A radical rethinking of the teaching of writing

How to rescue a vague passage, step by step

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One would love to write in a vivid and fluent style all the time. But human beings are imperfect, and our writing is just as imperfect as anything else we do.  A key sin is over-abstraction.  Yet no matter how abstract the passage, it can be repaired.  

I’ll demonstrate. The starting point is “Version 1,” the opening of a two-page freshman paper.

Version 1.  

There is no true definition for Baroque art, other than work done in the Baroque era. This is shown due to the large range of work completed in this time period, anything from still life to caricatures. The main goal was definitely that of naturalism, and this was done well by many. The artists of this time were attempting to show reality, and felt as if there was no other reason for anything else to control their work. In this search for this thing they refer to as naturalism, they are believed to show it best with the use of light, space, and time.

Pretty vague, right? For one thing, the verbs are flat–mostly variations of “be.”

But the main thing is the abstraction. The passage has 19 abstract nouns–“things” that you can’t see and can’t drop on your foot. Taken singly, none of these abstractions is fatal. But clump them together and they generate fog. Lets start cutting. If we cut out the five words range, period, goal, reason, and search, and the phrases they are part of,  we get:

Version 2.

The only definition of Baroque art is work done in the Baroque era. Much art was made in this era, everything from still life to caricatures. The Baroque style was called ‘naturalism.’ The artists were attempting to show reality, and wanted nothing but reality to control their work. In their pursuit of naturalism, they focused on making the best use of light, space, and time.

This is clearer and shorter. Do you see what has happened? Words like Baroque era, reality and naturalism now stand out better. These key idea words are more prominent, so the paragraph is clearer. When we cut range, period, goal, reason, and search we lost nothing.

Let’s keep cutting. I see two more abstractions to chop. I want to take out definition from the first sentence and pursuit from the last.  These are generic abstractions that could be used to write about any subject–they don’t apply closely to Baroque art. I’ll turn “definition” into the verb “define” so we can keep the meaning–but it will no longer be an abstract noun. I’ll strike the phrase “their pursuit of naturalism” as a waste of 9 syllables. Result:

Version 3

Experts define Baroque art simply as art from the Baroque era. Many kinds of art were made in this era, everything from still life to caricatures. The artists of that era were attempting to show reality, and wanted nothing but reality to control their work. That’s why they focused on making the best use of natural light, space, and time. The style they developed, the Baroque style, is called ‘naturalism.’

Now we have removed all the filler abstractions. We are using only those ideas important to the topic, like Baroque, art, style, and naturalism. Again, removing needless abstractions allows room for the important ones to be seen.

After the cutting, it’s time to add some things for the reader to see and touch. We’ll put in tangible concrete nouns and people.

Version 4

The most famous painter of the Baroque era, Rembrandt van Rijn, believed in trying to be natural and in simply following nature. He was not alone; this was the philosophy of all artists in that era. Whether they were painting oil portraits on canvas, or etching scenes from the Bible onto paper, Baroque artists all sought to show people and things as they were. This style is called naturalism. The artists varied only in their skill in handling natural light, space and time. We can see Rembrandt’s great skill in his 1648 etching “Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House.”

Isn’t that neat! We now have a paragraph on Baroque art that shows things to the reader, instead of laying a veil of fog over the subject.  (You should know that the Rembrandt etching was actually the focus of the assignment.)

Now lets summarize. Version 1 had 19 abstract nouns, and not one concrete noun. Version 4 had 9 abstract nouns and 13 concrete nouns. (I include Rembrandt and the beggars in the concrete category.)  The final version is far more interesting than the first, and it’s so different in tone that some people would say it’s on a different topic. Not true. Version 4 is interesting and visual. Version 1 presented fluff and filler. Reading them side by side, I for one say,  Version 1 doesn’t say very much.” 

Version 1

There is no true definition for Baroque art, other than work done in the Baroque era. This is shown due to the large range of work completed in this time period, anything from still life to caricatures. The main goal was definitely that of naturalism, and this  was done well by many. The artists of this time were attempting to show reality, and felt as if there was no other reason for anything else to control their work. In this search for this thing they refer to as naturalism, they are believed to show it best with the use of light, space, and time.

 conc-abst 1

 

Version 4

The most famous painter of the Baroque era, Rembrandt van Rijn, believed in trying to be natural and in simply following nature. He was not alone; this was the philosophy of all artists in that era. Whether they were painting oil portraits on canvas, or etching scenes from the Bible onto paper, Baroque artists all sought to show people and things as they were. This style is called naturalism. The artists varied only in their skill in handling light, space and time. We can see Rembrandt’s great skill in his 1648 etching “Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House.”

 

 coc- abstract 2

John G. Maguire
Chelmsford MA
maguirejohn@comcast.net
978-761-4515