Sunday, January 15, 2017

Can You Write Better Than A 6th-Grader?

I came across a book that made me feel good about the next generation.  It’s called Everything You Need to Ace English Language Arts In One Big Fat Book.  It’s part of a series of books called The Complete Middle School Study Guide.

You may wonder what’s so inspiring about such a book.  First, I love the style it’s presented in.  It features lined pages like that of a student’s notebook.  It has colorful graphics and alternates between easy-to-read handwriting and print.  It feels easy to just flip through and land on an interesting exercise or valuable lesson.  Second, I like that such a book exists because it really does make what seems complex simple and straightforward.  Third, I love to see what young minds are being told about our language, writing, poetry, and how to read a book.

I should give this to my son, in sixth grade, but I’m enjoying it too much.

The 488-page book from Workman Publishing is a steal with a list price of $14.95.  I picked up a discounted copy at Barnes & Noble for $9.00 as a member.  Well worth it.

The first unit is on grammar, which it describes as “the structure of a language – not what words mean, but the way words fit together: how the words in a sentence are arranged and the rules that explain how words get used.”  It went on to detail prepositions and independent clauses. It talked about intensive pronouns, verbs and mood, and the Latin and Greek roots of our words.  Dangling modifiers, conjunctions, and complex sentences are all things I failed to fully understand in school.  Back then, I didn’t appreciate the English code or scientific formula for how words connect to each other in a technical sense.  I just wrote from the heart and edited based on what sounded right.  I could be violating some rules of the language right now, but I think what I’m saying reads well and has impact.  If people don’t understand me or completely misinterpret my intensions then I’ll go back to study up on possessive pronouns, gerunds, and the present participle.

Don’t get me wrong, I greatly respect and defend our beautiful and historically-rich language. We need everyone to learn it and use it properly.  We can’t afford to have a single illiterate amongst us.  But I just disagree on how we come to learn the language.  Not everything has to have a name to identify how words come together.

Certainly we need to understand the verb-noun-adjective thing.  We need to know the difference between a passive and active voice. Certainly we need to understand context and the nuances of words.  Tense consistency and proper word selection are key, too.  Wow, the more I think about it, there’s really so much we need to know to not only properly function, but to master the language.

A good place to start is by learning the roots of words.  Once we know that bi means two, we understand words like bisect, biennial, and bisexual.

Pronunciation is a tricky thing to learn.  It can only come with practice and correction.  For instance, silent letters confuse us.  So does a letter with multiple sounds as in c for cook, where it sounds like a k, and when c sounds like an s, as in cents.

At least there are tools like this book to help us.  We also have the dictionary, thesaurus, and style books.  But language is something you pick up by observing and using.  It’s experiential.  It’s living and breathing.

The chapter on figurative language usefully shows how often references are made to familiar things.  There’s Biblical allusion, literary allusion, allusion, personification, verbal irony, alliteration, mythological illusion, the pun, simile, and the metaphor.

We need to also grasp how words relate to one another, from synonyms and antonyms to analogues and homonyms.  Figuring out the denotation vs. the connotation of a word makes a big difference.  The book tackles a lot of ground but it was missing one key area – the role of a strong vocabulary.  To know words, is to know life. 

The chapter on reading fiction explores a variety of genres and explains the difference between science fiction and romance or historical fiction. It also touches upon the parody, mythology, satire, allegory, realism, and drama.  Don’t forget poetry.  Remember there’s more than rhyming poetry, such as free verse, lyrical, and epic.

Page 150 has a valuable lesson:  How to write an objective summary.  This is something lost on most writers, journalists, and bloggers.

Maybe there’s a lot in this book that people need to learn or get a refresher course in.  Who could forget Shakespeare’s works in iambic pentameter!?  Don’t forget the sonnet.

The units on non-fiction noted the varying types of prose, including:  literary non-fiction, biography, memoir, journalism, opinion pieces, exposition, essay, personal essay, arguments, speeches, epistles, and historical/ scientific/technical/economic accounts.  It goes on to explain the author’s viewpoint, opposing viewpoints, and counter arguments. It does a good job of identifying the plot, themes, tone, and structure of what’s presented in a book.

It discusses paraphrasing, plagiarism, and the proper citation of resources.  It also goes over how to approach writing, revising, and editing.  Punctuation, ellipsis, redundancy, narration, character creation, and scores of other useful writing techniques, reader guidelines, and language rules flow from these pages.

Thumbing through this book was like a trip down memory lane.  You realize how much you know and have learned after all of these years of school and then real-life practice. 

Can you write better than a middle-schooler?  Read up – and then go write your masterpiece.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2017©. Born and raised in Brooklyn, now resides in Westchester. Named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby 

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