Let’s start this week with a confession: I made a mistake when I wrote my first series, The Staff and the Sword, and if I had to do it all over again, I would fix it even if it meant turning in the manuscript a little late. What did I do? I messed up the editing process. Not in a huge way, and honestly, most people probably wouldn’t notice the difference, but even now, years after it still bugs me.
I didn’t read the story out loud.
First, you have to understand how I came to be a writer in the first place. I have four sons and they’re all spaced roughly two years apart. It made life around the house a wonderful, crazy, frantic time. One of my favorite parts of being a dad was getting to read to them. I have shelves and shelves of my favorite books, everything from children’s stories to my own personal favorites, and I delighted in getting to share those with them. About the time my youngest son, Ethan, hit the age of six, we would gather every evening and for half an hour to an hour I would read from stories like The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad, and more.
A hidden benefit of reading all these wonderful books was that my ear became attuned to the rhythm and cadence of a well-written story and it became the standard by which I judged the writing of the books I’ve read. Even now, years later, I can’t force myself to read a story with poor cadence or rhythm no matter how highly-recommended it comes.
Thus, my regret and my advice. There are a handful of places in my first series, probably no more than a dozen, that bug me because the cadence and rhythm are off. Now, sometimes this can’t be helped. For the sake of clarity, sometimes you have to repeat a name or pronoun so the reader doesn’t get lost, but there are a few places in each of those first three books I would edit if I could.
Now, how does this translate into what you should do with your work? I’ve laid out some steps below that I think can help you polish your work so that it falls lyrically on your reader’s ear.
One: After you’ve finished your final edit (except it won’t be final) read your story out loud from start to finish. Listen. Have you varied your sentence structure to avoid an oppressive rhythm? Do you have a word repeated too close to itself? Do you have run-on sentences that need to be modified to give your reader a chance to read? Do you have the right balance between dialogue and narrative? Listen.
Two: Read the best stories in your genre out loud, preferably with like-minded friends. Well-crafted rhythms and cadences are usually a big reason why a story sells well. Almost all of the best books have them. When you hit a passage that is particularly powerful, analyze it. Figure out what makes it work and then, in your own style, create something similar.
Three: Read poetry, the good stuff. Here, I would suggest that you read free-form poetry. The absence of a defined meter forces the skilled poet to create internal, more subtle rhythm within their work. Again, find these rhythms and see if you can emulate them in your own writing.
Do these things and I think you’ll find that your writing will improve. You may even discover that your story has moved from being a tale to being an epic.
About a week ago my state released its data for student achievement. The news, as everyone took pains to predict, was bad. For me and those like me who teach in urban districts it was horrific. In my district only 25% of our students are reading at grade level. In math the results were even worse. Only 15% of the students are working at grade level? What’s worse, these results do not represent the nadir of district results for our state. True, they’re a long way from the highest, but they’re not the lowest by any means.
Whenever results like these are released, there is an understandable amount of hand-wringing that occurs and justifiably so. This is usually followed by the usual litany of questions:
How did we get to this state?
Why is it being allowed to continue?
What can we possibly do to fix a problem of this magnitude?
Answers, of course, depend on who you ask. My own educational background is somewhat more ecumenical than most teachers in public education. As an Air Force brat, I attended a lot of different schools. I had what most people would call a nightmare elementary education. By the time I finished sixth grade, I’d been enrolled in six different schools. Things settled down a bit after that. I went to a middle school for grades 7-8 that had about a thousand students. That’s not a misprint. I hate that place. It reciprocated. Then I went to high school. That was a little better.
Out of high school, I went to Georgia Tech and by hard work, the support of good friends, and the grace of God, I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I capitalize it because it makes me feel good. I worked as an engineer in different jobs for about twenty years before becoming a school teacher. After that, I became nationally board certified (to this day, that’s probably the most difficult test I’ve ever taken), and earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. So, anyway, that’s me. Call my experience “the mutt” of educational pedigrees.
I’ve been teaching for ten years now. There are a lot of problems in education. It’s a big list.
But I know the biggest problem and I know how to fix it. That may sound like ego or arrogance, but practically any teacher with a decent amount of smarts and experience would say the same thing because we’re all confronted by the same problems.
Here’s a bit of background. Years and years ago, a study was done (we do all sorts of studies in education) that showed a correlation between student retention (that’s edu-speak for failing someone and making them repeat a grade) and the dropout rate. Now, it’s important to understand that showing a correlation isn’t the same as showing causation, but we’ll come back to that a later date. Suffice to say that this ushered in an era in public education defined by social promotion. The hope for this was that if we could keep students with their peers they would be less likely to drop out of school. Well, it worked.
Fast forward a few years to the No Child Left Behind legislation, a bipartisan work envisioned by Pres. Bush and crafted by Sen. Kennedy. Now, school districts would be punished monetarily for failing too many students. The trickle of social promotion turned into a flood. The graduation rate improved of course, but in the end the once-venerated high school diploma became worthless. By turning high school graduation rates from an indicator into a target, we turned the high school diploma into a “congratulations-you’ve-turned-eighteen” certificate. If that offends you and makes you angry with me, remember, 25% reading, 15% math. At this point, it’s impossible for you to be more offended than I am.
So there you have in brief, the evolution of a really bad decision. Since then, public education has been trying to rescue this decision. You can spot the efforts, most of them well-intentioned and some of them even heroic, by their acronyms:
DI – Differentiated Instruction
RTI – Response to Intervention
RTII – Response to Intervention and Instruction
SEL – Social and Emotional Learning
GFL – Grading for Learning
SBG – Standards-Based Grading
The list goes on. Understand, most of these are actually pretty good ideas. Not all, of course. Nobody bats a thousand, but most of these ideas have something to offer the teacher in terms of instruction, communication, and curriculum. The problem is many times these ideas are being used to try and rescue the original bad decision to push students to the next grade based on how old they are instead of based on the skills they’ve mastered. That won’t work and almost anyone in or out of public education would be able to tell you why.
In short, social promotion has to go. In future blogs, I will outline in greater detail its impact on the classroom and how to get rid of it, but for now, suffice to say that we owe our children a better education than to push them along from grade to grade until they’re eighteen and then put them out in a competitive workplace without the academic skills to succeed or compete. We owe them more than a diploma. We owe them an education.
Writing update: I should be done with the first draft of “The Wounded Shadow” in another couple of months. This is the third full-length novel of “The Darkwater Series.” After that me and my editors will start the polishing process. Prayers, of course, are greatly appreciated.
Jazz Piano: My oldest son is still trying to teach me jazz piano. I’m constantly amazed at how many different techniques, approaches, and tricks he has in his arsenal to get me over whatever difficulty I’m currently wrestling with. Honestly, he amazes me.
Other: My doctor said that I might be able to come off my cholesterol med if I get down to 175. To that end, I’m going to make a renewed commitment to watch what I eat in the evenings. The school day is easy to manage because I’m so busy, but in the evenings I tend to snack on all the stuff that undermines my efforts. But seriously, 175? I weighed 174 when I graduated high school. I’ve probably put on a pound