Sunday, January 23, 2011

Moving Away From Prescriptive Towards Descriptive Writing Pedagogy

Katie Wood Ray reminds us:

Through experiences looking at many different texts in inquiry with children, we came to realize that there was a difference between describing good writing and prescribing good writing. When we really engaged in describing good writing, we found ourselves talking about how it all works quite differently than we did when we only prescribed good writing, far away from the beautiful texts those prescriptions were meant to help create. And of course we had to face the fact that many of the things we had been taught about good writing simply were not true. As we looked and described what we saw, we were rewriting our own understandings about how good writing happens.

Over time, as we really looked at writing, we found that there was nothing to fear. Good writers don't pursue their craft with a reckless abandon. Instead, they have come to realize that language is there to be used, in any manner possible, to make meaning. Human beings invented language. Its use is not a fixed, rule-bound principle of the universe that existed before us or outside of us. Its use is an exchange between human beings, and because of that, it is alive and changing and growing, and it is never static, never one thing or one way you can put your finger on. To learn to write from writers you will have to make peace with understanding language in use, rather than language in principle.

For this week's blog response please post a piece of text (a sentence, a couple of sentences or a paragraph) that you've read recently that strikes you as "good" writing that is NOT from our assigned articles (could be from an online blog post, newspaper article, people magazine article, advertisement etc.)

1. Describe in the best words you have what you think the author is doing (language patterns you see).
2. Describe why the author is doing it.
3. Why the writing itself resonates with you.

Do your best (and it will be hard) to NOT GET HUNG UP OR STRESSED OUT about needing to know the correct terminology, literary devices or parts-of-speech knowledge for everything you love about the way the language is constructed together. Just go with the best words you have to describe the writing at hand.


  1. "I took up smoking on Tuesday- a pathetic attempt to commit suicide, and an excuse to talk to Vince. Everything I did was either pathetic or an excuse." (Peter by Kate Walker page 196)

    1. The author makes a bold statement in the beginning of this quote (I took up smoking on Tuesday) and then gives two different kinds of reasons that are set apart using a dash (a pathetic attempt to commit suicide) and a comma (an excuse to talk to Vince).

    2. I think the author is trying to show how the speaker is conflicted about his reasons for smoking and to show that the speaker is not happy about his circumstances in life.

    3. It resonates with me because it seems realistic to what I believe an adolescent boy would actual sound like in real life. Bored and conflicted with his actions- yet still willing to take up new experiences such as smoking which he hopes will either kill him or get him an opportunity to talk to Vince. Teen angst packaged neatly in two sentences.

  2. “… cannibalism in Vanuatu was a form of ancestor worship. In Kiribati, for instance, when someone dies, it is customary for family members to partake of the flesh of the decomposing corpse, ladling it into a kind of soup, which is then consumed, ensuring that, for those in bereavement for Grandma, she will always remain some part of them. I’d prefer a wake of a different sort, but as someone raised Catholic, I could get my head around the custom. The starchy wafer produced by nuns, given to us towards the end of Mass—provided, of course, that we confessed our sins and preformed our penance (four Hail Mary’s and three Our Fathers, typically for not making up my bed, being mean to my sister, and having unholy thoughts)—was, we were assured by Father David, the very flesh of Jesus.

    “But it’s just a wafer,” I had exclaimed during one of the question-and-answer sessions Father David held for us sprites each month at St. Bonaventure.

    “It’s the body of Christ,” he assured me, and sensing some Protestant proclitives on my part, he went on and explained, once again, what the Holy Eucharist was about, a lesson that to this day remains a little fuzzy for me.

    “But…it doesn’t taste like a person. It tastes like a wafer.”

    Nevertheless, while I may not have completely understood what Holy Communion was all about, Catholicism did allow me to see nuances of cannibalism. Eating the flesh of another human being, I understood, may not be a really, really bad thing to do. If you were a good Catholic, you had some every Sunday. And, stretching my capacity for understanding human behavior about as far as it would go, I could see how eating the flesh of your dead family members might not be an appallingly deviant thing to do.” (Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost, p. 81)

    1. The author artfully weaves light and humor into a serious subject and makes the foreign seem personal (“for those in bereavement for Grandma, she will always remain some part of them”). He blends anecdotes into historical/factual explanations in a way that makes even the most foreign practices relatable (note his anecdote on boyhood experiences at St. Bonaventure Catholic School as an explanation of how he was able to “get his head around cannibalism”).

    2. I think the author’s humorous and sometimes self-depreciating approach to writing about his exploration of foreign cultures is his way of presenting himself as being equal and relatable. He doesn’t preach to his readers from on high as the all-knowing source. Instead he invites you to explore with him.

    3. J. Maarten Troost’s ability to weave history into pub-time story telling atmosphere while simultaneously taking jabs at his own culture’s revered practices is just the right mix of thought-provoking and entertaining. I come away from his stories feeling like I’ve just had a good laugh with a friend, read a few chapters of a history book and attended an interesting anthropological lecture. He has an amazing ability to humorously juxtapose two seemingly opposing cultural value systems while actually revealing their similarities.

  3. "They moved quietly around the room, touching things. Fastidious half fluttered, half climbed to a tabletop and methodically touched framed photographs...they moved quietly around the room, touching things. Fastidious half fluttered, half climbed to a tabletop...Littlest watched in the moolight and saw how the fingers chose and touched the faces...forgetting her promise of no questions, Littlest suddenly asked, "might we be human?" But Fastidious did not reply. (Gossamer by Lois Lowry page 6)

    1. The author uses the names of the characters in a deliberate way in order to portray each of their personalities. Also, the author adds the appropriate details in order to show the essence of the characters and it also gives a prediction as to what problems might develop later because of these traits.

    2. I think the author does this in order to show the reader the quirks of each of these important characters and it foreshadows the kinds of issues or problems that may arise from these two different characters

    3. This passage particularly resonates with me because it's the very beginning of the book and I found myself picturing the characters because of all the details the author gave and in particular the names of Fastidious and Littlest One.It made me want to continue to read, because i thought it was hilarious how their names were fitting to their personalities.

  4. "Dear My Dad's Handwriting,

    Thanks for being so tiny and distinctive that even at age 8, I knew it was you writing my tooth fairy notes.

    Leah" (

    1. The author simultaneously conveys deep meaning, love and humor through a simple thank you letter. The language is simple and succinct, which adds to its charm and beauty.

    2. I believe the author, Leah, is trying to show her love for her father in a simple and humorous manner via the unpretentious thank you note.

    3. I love Leah's blog which consists of numerous simple thank you notes like the one above because they are genuine and natural. Nothing is over-elaborated or affected like so many other blogs I have read. I find beauty in her simplicity and unabashed honesty.

  5. "Mankind, ignorant of the truths that lie within every human being, looked outward - pushed ever outward. What mankind hoped to learn in its outward push was who was actually in charge of all creation, and what all creation was all about." (The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut pg. 1)

    1. Through the use of the hyphen (looked outward – pushed ever outward) the author depicts the desperation exerted by ‘mankind’ to look outward for answers. In just one sentence the author creates a question in the readers mind. A question that sets the theme for the novel.

    2. I believe the author is posing this question to get the reader’s mind working. To get the reader prepared for what this book will entail. Of how far mankind went to find the answers to creation, to question the meaning of life, creation and religion.

    3. After reading this paragraph, my mind was filled with thousands of questions. What “truths” lie within each and every one of us? Who/what was actually in charge of all creation? Though a non-fiction book, in one paragraph the author touches on a question many of us have not thought twice about. The author succeeds in getting my mind working and it was this paragraph that hooked me in.

  6. "One of the best things in the world is surfing with your friends in the water, just sharing that moment of 'hey, did you see that?' I think that's why people like to have photographs of themselves when they're in the tube or when they're surfing because they can't believe where they are standing. You do everything to get into that place, but as soon as you realize you're there, you're not there anymore. So you have these pictures to really remember the sensation of something that is absolutely eluvsive." (Julian Schnabel, from article in THE SURFERS JOURNAL, February 2011)

    1: The author begins with a big generalization and then backs up that claim with a description and a comparison. The language is generic, simple and succint but he gives it some poetic phosphoresence with "to really remember the sensation of something that is absolutely elusive."

    2: The author is trying to convey the fleeting moment of surfing that can only be captured by camera or signaled by a friend's hoot and hollar in the water.

    3: This little snippet of text struck me as good writing because as a surfer I identify with the feeling of having a split second feel magical when I'm on a wave. The concept of always trying to atain that feeling again is part of the addiction of surfing.

  7. “Oi campanas distantes, senti la fragancia del alma de Delgadina dormidad de costado, oi un grito en el horizonte, sollozos de alguien quien quizas habia muerto un siglo antes en la alcoba. Entonces apague la luz con el ultimo aliento, entrelace mis dedos con los suyos para llevarmela de la mano, y conte las doces campanadas de las doce con is doce lagrimas finales”(108) Memories of my Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    (I heard the distant bells, I felt the fragrance of Delgadinas soul asleep at my side, I heard a scream in the horizon, sobs of someone who may have died a century ago in the bedroom. And so with my last breath I turned off the lights, interlaced my fingers with her so that I could take her by the hand, and then I counted the twelve strokes at midnight with my last twelve tears.)*my very rough translation*

    1. Garcia Marquez is using descriptive language to make the reader feel just what the protagonist is feeling. He is making sure to write down all those random and not so random thoughts that often go through ones head. He also makes sure to write about three of the senses, the protagonist hears the bells, smells his lovers fragrance, and touches by interlacing his fingers with hers.

    2. Garcia Marquez is doing this to connect the reader with the protagonist. He wants to take us out of our mind and place us in this scene and in the protagonist mind. He wants us to have compassion and love for this man.

    3. This writing resonates with me because of all the feelings that are shown. The simple and yet descriptive words take me from my world and put me in his. All of a sudden I feel what he is feeling and then I can possibly put the book down.

  8. "Some nights I lay awake and listened to my parents' lovemaking. I know white people keep it quiet, pretend they don't ever make love. My white friends tell me they can't even imagine their own parents getting it on. I know exactly what it sounds like when my parents are touching each other. It makes up for knowing exactly what they sound like when they're fighting. Plus and minus. Add and subtract. It comes out just about even." ("Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who saw Jimi Hendrix" by Sherman Alexie)

    1. The author begins with a strange, but innocent statement which shows that the speaker is still a child. The use of slang like "getting it on" adds levity to a scene that isn't funny in reality. This helps emotionally balance the paragraph. The end, "Plus and minus..." shows the speaker removing himself and becoming objective again after a very personal moment.

    2. The author's use of a child speaker allows for honest, emotional utterances an adult wouldn't give. The child speaker is able to simply justify and explain the situation as black and white, mathematical, not confused or complicated even after sharing something very personal. The objective quality at the end allows the story to move forward.

    3. I liked the blunt writing that is true to a child's speaking. Also, the paragraph pulls at you from many angles: humor, tenderness, sympathy.

  9. "When I had nothing to lose, I had everything. When I stopped being who I am, I found myself."
    — Paulo Coelho

    1) The author uses phrases/words that would normally be in contradiction to each other to explain one another. For example, using the word loss to define having everything or the phrase stopping a search to explain finding that thing you are looking for. The author uses a very simple sentence structure (introductory clause) and simple vocabulary to portray very complex thoughts. The author also uses the present tense and participles to make us feel that we are going on the reflective journey with him.

    2) The quote is striking because it juxtapositions words/phrases that ordinarily wouldn't go together. It immediately stops the reader and makes us think about how we could both lose and have, stop looking and find. The sentence structure itself contradicts the quote because it is so simple, but the meaning behind the sentences are deep. I think this is done intentionally as another way to shock the reader into rereading and reflecting on the quote.

    3) I once had an English teacher who said choosing the biggest words you know to explain something doesn't make you a good writer, explaining complex thought through simple language does. That always stuck with me because my parents are ELs and I got into the habit of using simple words to explain everything in my life. My English teacher helped me realize that making complex thought accessible to everyone is what makes a good writer great and I think this quote exemplifies that philosophy.

  10. "like anything else in life..if you go at it 'specting something bad to happen, all you gunn do is draw that bad thing to you. You caint be timid 'bout nothing you do, you got to go at it like you 'specting good things to come out of it.

    1. The author uses a different dialect throughout the story to convey the the voice of the narrater throughout the book. In this passage we can gauge a lot about the type of speaker they are and how passionate they seem to be. The use of a different dialect really gives the reader an insight into these characters lives and take you to another world through someone else's perspective.
    2. I think the author chose to write in this manner to really make the story not just a work of historical fiction, but in a way take the reader into the characters lives. This passage is an example of exactly how the rest of the story reads. It also exudes emotions from the speaker. Strong feelings about how one should approach life.
    3. This excerpt is from a book my fifth grade class is reading. It resonated with me on so many levels. I love this analogy as the entire passage is about how eating fish is like how we should approach everything else we encounter in life. If every time you eat fish and worry about swallowing a bone, you won't enjoy the process and rather than being a pleasant meal it will be a torturous one. If you embark on something with the intention of it turning out well or with positive feelings, the process will be that much better.

  11. “Buddy, the wind is blowing.”
    The wind is blowing and nothing will do until we’ve run to a pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and, where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried too). There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind. (Truman Capote A Christmas Memory)

    1. In this paragraph, there are three elements at work that Truman Capote uses throughout this piece. He signals a transition with a quote; he uses parentheses to insert details that add depth to the narrative; and he uses metaphor and simile. I will focus on the use of parentheses.

    2. In this particular passage, the parentheses are used to foreshadow a future event. There is a feeling throughout A Christmas Memory of the transience of life, and the use of the parentheses to frame the phrase gently emphasizes this. The statement that Queenie will soon be buried in the field is presented almost an aside, but its emotional significance is anything but that.

    3. This is one of my favorite pieces of writing. I return to it over and over, and I still can’t read the end without crying. Capote’s writing is as delicate and fragile as his friend. Capote uses her own statements to allow us to get to know and love her as he did. He uses gorgeous similes, such as the “sky fish” in the passage above, to provide imagery. The combination of beautiful writing and the simple tale of love, innocence and devotion make this a piece of writing that endures over many, many readings.

  12. “The train was braking a little from express speed, as it did each time it passed a local station. I could see blurred faces on the long wooden platform watching us pass- businessmen glancing up from folded newspapers, women clutching purses and shopping bags. I could see the expression on each face, momentarily arrested, as we flashed by. A high school kid in shirt sleeves, maybe sixteen, with books tucked under one arm and a cigarette in his mouth, caught sight of us, and in the instant before he disappeared he grinned and started to wave. The he was gone, and I turned from the window, back to Kate, forgetting everything- the passing stations, the glowing late sky, even the sense of missing her- but that arrested wave stayed with me. It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my school books and a smoke, on one of those endlessly accumulated afternoons after school when I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I’d have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.” Stuart Dybek, Pet Milk (last paragraph.)

    From Stuart Dybek’s short story, Pet Milk.
    1. He is playing with and manipulating time in this paragraph. He is using long sentences; dashes, commas, independent clauses. He’s in the past tense and the past continuous. Keeping it moving.

    2. By doing this he creates a sense of both nostalgia and immediacy. I think these were the feelings he was trying for and he accomplishes brilliantly. The long sentences that create that immediacy are like short poems. And you’re hanging on each word.

    3. It resonates with me because as a lapsed writer I really find it beautiful the way he creates these feelings and also at the end bring in this duality of perspective. Him being in the train, and the kid on the platform. Both present and past sort of tangled together. And it has an almost desperate quality in the last sentence that strikes me as being powerfully truthful.

  13. "I Hold Mama Ya-Ya's hand - and I let myself think what I know - Mama Ya-Ya's dying. Eight means the start of something new. Two means kindness, quiet power. Mama Ya-Ya is eighty-two. She has wound down. Her spirit is ready for something new. I smile but my heart hurts. I can imagine Mama Ya-Ya telling Mr. Death stories. Telling him that 8 + 2 = 10. Ten means everything's complete. Perfect. Done. I never thought I could love Mama Ya-Ya more than I already do, but somehow, in this moment, I do. I have never felt so grateful in my life." (Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes pg. 176)

    1. I think the author is using simple sentences to convey the spirit of a child as she experiences one of life's most complex challenges - death of a loved one. The author uses such a simple form of writing that it elicits the feelings of a 12 year old child amidst the great challenge of death as well as the impending disasters of Hurricane Katrina.

    2. I believe the writer is doing this in order to convey the innocence and purity of a child even in times of great despair. The format and flow of the writing elicit the feelings of this child in all its simplicity and deep love. This powerful point in the book where the person that she loves most in the world, is summed up in one simple and moving paragraph.

    3. This piece of writing (as well as this book as whole) resonate with me because it creates a lens inside the character's feelings and emotions, as well as into the culture that is so stricken during the time of Hurricane Katrina. By so accurately portraying the culture of the ninth ward as well as the inner voice of a child, I felt a human connection to such a mass tragedy. Her words and insight left me with hope.

  14. “The more you learn, the more you know. The more you know, the more you forget. The more you forget, the less you know. So why bother to learn.”

    1.This statement uses a parallel structure “The more…, the more…”. The ending part of the first sentence is the beginner part of the second sentence and the ending part of the second sentence is the beginning part of the third sentence. The conclusion is a short question.

    2.Using the same structure several times, no complicated grammatical rules or literacy devices, I think the author is trying to make the sentences easy to follow, and to make the conclusion more natural. He tries to convince us that there is no reason to learn in this short statement.

    3.I choose this piece of writing because it leads us to a ridiculous conclusion through seemingly reasonable premises. Each single premise sentence is true, so it is easy to follow the reasoning process, and then draw the false conclusion set up by the author. The beauty of this specious argument is to let readers think twice. I like the way the author play with language and our normal reasoning process.

  15. "Hey Jude, don't make it bad.
    Take a sad song and make it better.
    Remember to let her into your heart,
    Then you can start to make it better.

    Hey Jude, don't be afraid.
    You were made to go out and get her.
    The minute you let her under your skin,
    Then you begin to make it better.

    And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain,
    Don't carry the world upon your shoulders.
    For well you know that it's a fool who plays it cool
    By making his world a little colder.

    Hey Jude, don't let me down.
    You have found her, now go and get her.
    Remember to let her into your heart,
    Then you can start to make it better. " (The Beatles)

    1. This piece of writing uses repetition, and always refers to the same person (Jude) in the first sentence of each phrase. This text is giving someone advice telling them what to do. Repeating Hey Jude, reminds the reader that the message is for Jude. It also tells Jude not to do something, using different verbs, but having the same meaning.

    2.The author is telling the person they wrote about (Jude), or anyone who can relate to Jude to take what they have in life and make something of it. Don’t take anything for granted. Once you let people in your life will get better. I also see that the author wants the reader to know that nobody has a perfect life, and those that do are pretending they do for image. Everyone has something that is not perfect in their lives, but it does not make everyone said. You should embrace life for what it is.

    3. When I was thinking about what piece of writing I was going to choose, I decided to choose something that I can think of without opening a book. Music has so much meaning and complexity to it, and it is a type of writing I have not really studied or used as a writing sample. I think this particular text resonates with me because I take it as not being afraid of life or your dreams. As soon as you begin to pursue your passion/dreams your life will get better and better. In the process don’t let other get you down, simply keep pursuing what you want and everything will fall into place.