain region. The right brain is typically associated with creativity in both art and writing, and in fact, Susan Sarah points out that “writers have an inexplicable, irresistible compulsion to express themselves via the art and craft of writing
— often with a right brained, spontaneous, creative approach.” Pollock’s creative flow likely came from the right hemisphere of the brain, just as your own brain when in the grips of flurry of words that you cannot write on the page quickly enough.
Darin at work with words.
The power of all languages is the ability to generate an infinite variety
of unique, meaningful messages that communicate.
The fact that those strings of words can range from nonsensical to brilliant plagues writers who hover over every syllable searching for the only word that will do. Not all messages are of equal value.
The perfect sentence and phrase remain elusive for writers, and what frustrates us most is that the skill of writing is so difficult to improve
. One often feels as if there is no method and that you are either a good or bad writer. For every piece of advice out there, you can find the exact opposite, and the study of usage and grammar will only get you so far. Pull open an average book on how to improve your writing, and it's mind numbing.
As far as formal study of the language goes, The Elements of Style (1918), by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, remains the best tutorial by most standards, but simply memorizing the book will not make you a great writer, a better writer certainly. But the sense and sound of language in writing only comes through two routes: reading and writing. The real arena for practice is intense reading combined with intent writing.
An example here will show the elegance and beauty of the greatest writer of our time, Toni Morrison
speaking of two distinct kinds of loneliness:
There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship's, smooths and contains the rocker. It's an inside kind--wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.
Toni Morrison, Beloved
In such little space and sparing language, Morrison accomplishes the magical. The beauty of the language, image, and idea is divine. While Morrison gained skill through the study of literature and writing, likely she acquired her eloquant style through quiet moments with intense books.