Tag Archives: education

How we teach writing and reading.

Scholarly Overwriting

I am updating what might be described as an academic website. Reading for research reminds me that too many academic works are “overwritten.” I thought about compiling a list of complaints, but there are too many to catalog and rank. Instead, I’ll highlight some of the most annoying traits of “scholarly writing.”

Clutter. Academic writers love clutter. Maybe there’s an unwritten agreement to add 22 percent fat to all academic texts. Someone should take a red pen (or the delete key) to every useless piece of filler in the texts. Omit “It is often written that…”, its sibling “Throughout the history of our discipline…”, and other worthless nods to nothing. If something is often written, please don’t remind us. We already know it.

Back patting. If you are quoting or citing someone else, let us assume he or she is a “leading expert” or “noted scholar.” We don’t need the clichéd praise throughout journal articles or books. If you are citing people who are not experts, then we’d like to know. Otherwise, most readers assume citations are from credible sources. The worst offense I’ve read: “The noted scholar Dr. X, celebrated for her preeminent works in the field of Y, has published award-wining research on Y.” Really? Did she write something similar about you? It seems every scholar has to praise his or her peers, review their works in glowing terms, and then wait to be repaid in kind.

Academese. Please stop using jargon no one outside your discipline can decipher. Stop it. I’m willing to bet half the people in your discipline can’t agree on what these manufactured terms mean. Academic jargon is less of an issue in the sciences, which rely on words meaning specific things.
(See http://www.tameri.com/write/academese.html)

Condescension. Yes, you are a scholar, but that doesn’t mean you are smarter in general or somehow morally superior to others. Scholars are more ignorant than they realize. Complaining that “the public” (which apparently doesn’t include academics), “most Americans,” or “Westerners” are ill-informed and easily manipulated doesn’t persuade readers. Sure, those agreeing with you will feel wonderful upon discovering they are among the superior few, but it is a cheap rhetorical stunt.

I’m going to stop at four broad complaints for now.

I advised my students to write as they would speak to someone outside their discipline. I discovered the students speak in the same stilted academic style I encounter in scholarly texts, minus the footnotes but with verbal citations of experts. Reading too many overwritten texts, the university students mimicked the style because it was perceived to be “intellectual.”

Maybe other “academics” share my revulsion with academic texts? If so, can we start teaching students to write in styles enjoyable to read?

- Scott

Planning with Contour

I have outlined two projects with Mariner Software’s Contour 1.2 and remain uncertain about the product for several reasons. The program is marred by sloppy spelling errors in manuscript templates and a rigid approach to story plotting that falls short when writing a complex story or screenplay. What you are buying with Contour is one screenwriter’s idea of what constitutes a “blockbuster” movie structure. It’s a starting place for new screenwriters, certainly, but probably not suited for experienced screenwriters or novelists.

Contour Screenshot

Contour Screenplay Outlining

First, let me offer some background. Contour is based on the story development approach of screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Schechter. I can’t claim to be familiar with Schechter’s works (various Care Bear movies are listed on IMDB) and it seems a stretch to consider him a “big name” in screenwriting. He seems to earn a living teaching screenwriting seminars and providing script coverage to aspiring writers. Of course, I cannot claim to be a produced screenwriter, while Schechter definitely earns money at the craft.

I am serious about screenwriting, which has led me to read books, articles, and to try various software packages that might help me master the craft. Contour is definitely at the “baby steps” or “novice” end of the spectrum.

How Countour Works

Contour presents a series of questions to the user. With each answer, a green progress bar moves a step closer towards completion. You can use the progress bar to move backwards or forwards at any time, adjusting your script outline. Moving the progress marker rotates through the Contour questions.

On the righthand side of the Contour window, you are offered example answers to each question. The examples come from a number of Hollywood blockbusters. Some of these examples are stretched to fit the Contour model, one of my arguments against such a rigid template.

I’m not going to offer every question from Contour, which would be unfair to the developers. I’ll stick to the highlights.

Four Questions

Contour begins with questions common to writing guides. The questions Contour asks are:

1. Who is your main character?
2. What is he trying to accomplish?
3. Who is trying to stop him?
4. What happens if he fails?

Since I’m one to make the same “mistake,” I will concede that someone will quibble with the male pronouns, which would be easy enough for Mariner Software to expand. Honestly, it’s not a big deal to me and only English speakers would care so much about the gender issue. Let’s focus on the questions.

The main character in Contour is assumed to be one person. That’s generally a good approach in a screenplay, but there are exceptions. Also, there are rare movies without main characters, but they don’t tend to be the blockbusters. Remember, Contour is geared towards creating a hit, which means sticking to a basic formula.

Next, Contour asks about the task, goal, mission, or whatever else you might call what the main character must accomplish. Remember that the task must have a purpose. Why does the main character even care about the task?

Contour assumes an antagonist is trying to stop the main character from accomplishing his or her task. Again, this represent the blockbuster formula. You can make the antagonist nature, inner doubts, or something equally complex, but Contour is more suited for good vs. evil, two characters in conflict.

One thing I do like is the fourth question. It’s one many students and beginning writers forget to address clearly. Yes, the main character might fail, but what is the price of failure?

If you read the Tameri Guide pages on Plot and Story, we have created a detailed chart addressing these questions and others. I’m not sure Contour is better than blank notebook paper for answering such basic plot and story questions. I would have students work on paper even if they were going to enter their answers into Contour.

The Journey

Contour’s questions assume a blockbuster script will progress through four stages. These stages represent the emotional growth of the main character.

1. Orphan
2. Wanderer
3. Warrior
4. Martyr

I don’t object to following this plotting model, which definitely aids writers by clarifying how a character should evolve in 120 pages. It’s a good model and one that works for a formulaic script — which is what Hollywood likes.

The basic structure can be expanded as follows:

1. The main character is literally or metaphorically abandoned and isolated from others.

2. The main character wanders through events, looking for a place or role that will end the feeling of isolation.

3. The antagonist creates a situation that forces the main character to face any doubts and fears. The two characters engage in direct or indirect conflict.

4. The main character consciously chooses to make a personal sacrifice to accomplish the primary task of the story.

Contour breaks each of these four stages into a set number of plot beats. Within Contour, these are fixed beats, but there’s no reason they cannot be changed once you export a script outline to your choice of word processor or screenwriting software.

Because Contour doesn’t force you to create detailed character sketches, conflict maps, or other planning devices, I’m not convinced the application is of value to experienced writers. Contour isn’t a bad concept, but its surface flaws and lack of depth make it difficult to recommend. Contour would help some students or beginning writers, but after one or two Contour-guided scripts I believe most writers would abandon the program.

Maybe outgrowing the program is the point, but I would rather have a program that has a “simple” mode and an “advanced” mode. By comparison, Dramatica Pro offers far more flexibility and guidance for writers, regardless of the writer’s experience level.

I hope Contour 2.0 fixes the minor flaws and expands the program’s plotting methodology.

- Scott

Craft Skills vs. Artistic Talent

This is likely to be a paired blog entry, as I am certain Susan will have something to say on the matter.

I strongly believe that almost anyone can be taught a skill — which is not the same as being taught an art. Given enough practice, most of us can master anything we are physically capable of doing. Malcolm Gladwell, science and psychology writer for the New Yorker, has found many experts agree that the “magic number” is roughly 10,000 hours of practice to be among the best at any particular skill, from playing a musical instrument to programming computers.

However, a skill is not an art. Every artist, regardless of innate talents, has to practice the craft aspects of his or her medium. Art depends on craft.

I’ve met gifted painters who can “forge” classic works. They have painted for 10,000 hours and can recreate almost any image in any major style. But, only a few of these artists can create something original, a work that stands alone. I have no idea why this is, but the world needs craft as much as original art.

Susan read a research article that concluded most people can be taught to sing. I have no reason to doubt that most of us with average hearing can be trained to adjust our voices, compensating for the differences between what we hear and what others hear when we sing. Yet, there is a difference between those who sing and those who manage to interpret songs in new ways.

This is not to dismiss craftwork, which is the expert recreation of a work. What I am suggesting is that being a great technical painter or singer is not the same as being an artist. Creating something is key to art, in my opinion. Duplication, generally, is not creative.

There is a magical line that separates creativity from skill mastery. Since few of us ever take the time to master something, and I do mean truly master, the expert musician leaves us in awe. Yet, it is the composer who stands apart from others in my mind. The composer is probably a “good” musician, with something extra. He or she might not be the absolute best musician, but is good enough to envision new possibilities. That imagination gives rise to art.

The craft of writing should not be confused with the art of writing.

When we teach writing, we can teach the craft and nurture the art. We can hope that students develop into master writers, able to compose specific genres in the classroom, workplace, or daily life that are necessary to success.

Art is beyond craft. We can and must nurture art, which means identifying the creative writers among students and giving them an environment that is both challenging and inspiring. Nurturing art includes the practice of skills, since you cannot fully articulate the creative without mastery of the skills.

Today I heard a teacher repeat the old standby, “Everyone has a story to tell.” Yes, but not everyone can tell that story in an interesting, entertaining, and artistic manner. It’s not enough to accurately write your story in technically correct grammar. There is more to being a writer than knowing grammar and mechanics. I know many writers who require editors; this implies the skill of writing is less essential to being a writer than some people might assume.

Most of us experience the difference of craft vs. art among our friends. We all have those friends who can turn a routine trip to the bank or department of motor vehicles into an uproariously funny tale. These are “storytellers” who simply know how to captivate an audience. Another friend might tell more accurate stories, reporting on events like a journalist. Another friend might speak in rigidly proper English, carefully avoiding the slightest grammar faux pas. But, most of us prefer to hear the storyteller.

I could have five students write the exact same story from a provided outline and yet the odds are one would stand apart. All five might have exceptional form. There might not be a single spelling error in any of texts. Most of my students would write “A” papers by any technical metric. Yet, someone will compose a better story.

Maybe everyone has a story, but some people need assistance, or at least guidance, to make the story interesting.

I hope every student becomes a good writer, technically. That technical mastery alone is not enough to be considered an artist. An artist studies compulsively, then mixes and merges the technical aspects of previous masters to become something new. What I hope is that we encourage students to explore, so everyone has an opportunity to discover if he or she is an artist. We must not assume to know who is or is not destined to be an artist.

- Scott

Copious Writing is More than Exercise

When I tell people that the key to being a writer is writing, a common response is skepticism.

Earlier today someone asked, “Do you really write 100 pages or more a month?” Absolutely. I cannot imagine any serious prose or dramatic writer produces fewer than 15,000 words a month and much closer to 25,000. Most of what I write is for myself, but a substantial amount is intended for future publication or production. Also, writing a page is not the same as keeping the page.

Writing is not a race. I certainly don’t expect talented poets to consider word counts a sign of greatness. If anything, poetry is a concise art. But other forms of writing are judged by word and/or page counts.

How can you write 100 pages a month? And should you write that much?

Let me answer the should you question: Yes, if you can. Why? Because drafts are meant to be edited. I think the more you write, the better you write. You learn to edit in your mind, as you type or write each sentence.

You learn to be concise, which means the words that do remain on the page are valuable. Writing a lot doesn’t mean what you write survives the revision process. I’m a fan of short stories, 1000 to 5000 words. I’ve read that most of these are cut by a third during revision and editing passes. Personal experience mirrors this.

There is no one way to write 100 pages.

I have averaged more than 300 pages of “non-personal” writing each six months for the last two years. Most of this has been academic, since I was completing my doctorate. Since January, I have written three full-length screenplays, totaling 297 pages (excluding title pages), and six magazine columns (1000 words each). I’m also working on several other projects I hope to complete before the end of June. Add my personal writing, blogging, presentation handouts, and website content and the amount of writing exceeds 1000 pages every six months.

I need deadlines. I need feedback. For this reason, it helps me to be in contact with other writers.

There are books offering to help you write a novel or a screenplay in a month. I have no idea if those guides work or not, so I cannot suggest any books.

To write a novel or screenplay in a month, you need a schedule. You also need to realize that the month will produce only a draft 100 pages, not a final product. You may need three months, six months, or even a year to create a final draft. During the revision process, you need to keep writing.

What is a good pace for writing? I would suggest a three-page minimum (750 words) with no upper limit. If you can write three pages a day, five days a week, that’s roughly 3750 words a week and 15,000 words a month. To reach 25,000 words means writing 1,250 words each weekday or writing on weekends.

Again, writing is not a race, but you should at least have a pace in mind. Some days you will exceed the goal, some days you will fall short. One tip: do not “reward” yourself for surpassing the goal by writing less the next day. Cutting your target starts bad habits.

These are only some random thoughts, which I will refine for our website. For now, I hope the suggestions help.

- Scott