Monday, February 23, 2009

Critically Reviewing 3 How-To Write Books (Part 3)

Technique isn’t beyond the intelligence of any writer. It requires awareness and an ability to absorb the skills employed by others. Burroway’s teaching textbook is, in contrast to the previous two guides, more akin to an academic set-text and far better as an example of good pedagogy. It provides readers with literary explorations otherwise to be found in Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer.

Burroway’s formal style is more accessible than Wall. She expands her reach with quotations and a multitude of examples to substantiate her meaning and strengthen reader comprehension. Technicalities over the mechanics of prose style and rhythm are as clear as her delineation of point-of-view (A preface informs both instructors and students separately, establishing the book as serious and, perhaps, more responsible than either Frey or Wall).

Layering her textbook with literary technique and structural tools, Burroway breaks elements down into modes, i.e. iterations of dialogue, methods for presenting characters, symbology of setting and theme. By naming and working methodically through the tools, Burroway enthuses and educates in a way that Wall and Frey fail to do. No subject is approached solely on its own terms. They are layered with instructions to the reader: how to match the scene to action and theme, emphasising setting with the views of the point-of-view character, evoking atmosphere (given the emotion, mental state of the point-of-view character, directing the reader to a particular feeling). Doubling-up in this way bolsters the reader’s knowledge and perception of what is possible.

Burroway’s examples are never restricted to a specific genre or style. In providing always at least two examples for each subject she highlights more than one way of achieving the same goal. This prevents readers from taking a “defacto” view and rigidly adhering to one writer’s voice or style. But, Burroway takes her examples a step further by including two short stories at the end of each chapter to stress her topics, in a prolonged capacity. As with the depth covered in the Fiction module on the varied short stories covered, I found I had a fuller understanding of Burroway’ techniques. Use of examples worked to strengthen chapter learning, and this is the best use of pedagogy, to show and tell.

The exercises are where the book comes into its own. As a classroom textbook, exercises engage reader involvement. Never numbering less than six, they are separated into individual or collaborative tasks and have real consideration for the chapter’s aims and the reader’s needs. As per the Fiction module they have justification and direction and the reader clearly understands the outcomes. They are multi-faceted so as to respond to the initial task, but allow readers to consider their choices. As the book continues, the exercises draw upon the reader’s prior learning, interlacing and developing their ability to write multi-faceted narratives. This too, pedagogically, helps to create a linked structure of learning.

Of the three, Wall’s book is of least relevance and is least pedagogically effective. Its topics are covered in greater detail and with more interest in both Burroway and Frey’s. Its documentary format portrays anecdotes similar to the rhetoric of some of the masterclasses but it fails to support or develop the reader. Frey’s covers essential elements of crafting that both Wall and Burroway don’t attempt, but Frey alone will not create great writers. His philosophy for teaching is far too single-minded to support a reader’s learning needs. Burroway’s, however, is nigh on essential to any writer perfecting their craft. As with the Reading into Writing and Fiction modules, its assessment of varying styles, techniques, and exercises is the only way for a writer to advance.

That there are still further areas of crafting, concepts and techniques not covered: building tension, foreshadowing, managing pace, introducing exposition, writing exposition, evoking reader emotion, logically guiding a reader without confusing them; suggests only that a reader must read as widely in literature as possible.

Burroway’s use of chapter instruction, followed by examples, then exercises, best mirrors the pedagogy of the classes I have attended. Not only does the repetition of the information reinforce a reader’s learning, but the varied approach helps the reader consolidate the techniques. This is the most important aspect of the pedagogy, to ensure that afterwards, the student/reader retains the information they’ve been taught.

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