Writing and teaching writing converge

Looking across the border into Northern Cyprus / Pix of Stuff, Flickr

Writing a book is like learning to write all over again.

That’s the topic sentence of this blog post. In addition to writing a book this summer, I will begin teaching topic sentences and other lies you learned in school starting next week at Brown Mackie College in Boise.

These two new exploits—book writing and college teaching—are taking on an unexpected convergence in that my recent review of basic English composition pedagogy is bringing back all the fundamentals, like topic sentences, outlines, audience, tense.

These are all things that, in my practice of journalism, were mostly predetermined or maybe just blown off. I’ve said it before, but anyone who follows a certain formula and harbors a healthy interest in the world around them can be a journalist (I think I’ll tell my students that on the first day of class). It’s not rocket science. It’s not even vet tech or paralegal. And since the basic structure and facts of a 500-1,000 word news article can be held in one’s head, there is not too much thought that goes into the actual writing.

That’s not to say I have been an unthinking journalist, but the thinking is front loaded. We pick our topic, pick our sources, question them, choose the most interesting/relevant/controversial/novel facts, slip into the royal we and present the facts in a neatly-wrapped logical package. It’s easy.

But writing a book is proving to be a much less formulaic challenge. I’ve picked the topic: love stories of American citizens and their undocumented partners. And I’m working on the sourcing—there are tens of thousands of these stories from which to choose.

But I can’t hold the entire book in my head at once. It’s too complicated and my head is too small. So I need to get back to outlining and planning and maybe even taking notes on flashcards with numbered bibliographic citations embedded on them.

I also need to pay special attention to my audience. This is going to be a journalistic book, so there is some overlap, but I’m not writing to Boise sixth graders anymore, or more accurately, to Boise’s aging hipsters. The audience is national and ranges from congressmen and supreme court justices to Oprah to day laborers. That’s a challenging audience.

I am also struggling with the voice. I have let myself creep steadily into my journalism in the last few years and think I do it subtly enough (this post excluded) to be effective and interesting. But the first immigration book I picked up in researching the genre, Border Crosser, by Johnny Rico is written in a hyperbolic and annoying first person that does not inspire confidence in the facts. Johnny Rico is not even his given name.
So I plan to write about my failed attempts to cross illegally from southern to northern Cyprus in 1998, but I won’t hit ya’all over the head with it.

I will let the stories of border crossed lovers speak for themselves.

Then there is the question of topic sentences, which I think I already blew in this post. According to our text, Steps in Composition, Eighth Edition, topic sentences set up the main idea of each paragraph. I have just written a slew of one sentence paragraphs which obviously are not all topical. I’m more used to working with a “nut graf”—the third or fourth paragraph, which summarizes the essay at hand and keeps people reading. And for the book I need more of a thesis statement, I think.

I am teaching the five-paragraph essay this semester, in which an introductory graf sets the theme, three paragraphs featuring topic sentences back up the argument and a final concluding paragraph sums it all up. That is after I teach sentence and paragraph writing and some basic grammar. All of this will make me a better writer as well; as the dean who hired me said this morning, “you’ve got to know the rules in order to break them.”

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