Friday, July 15, 2016

One Reason Why Certain Kinds of List Articles Don't Teach Us Anything

From around fifth to tenth grade my kids were home schooled. During that time I created tests, taught some art classes and developed writing exercises to teach writing skills. My approach to teaching writing grew out of a remark that was made at the end of a coaches  clinic led by head coach Buzz Lagos and members of the Minnesota Thunder professional soccer team.

After spending an evening teach us various games and exercises that would help our youth advance their soccer skills it began to get dark, we broke for a Q&A session to sum up. During this Q&A one of my fellow coaches asked a question that was undoubtedly a burning issue for a number of us. “Sir, what skill level should my kids be at when they are ten years old?”

In other words, what are the benchmarks that our boys and girls should aspire to as they advance in age? How deft should their ball handling be? How strong and true should they be kicking? How skilled in passing and receiving? How effective their ball control and other maneuvers?

Coach Lagos surprised me with his answer, though it should not have been a surprise at all for it was the way I learned to excel in baseball as a kid. He said, “Don’t even think about it. Only one thing is important, that they enjoy the game.”

John Milton Gregory, in his book The Seven Laws of Teaching, writes, “Since attention follows interest, it is folly to attempt to gain attention without first stimulating interest.” This is essentially the same idea.

I decided that if I could create writing exercises that were imaginative and fun, my kids would produce more words than if it were a drag. The writing exercises, along with my grading approach, ultimately proved quite effective. So much so that Susie later encouraged me to assemble these into a book. Which I did.

The lessons were not about spelling and grammar. Those foundations had already been laid by years of schooling. Instead, the lessons were about capturing the reader's attention at the opening. Or about story and article structure. And on how to broaden one's vocabulary using a thesaurus. And when it's OK to break the rules.

The point here is that we learn by doing. 

And that's my problem with list articles. If you're like me you see them all the time. 37 ways to grab a reader's attention in the first sentence. 50 ways to improve your writing. 64 KPIs you need to track to succeed in business. The most important 104 acronyms every internet entrepreneur should be aware of. Ugh.

Now frankly, if you are also like me, you've probably never finished reading one of these articles. If the article is a rehash of other lists and thus offering nothing new, then you dismiss it a third of the way through, if not sooner. On the other hand, if the author has dug deep and produced an exceptional collection of useful ideas that truly sparkle, then you know you can't just zip through it. You have to slow down your pace for a spell and --

"Wait, I'm too busy for this. I'll get back to it later," you think, knowing you will not.

There are some great resources for writers online these days. As we all know, you don't learn to play piano by reading about it. You have to practice, practice, practice.

The best advice I ever got when I was a young artist went like this: It takes a thousand bad drawings to make a good drawing. I took that to heart. I didn't worry about making a masterpiece when I started. I filled pages with drawings and developed eye-hand coordination. I learned what my "tools of the trade" could do. I learned how to see like an artist.

Writing is likewise learned by doing.

Don't let those list articles intimidate you. The authors mean well, and they nearly always have a takeaway that can help you. Next time you see one, park it somewhere on your hard drive and read it when you have a little more time, when you're not working against a deadline. Read it like you would a poem, more meditatively. Take one assertion to heart and see if you can apply it to your next writing assignment.

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REMINDER: For what it's worth, tonight is the closing reception for Plein Air Duluth, a juried show featuring artists from all over North America who came here this week to paint outdoors in our fabulous landscapes. Forty artists participated in this week long event and tonight from 5-7 p.m. the results will be on display at the Duluth Art Institute Galleries in the Depot. Juror Dan Mondloch will award ten prizes.  

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Meantime, life goes on all around you. Celebrate it!

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