September 21, 2007

The modern world of today

"So tell me, " I said to my first year students in class yesterday, "What do I need to do to write a bad introduction?"

They looked puzzled at first, but a few students understood what I was doing and jumped in with ideas, and the rest of the class followed. Soon they were all shouting out suggestions. Be really general and abstract! Use big, abstract words, but say nothing. Use cliches! Quote the dictionary. Use a cliche but put it in quotes as if that somehow makes it better. Don't ever get to your point. Be vague. Be irrelevant. Don't vary your sentence structure! Don't include any interesting details. Use tired old phrases. Write confusing, convoluted sentences. Be redundant. Above all, be boring.

Then I put the students in pairs, gave them a topic — violence on television — and told them that they need to write a bad introduction, using all that we had talked about. They set to the task eagerly, with me spurring them on, "Use another cliche! Be boring!" This exercise always brings chatter and laughter as they brainstorm ways to write badly.

The best students, not surprisingly, wrote the worst introductions. One enterprising duo managed to use the phrase "in the modern world of today" four times. Another introduction began with the sentence, "Throughout history, television has always been part of history." Of course, they couldn't resist exaggerating the paragraphs to the point where they became funny and interesting, a parody of bad writing rather than bad writing itself. Read aloud, they weren't mediocre and boring, but hilariously funny. As we went around the room, reading them aloud, everyone laughed and clapped at the best ones – or should I say the worst ones?

We analyzed what was especially bad about each introduction, labeling certain practices as "classically bad." Most of us have that kind of stuff in our first drafts, I told them. The key is to notice it, and edit it out.

I know from experience that this exercise works. Once you've read a whole bunch of dreadfully bad introductions, you can't help notice that kind of stuff in your own writing. For the rest of the class period, we were workshopping drafts of an essay that's due next week, and I heard many students say, "I need to rewrite this introduction." One student, grinning, showed me his essay, pointing to the very first sentence where he had crossed a phrase out with bold black pen: "In the modern world of today."

26 comments:

kathy a. said...

what a terrific exercise! your students are all ready for next year's bulwer-lytton bad writing contest: http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

BrightStar said...

Fun with counter examples!

Hilaire said...

OMG - what a *fab* exercise!!! I wish I taught writing!

Lorianne said...

Oh, I might have to borrow, nay, STEAL this exercise. I've had students try to write the worst opening line ever, but this intro exercise is more directly applicable, I think, to the writing students actually do.

I still remember an essay with the opening line "Guns have been around since they were invented." It only went downhill from there... :-)

Magpie said...

I like that.

Isn't there some "competition" for the worst opening line...dark-and-stormy-night type line?

lifexhistory said...

That sounds fantastic! I love it. I hope you don't mind-- I would really like to borrow that activity some time. Brilliant.

Jane said...

I *love* this idea!! And believe it or not, this could totally be morphed to be used in my CS classes (as a way to introduce good programming practices). Thanks for the idea!

frog said...

Brilliant and totally hilarious.

swissmiss said...

I attended a poetry workshop with the title "How to write a bad poem." Long dramatic odes to paper-clips, a cliched love poem to your mother and so on. The interesting thing was, all the bad poems had one or two brilliant lines in them. The freedom to stick it up allowed us to start writing, and somehow something true almost always snuck in.

swissmiss said...

That last sentence should start "The freedom to STINK it up..."

Neophyte said...

Oh, thank you for this -- I desperately needed a good cackle. Leave it to you to transform the medium of teacherly snark into a fun, useful, kind experience for your students.

I have a file of teaching tricks stored away for use in the event that some unfortunate soul allows me to teach university students -- this has just been added, emphatically starred.

Anastasia said...

"down through the ages" is a favorite of mine. I get that one and "since the beginning of time" a lot when I teach the class about death. Human beings have wondered about death down through the ages, ever since the beginning of time. So lovely.

Yankee T said...

This is a terrific idea. You're a great teacher. In fact, you're a teacher for the ages. And for the modern world of today.

kathy a. said...

In the dark and stormy night of freshman year, as your students reach for the mountaintops from the slippery slope of facing new academic challenges and learning to cut the mustard outside the box, swimming upsteam against the tide, you are a shining beacon of light in the darkness of these modern times today, as you have been down through the ages, and shall be forevermore.

Overeducated Twit said...

I love this idea! So that's how you get rid of the sweeping statements about humanity...

Rev. Dulce said...

Judge me not by the quality of my prose but by the meaning behind it all.

Now I'm worried. My colloquial Southern roots sometimes slips through.

jo(e) said...

Some of these comments were funnier than the post!

And yes, anyone who teaches is welcome to steal the exercise. Please just don't call it "writing like jo(e)."

Mike said...

I would love to come to one of your classes. You are making me think I need to follow this up. You make good writing look easy, but I'm sure it's not. I suppose it's a gift, like anything else.

Kathryn said...

"For the rest of the class period, we were workshopping drafts of an essay that's due next week"

What does it say about my current state of mind that I read that as "we were worshipping drafts..."?!
Great exercise - could you turn your collective attention to the sermon as a genre ;-)

Silver Creek Mom said...

I wish my daughter was in your class she is having a devil of a time with her Methodogly essy. She is so frusrated and I'm having a devil of a time getting through that block to help her.

Silver Creek Mom said...

I need help with proof reading, and typing and spelling.

As usual.

Cathy said...

Wonder what bad conclusions would produce?

Fun post and the comments added to the fun.

Autumn Song said...

What a great exercise, Jo(e). I think I shall be stealing it too...

Just wondering, after Cathy's comment: have you tried it with conclusions?

jo(e) said...

Autumn Song: No, I've always just used it with introductions. But it seems to help eliminate tired phrases and sweeping generalizations in conclusions as well.

What Now? said...

Great idea! I've just added it to my "teaching ideas" file. Thanks for sharing the lesson idea and the story with us.

niobe said...

Yet another reason that my admiration for Jo(e) is all but limitless.