Tuesday, August 18, 2009

For 396 Students - The First Writing Project Is A Book Review

Book reviews are for a slow Sunday morning, where you have a hard copy of the Sunday NY Times and have to decide which section to read first. You stare at the Magazine section to see if the featured articles are on topics that interest you or if you are familiar with the authors and like other pieces by them . In either case, that's where you head first. Otherwise, you head for the Book Reviews. The pieces are shorter there. But the variety of topics is bound to interest, the way opinion gets expressed intrigues, and the writing is far better than in most of the rest of the paper. The contributors are specialists in their area and often professional writers themselves.

One slow Sunday follows another and then you find that you want to feed the craving. So you start to read general interest periodicals and the reviews in those or perhaps you start reading periodicals that are mostly if not exclusively devoted to book reviews, such as the New York Review of Books. Then, because you feel you need a break from slugging through the reading in your discipline, the slow Sundays creep into your lunch hour during the week, perhaps breakfast time too. You find that you can both unwind and learn about things outside your speciality. Its a way to get thoughtful commentary on a diversity of topics.

This, then, provides a glimpse of the goal, what you want the reader to feel from the piece you have created. What follows is a different approach to this requirement.

You are to write a review of one of the books for the course. Almost certainly, you'll be able to find reviews of the book you choose elsewhere. You are not in competition with the authors of these pieces. You will produce a different sort of review. In what you write you will create connections between the book under review, other shorter readings in the course, and the general course theme. What implication is there in this book for effective change? You will further tie the book to your own experiences. By personalizing your narrative, you will create a unique story, one that differs from prior published reviews.

Ultimately, what you produce should be at least 3000 words. You'll get to that in stages. First you need to get me a precis of what you plan, 500 or 600 words that describes the general ideas. Please don't give me a bulleted outline. I like sentences. They are better for communicating your thoughts. Plan for a day or two of turnover so I can read and give you feedback. You can start on you draft straight away, without waiting for the feedback. Ultimately, however, you'll need to incorporate it into the first draft. I do expect you to proofread your draft ahead of time for general readability.

We can iterate multiple times within the four weeks that the project is due. If you think you've nailed it after the first pass, and my comments suggest likewise, you can stop then. Don't linger on that possibility however and use it as a reason to try for the perfect first draft. It is better to get something workable out there and then reconsider it afterwards. Also, the writing requirement demands revision. That is the expectation.

Here is a tip, especially for those of you who have not done much writing on your own before. Read as many book reviews as you can the first few weeks of the semester. If you find the same reviewer for multiple pieces and you like the style, try to imitate that. When I first got started writing my blog, I tried to emulate Stephen Jay Gould writing in the New York Review of Books. (I loved his essay called The Streak of Streaks.) Imitating the master is a good way to get started. Your own personal style will come out from trying variations on that.

I would like the precis and the final draft submitted to be on your blog. If you want to send me earlier drafts differently, that is ok. It's also ok to put those on the blog too. If you ever go back to your own writing later, it will be interesting for you to note how the piece changed from draft to draft. You are welcome to write one of your weekly reflections on that.

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