Learning to be concrete and specific

apples
Photo ©2010 Nayla [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

“Nine-tenths of all good writing consists of being concrete and specific. The other tenth doesn’t really matter.”
-Harry Shaw

It’s easy for us to be vague and general when we write. But that’s not how we experience the world. The world comes to us specifically: the red of a rose, the moaning of sirens, the squishiness of slugs, the snap, crunch and slippery saltiness of potato chips. But too often developing writers don’t linger on things long enough (or like my father teaches his fifth graders to do: hover), whether they describe an image in a sentence then they’re off to tell us about the next, or they’ve supported a claim with a vague reason or two, then they’re off to write that fourth out of five paragraphs. Either way they don’t hover to allow their readers to discover or experience it for themselves.

I repeat myself repeatedly in class and in feedback to students: be specific, use more details, more evidence. What I’m longing for is for students to clog their writing with more details, more images, more specifics. At least that way there will be more to choose from and work with and patterns will become more apparent.

I have ways and means to help students be more specific, but I’m rethinking them all because they don’t seem to be very effective. Rethinking, nothing. I’m ditching them altogether because I found something I’m hoping will work much better: Lynda Barry’s Six Minute Diary.

Let me show you what it looks like. This is one of my Six Minute Diary entries from a recent-ish visit to Hawaii:

hiinsix

This format fit my needs perfectly. It was the first time my kids had been to Hawaii and I wanted to capture the experience without spending my time writing a nightly novel, which is what our trip deserved. The trick is to spend two minutes jotting down what you did (or what happened) and another two minutes tracking what you saw (and/or heard as I did here). Then you spend 90 seconds drawing something from the day and a final 30 seconds transcribing something someone said.

Barry says “having to write it down makes us begin to notice when we notice something. We remind ourselves to ‘save’ it for the diary.” It also helps us hone in on the specific. Because we’re going to have to draw something we focus on what we actually see, and our ears are tuned in to the specific because we’re going to transcribe verbatim what we hear.

Then we get closer to how Barry describes the best way to write, “Let the image pull you. You should be water-skiing behind it, not dragging it like a barge. Writing should take you for a ride.” That’s how I recognize good student writing, when I feel like the writer is taking me for a ride. And I know a writer needs more support from me when I feel as if their writing is dragging me along their sentences from a barge, or worse, from a horse along the raw desert floor.

So whether you’re a student in my class, or just someone who’s hoping to capture your world with a tighter net, try out the Six Minute Diary for a couple weeks and see how it focuses your eye and tunes your ears and pulls them closer together with your hands and fingers as you write.

Watch the video below and be timed by the master herself, Lynda Barry.

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