The aim of real writing is first drafts that say clearly everything that needs to be said in no more words than are absolutely necessary. And real writing aims at clean first drafts, free from mistakes that either force people to reread sentences twice to figure out their meaning or that make people laugh out loud.
Real writing is what is expected from writing teachers.
Real writing is what teachers are expected to teach their students to do.
Real writing is what every high school graduate should be able to do.
What’s the last nonfiction book you choose to read that wasn’t assigned reading?
Tell me about that book
Was that book:
on a topic related to the subject you teach?
a how-to book?
a biography/autobiography of sports or entertainment figure?
a history book?
something you just thought sounded interesting?
Did you read anything I might be interested in?
What, if anything, from that book have you used in teaching?
What, if anything, from the book have you found yourself thinking about since you read it?
What, if anything, from that book have you shared with someone else?
Would you read another book on the same topic?
Would you look for another book by the same author?
Have you recommended the book to someone else?
Have you signed up for the author’s email list, if the author has one?
Your answers to each of those questions tells me whether you think the book was worth the time you invested in reading it.
Why your answers matter to you
The postmaster in a small community in which I lived told me he hated reading and he hated writing, but every time I’d get a shipment of books, he’d ask, “Did you get anything I might be interested in?” If I told him about a book that he though he’d be interested in, he’d make a note of the title.
Like my postmaster, a large number of your students and mine complete high school without ever reading a book that was interesting to them. The wider the range of nonfiction you read, the more likely it is you’ll be able to suggest books that your students might also find interesting reading.
Students don’t become good readers unless at least some of what they read is interesting to them. To be able to point students to well-written books that may interest them, you need to be knowledgeable about at least some nonfiction titles on topics that may not be your first choice of rainy-day reading.
Why your answer matters to me
As my long-time readers know, nearly all the writing I’ve done has been instructional materials that nobody reads unless they are paid to. Before I drop off my twig, I’d like to write a practical nonfiction book that is read by people who aren’t paid to read it.
You, for example.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a book about how to have mutually pleasant visits with people in nursing homes. A former nursing home activities director at one of the homes at which I volunteered is working with me. We have grand plans for a series of short, illustrated, square “gift books” that we refer to as our “Thanks for Dropping By” books. “Thanks for dropping by” is what nursing home residents always said when I left.
If we decide to go ahead with the how-too books, Ill ask you to join my email list. I hope when/if you see the invitation, you’ll sign up, identifying yourself as a potential reader of my practical, nonfiction books for people who aren’t paid to read them.
Despite their glowing reviews, the nonfiction books I read in the fourth quarter of 2019 turned out not to be literary nonfiction at all. Literary nonfiction is like novels: It must be read in chapter order. The books I read are each practical nonfiction.
Despite my disappointment, I’m keeping two of them for my classroom library because of their potential to attract reluctant readers to nonfiction books. Rather than developing a theme, each of the books is a collection of anecdotes on a theme. You can read chapter 7, skip to chapter 13, and then read chapter 1 in either of these books. That is part of their appeal: They need not be read from cover to cover; they can be picked up and sampled.
I Love It When You Talk Retro
Ralph Keyes’s bookI Love It When You Talk Retro explores terms and catchphrases that have remained part of the American vocabulary long after people have forgotten where the terms originated or to what they originally referred.
Necktie party, scuttlebutt, blow your wad, puppet state, bandwagon effect, and Catch-22 are only a few of the terms that Keyes discusses in chapters devoted to words with common origins, such as terms from sports, terms from occupations that no longer exist, and terms from media of earlier centuries.
Keyes designed the book so it can be browsed, used as a reference book, or read cover to cover.
I wouldn’t recommend reading Talk Retro cover-to-cover, let alone asking students to read it cover-to-cover. It’s a book better read in multiple, short sessions.
You might have pairs or trios of students read a chapter and give brief slide presentation to the class about the origins of a few of the expressions that they discovered through their reading.
Talk Retro could certainly be useful in prompting a discussion of the importance of word choices in communicating with individuals outside one’s peer group.
I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech. Ralph Keyes. St. Martins. 2009. 310 p.
By contrast to I Love It When You Talk Retro, Quackery is co-written by writers from a younger generation. Their language is very much Netflix and Hulu, not retro. Lavishly illustrated and split into small chunks of reading, Quackery is a book with a high “Ugh, gross!” factor that would appeal to a middle school readers.
Lydia Kang, M.D., and Nate Petersen, a freelance writer, put together a fact-packed, 344-page book, about the crazy things people have done to cure illnesses, increase their lifespan or their libido, get rid of excess weight, or solve dozens or other real or imaginary problems.
Some of the quack cures described were simply mistakes. A few of the “quacks” followed their own advice, often with fatal results. Most of the quack cures, however, were deliberate, money-making schemes.
The books is chock full of interesting, albeit not particularly useful, bits history. For example, the cereal company founder, John Harvey Kellogg, invented a light booth in which someone stood naked while he/she tanned and sweated under harsh lights. Kellogg said the treatment cured diabetes and scarlet fever and helped prevent constipation. King Edward VII had booths installed at Windsor and Buckingham castles in England.
The chapters of Quackery are mercifully short: Many of the descriptions are enough to make you gag, and that internal response is heightened by the use of pond-scum green edging on all the pages.
I’d put Quackery on a classroom shelf to attract seventh grade boys to pick up a book. It’s chapters are extensively illustrated with ads, vintage photos, illustrations from old books and periodicals of instruments and animals used in the various treatments, all of which would delight most seventh graders. Also, the topics are sufficiently scatological to appeal to seventh grade boys, as would the authors’ humor.
Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. Lydia Kang MD and Nate Pedersen. Workman Publishing. 2017. 344 p.
English teachers have a problem with nonfiction: They think it’s boring. Frankly, a great deal of nonfiction is boring because it was never intended to be useful or interesting: It exists just to document forgettable facts.
An insurance policy and some of your school superintendent’s memos are boring because their entire purpose is to record information that you’d forget immediately if you just heard it. Such nonfiction accomplishes its goal if you receive the paper so you could look up the information later if you need it. It can be boring because nobody actually reads it.
All nonfiction for ELA classes should be useful
The nonfiction we have students read and write in English Language Arts classes ought to be an entirely different species of writing than the forgettable facts documents.
The nonfiction for class use needs to be useful, memorable, and factual. Facts are the protoplasm of all nonfiction.
Nonfiction is presented by the writer as a factual record. Although a writer might not have had all the facts or may have inaccurately presented the facts, readers should assume that the writer is telling the truth as far as she knew it at the time she wrote it.
You must teach students that just because someone wrote a nonfiction text does not mean the author approves of or agrees with the beliefs or actions shown in that text. Some authors deliberately write about ideas with which they disagree. That’s those authors’ way of trying to understand how anyone could hold those ideas.
Practical nonfiction is useful information
One species of nonfiction our students need to be able to read is what Sol Stein calls practical nonfiction. It’s purpose is to convey information so that readers can put it to use. Practical nonfiction is also the kind of writing you and I and our students are required to do, and thus it is the kind of writing you and I are required to teach.
A report on the success (or lack thereof) of the latest marketing campaign is an example of practical nonfiction. So is a book on how to clean your house in 15 minutes a day and an article in the Sunday newspaper about the potential uses the city council has identified for the old knitting mill property.
Each of those nonfiction pieces provides information which the recipient is expected to act upon in some way. The action might be to design a totally different marketing plan, or clean house in 15 minutes a day, or vote either to retain the current city council or throw the bums out.
Most of the nonfiction in newspapers, magazines, and books is practical nonfiction. Practical nonfiction is a several notches above useless nonfiction, but it’s still pretty prosaic stuff.
Literary nonfiction is alluring
Literary nonfiction is totally different from the other two uses of nonfiction. Literary nonfiction tells a true story. It presents unaltered facts about real people, real places and real events using the scene-creating and story-telling techniques of fiction to draw readers into being interested in a topic in which they had no previous interest.
Literary nonfiction is much more difficult to do well than fiction. Literary nonfiction is held simultaneously to two very different standards and must meet both of them.
First, it must be nonfiction and, as such, it is assessed by journalistic standards. That means, information in literary nonfiction must be documented facts that can be verified by independent sources. There can be no invented sources, no fabricated quotes. The literary nonfiction writer has to stick to facts. And one-source stories aren’t acceptable.
Although the literary nonfiction writer is denied the option of making things up, she’s required to set the story in scenes—at specific times in specific places—which are described well enough that readers understand how the time and place impacted the characters.
The literary nonfiction writer also has to use fictional techniques such as dialogue and carefully selected details to develop the story’s characters. That’s where the nonfiction writer must exercise creativity to bring alive revealing scenes without falsifying facts or inventing language.
Teach both practical and literary nonfiction
You and I need to teach students to write practical nonfiction. Every student will be required to write practical nonfiction.
We should teach our students to read literary nonfiction. Literary nonfiction has the ability to make people interested in topics that they would not have suspected would interest them.
Literary nonfiction can open the world to students.