Mary's Library

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Teaching Expository Writing

Every now and then I read something that is so well written or badly written that it makes me wish I were back teaching Expository Writing 101. That was the designation of the English class I taught years ago at what was then North Carolina College. It was an attempt to bring freshmen up to speed so they could write skillfully the essays they would be required to write in order to meet the requirements not just of their English classes but of history, sociology, psychology, and occasionally the hard sciences and math.
One of the ways to teach this kind of writing is to examine closely the writing of other expository writers, journalists being some of the best. When I was in a similar freshman class my professor, Mr Derocco, had us reading the New York Times and the Daily News - a tabloid - every day. (Also Time magazine and the New Yorker every week. I've been reading the New Yorker ever since.)
The Daily News didn't believe in keeping the reader going for 20 minutes as they explored the details and implications of the latest city government scandal or movie opening. They didn't allow breaks on the front page, sending you to page 5 or page 38 or whatever. The Times, in order both to feature lots of stories on the front page and to examine them in depth, was all breaks. It still is with much text and few graphics vs the Daily News and their half-page photos.
The Daily News, it goes without saying, was tighter, more focused, and more entertaining since it wanted to grab the reader's attention, if only to keep it for 2 1/2 minutes, which if I recall was the amount of time the editors had decided their readers would be willing to spend on each story. It was a surprise to most of us to find that the "trash" paper was so much better written than the Good Grey Lady, which was and is considered the best paper in the country. I'm not convinced of that, but I read it every day so maybe it is.
When I was a newspaper reporter this training came in handy as I had an idea what was important in a news story from reading so many of them in two different (very different) papers years before and knew how to hook a reader in the lede with the heart of the story rather than waiting to reveal it in paragraph six on page 38 as is sometimes the case in the Times.


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