“Your sense of freedom and play will infuse your writing with energy, and that energy will make your words enjoyable to read.”
—Jack Heffron, author of The Writer’s Idea Book
I still remember, even after all these years, sitting in Ms. Nowitski’s Advanced English class as a high school junior. She was having us develop a research paper following the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee research guide. She waxed eloquently about research skills and, of course, stressed the importance of understanding everything about the research process so we could—ahem—succeed at the next level.
Note cards, outlines, paraphrasing, footnotes—please! I was bored to death by the whole mess. There was nothing about research papers that interested me—nothing. I knew I would be in trouble if I stayed in that class, so I did something that I had never done before: I went to my guidance counselor and asked to be transferred to a different English class. There must have been only one other course available during that time slot; otherwise, why would I have enrolled in Leisure Reading. But that’s what I did.
Here’s what we did in Leisure Reading. We read—anything and everything. I can’t remember the teacher; I can’t remember if we had to keep track of our reading. I just remember that we read whatever we could get our hands on. I started with the Sports Illustrated magazines stacked on a back shelf, and I loved every minute of it.
In the beginning, I enjoyed the articles for the content, the information that they provided. Before long, however, I also came to appreciate them for the way they were written. I became a big fan of writers such as Curry Kirkpatrick, Frank Deford, Roger Kahn, and Jim Murray. Their writing had energy and personality, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I’ll never forget Kirkpatrick’s wise-guy voice. He was one sassy writer. (I certainly wasn’t introduced to this type of writing in Ms. Nowitski’s class.)
Fast-forward 10 years: In one of my graduate courses, we analyzed and discussed all sorts of nonfiction writing, from weekly columns in local newspapers to the work of Russell Baker, the leading national columnist of the time. The instructor also had us imitate some of these writers to help us get a feel for their unique styles. I remember writing some personal essays based on Woody Allen’s Getting Even. I doubt that my imitations were any good, but I had fun trying. As I think back, this was one of the most satisfying courses that I’ve ever taken because it addressed the popular nonfiction writing of the day—the type of writing that I have always enjoyed.
Fast forward another 10 years: After teaching middle school and high school English for 11 years, I became one of the authors of the Write Source handbooks. You may have heard of, or used, Writers INC, Write Source 2000, or Writers Express. We’re now on our third generation of users. Part of the appeal of these books, I think, is that we sound like sincere, down-to-earth individuals who truly want to help out, and who truly enjoy good writing in all its forms.
My hope is that as a writing teacher you celebrate writing in all of its wonderful forms, including popular nonfiction. It may be just the thing to trigger your students’ interest in writing, just as it did for me. Here are some easy-to-implement strategies or activities that promote the current nonfiction writing scene:
- Make sure that students understand that there are academic forms of writing (expository essays, literary analyses, research papers) and real-world forms (feature articles, personal essays, commentaries) and never the twain shall meet. Just kidding. Both play an important role in the writing curriculum, although you know what forms I favor.
- Provide copies of current periodicals and other popular writings for students to read, and alert them to strong online writers as well. Also make sure that students regularly turn to these writings for inspiration and ideas.
- Recommend timely, high-interest biographies, autobiographies, and historical accounts for their leisure reading.
- This may be obvious, but stress to students the importance of writing about topics similar to those that they like to read about.
- Also stress the importance of experimenting with different forms. Each new form can suggest new possibilities for your students’ ideas.
- Implement minilessons based on interesting and effective writing techniques found in popular nonfiction.
- From time to time, ask students to imitate the style of a nonfiction writer.
- Also ask them to study a series of writings by a particular writer, and plan a presentation that highlights the writer’s subject matter, voice, preferred form, and so on.
- Explore the genre of creative nonfiction. There is a journal called Creative Nonfiction that you can subscribe to, and it includes engaging, substantive essays by today’s prominent writers.
- Have student write I-Search Papers instead of research papers. Please. An I-Search paper reads like an in-depth feature article. (See my 12/23/08 posting “Who put the ‘I’ in research?” for more information.)
- Publish a print or online class magazine of articles, personal essays, and so on.
- Encourage students to submit their writing to the publications that they like to read. (Going through the submission process is an education in itself.)
In William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well, he says, “Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next.” Of course, it is the “aliveness” that characterizes the best popular, nonfiction writing and keeps our interest. Once your student writers come to appreciate this special quality, there’s a good chance that their writing will become engaging and energized and honest. So let the fun begin!