Tag Archives: education

Touchstones – An essential for achieving unity in writing

Once upon a time I was a teacher. Sorry for starting this like a Fairy Tale, but I have been retired for more than six and a half years and it all seems like a life that existed in a place long ago and far away. It’s interesting how when you least expect it, a few neurons trigger and you recall something very important. In my case it was the idea of using touchstones to preserve unity. Touchstones were very important to me as a teacher. As a teacher it was the unity of the subject matter I was concerned about, not just the content. The same thing applies to writing.  Another word for touchstone might be theme, but they are not exactly the same. When you carry a touchstone around, it is an object that brings you back to your center.

When I taught Senior High School Biology (I did so when there was still a Grade 13 in Ontario, so the content was equivalent to Freshman Biology at a college) I always had a few key touchstones that I would refer to as I taught through the year. I did that persistently so that my students could follow the flow of the lessons, and at the same time see the unifying elements among the different themes of Biology presented to them. It was a very successful teaching technique. So the other day, when those neurons fired for no particular reason and connected to the memory of my successful teaching technique, I saw it as a good way to approach the rewrite of my manuscript. Thank goodness for neurophysiologic phenomena.

Instead of picking some touchstones at random or through some approximation of what might work, I reread the comments of my DE (developmental editor) and reviewed all the discussion I have had with my editorial consultant, cleared my head of all preconceptions, and low and behold, there they were right in front of me all the time. My writing and thinking are heavily influenced be Eastern philosophies. In fact, my touchstones were deeply influenced by  Taoist and Zen Buddhist concepts related to “emptiness” and “Yin”Yang”. No big surprise really when I thought about it. Suddenly, the reorganization of content required by the DE just lined up the right way, and I was off to the races so to speak.

The expression “off to the races” might be a bit of an exaggeration, because the rewrite still needed a lot of work. With my touchstone securely in my mental pocket the work was moving in the right direction. There is no doubt that I was inspired to write by the essence of these philosophies, but even I had to look, read, think, and analyze to bring them to the surface. It is a “Chicken and Egg” sort of thing. The inspiration for the content arises from the philosophy, but the philosophy (the source of my touchstones) is partially obscured by the content. I not only had to look at my writing through the eyes of the reader, but I had to look at it through the eyes of a reader completely new to the content. I had to look at my readers as I looked at my new students who were new to the content of the course.

With more experience, I believe that I could have discovered my touchstones sooner in the creative process. Perhaps with a great deal of experience, the touchstones would have been there for me from the start of the project. The only thing I know for sure, at least for me, is that I need touchstones to write with power and coherence.

I don’t know how many posts I can produce over the next few weeks because I am off to Europe. My only avenue for communication is my trusty Blackberry Z10. I have been practicing writing longer and longer texts on the device, so I think I might be able to pull off a few posts. We shall see what I can do with my pocket-sized office. Have WiFi, will write.

Until the next time . . .

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Writing – It’s All Trivium To Me

One’s concept of the meaning of a word, and its actual meaning are often at odds. The full meaning of the word diction provided one of those surprising contrasts. Griggs and Webster (the Guide and Handbook for Writing previously mentioned ) defines proper diction in writing as using the correct words, in the correct manner, at the correct time. Here are two simpler definitions available on the internet.

dic·tion
(dkshn)

n.

1. Choice and use of words in speech or writing.

2. Degree of clarity and distinctness of pronunciation in speech or singing; enunciation.

The second of the two definitions reflected my original understanding of the word, but the primary definition reflects the content in Griggs and Webster. I decided to find out some more about the origins of diction as an essential component of the writer’s craft before further reflection on its importance. The history of education provides the answers.

The heart and soul of DICTION was born when the “seven liberal arts” were born. They were organized into two groups, the Trivium and the Quadrivium. These two groups of subjects formed the backbone of classical education from ancient Greek civilization until the 19th century. Diction is grounded in the Trivium which covers the disciplines of grammar, logic and rhetoric. The rules of grammar govern the structure of writing, logic governs the sense of writing and rhetoric governs the persuasiveness of writing. There is nothing trivial about the Trivium. If one has an interest in history, particularly the history of education,  he or she should investigate the Quadrivium as well, which is the basis for the natural sciences.

The rhetorical skills of a writer are essential to success in his or her trade . A writer of fiction is just as interested in persuading a reader to become engrossed in their stories as the writer of non-fiction is in informing a reader, and driving greater interest in the topic of his or her book. As the pen is mightier than the sword, it is also like a double edged sword. The power of the sword is released through the cut and thrust of a swordsman. The power of a word is released through the writer’s choice for its meaning and its placement in a sentence. If the sentence is to exert its full force within a paragraph, then the words that comprise it must exert their full force within it. A skilled writer, like a skilled swordsman, triumphs through their ability to use of the weapons at hand.

The Trivium governs sound writing. This is my mantra as I write and rewrite. The logical organization and sequence of ideas supporting the thesis of a written work are the first order of business. The words come next in importance as they are arrayed one by one to form the sentences in a paragraph to act as instruments of information and persuasion. Each sentence is written according to the rules of grammar and the dictates of a good style manual. Finally the copy edit and polish is applied to the work, and another written gem is ready for the reader.

A postscript: This post was delayed by an exciting event, the receipt of my developmental edit results. I’ll be writing some preliminary comments about the editorial process to date in my next post. Until then . . .

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