Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Big Idea


Their faces were blank, eyes devoid of expression. Some had pimples. The pimples at least looked interested.

"You have to have a Big Idea. When you sit down to write an essay, you have to have something to communicate to your reader. You can't just start writing, going all over the place, and then hope that by the end of the essay that things fall together. You have to start with the end in sight. You have to have a Big Idea that you want to communicate."

Someone moved. One of the students blinked. Another one scratched herself. I could hear the sound of nail over dry skin. Some had pimples. The pimples were the only ones
still looking interested.

My students struggle with non-fiction writing each year. Okay, they struggle with everything. But it occurs to me that some bloggers struggle with it as well. I won't point any fingers, but as you zip through websites, you'll find postings which meander this way, then that...finally ending, mercifully in a picture, or a meaningless quote, the author thinking that these flourishes compensate for a lack of substance. They don't, unless you are a horribly undemanding reader. Unless you are pumice.

"Once you've struck a main idea, you have to develop it intelligently and express it with clarity. That's CLARITY. In caps. It's pointless to write something unless people understand what it is you are trying to express. And you can't be clear about what it is you are writing if you yourself are unclear about what is is you are trying to communicate. In short, THE BIG IDEA."

The students have vanished. There are now only pimples and swaths of greasy hair seated where once there was flesh.

I could go on about elements of essay. I could talk about using lists, facts, opinions, story, strong voice, and elements of language as a way to communicate The Big Idea, whether they are trying to inform or persuade, but I stop. Damn it, I stop. I want to go on, but one idea at a time is a big idea.

Besides, the pimples are starting to pulsate. And I'm frightened.

21 comments:

Lucas Pederson said...

Did you write a post about me? That's it! (Sticks out tongue) I'm taking you off my friends list...
Okay, seriously, this was very interesting. For an essay, I see the point in having an ending in sight and having the darn thing mean something. For an essay, meandering isn't a good way to start things off. As for writing a novel, or a short story even, for me at least, having no ending in sight, except for maybe just a tiny glimpse, makes the art of creation that much more intimate. For me it drives me onward to finish the thing, beacuse I want to know how it ends too. Besides, it's just fun to start writing and see where it leads you. But I agree with the essay writing.
I enjoyed this. Thanks fella.

miller580 said...

I started to wonder if this post was about me. Then I realized that it was only my paranoid delusions sneaking back in for some fun, because they like to torment me when I am reading blogs and killing time. Which I must say is a really good thing to do when your bored. Reading blogs that is...when your bored.
I am not sure why reading blogs isn't fun to do when your not bored. Now that I think about it, I am not sure what I like to do when I am not bored.
Speaking of bored, I was watching this thing on the discovery channel that shows how trees are cut down and sawn into the boards that home depot sells.
I am not really sure if I agree with cutting down the trees because that leads to global warming. However, I think that a little global warming is just what you Detroiters could use about now. But not so much down here in Florida, because Global Warming causes more hurricanes and when we have hurricanes then I have to go and board up my windows with the boards from Home Depot. And if I am boarding up the windows, I can't read the blogs, and if I can't read blogs than I would never get a chance to find out if Stewart is talking about my blogging or if it is my paranoid delusions teasing me. In conclusion, Global warming is bad for Florida.

lee said...

So,in Mount Vesuvius fashion, the pimples ERUPTED covering us all with sticky pus.Someone had to say it ;).

DonkeyBlog said...

I guess we all seemed to have squirmed a bit when reading Mr S's post here ... let he who is not guilty cast the first stoine, hey?

Wanted to say that there should be a distinction between those blogs that tell stories (which need an idea to guide them), and those blogs which are more like a daily log, in which the only idea seems to be chronological self promotion. I think both are valid.

I agree with Lucas about wanting to just start writing and seeing where it takes you, but I think there is a need to then go back and rework the piece once you've finished, according to the idea that has developed along the way. This is, ofcourse, more time consuming, and in the end, it comes down to whether your blog is like a gallery for the exhibition of finished art, or a sketch book of drafts and ideas for feedback.

There you go, who said ol' Donkey couldn't be serious?

SQT said...

Isn't it funny how almost everyone who read this post wondered was he talking about me?

I actually try to have a point to my posts though sometimes it's hard to know exactly how to wrap them up. I'm always conscious of trying not to make the post too long so the reader doesn't get bored. Then the problem becomes how to avoid a truncated ending.

I wish everyone could see the pain we bloggers go through. I mean, the agony we suffer in trying to make sure we entertain our readers. We are an under appreciated breed for sure. :)

DonkeyBlog said...

Here here, SQT

Matt said...

A lot of students get confused about the difference between the main idea and the thesis statement and then they repeat the thesis statement in their conclusions.

You're absolutely right. Lately, I've been writing with my ending in sight even before the lede.

Charles Gramlich said...

Was this post about blogs or pimmples?

Claudia said...

i used to write stream of consciousness letters to my friends. I've lost my touch.

jedimerc said...

Meandering is certainly no good way to start, though I admit a certain devolution in to tangents sometimes... but I feel for you since no one teaches students how to write anymore (this is evident in history essay exams... an essay is not just a list of facts, please put them in a coherent form), and it carries over into the real world, whether they think it or not. It's an old rant for me, but this post certainly brought up the memories of grading essays as a TA and not knowing whether to laugh or just be imminently frustrated (actually I left that to the professor :)

Donnetta Lee said...

Stewart: I enjoyed (and learned) from this post. Which is the reason why I started blogging in the first place.

Hey "miller580"! I also live in Florida (part time). Hurricane Charlie almost totalled my house there. How did you fair?

Thanks for the good advice, Stew. Donnetta

lee said...

I am the only one who knows it wasn't about them -hahaha :).

Lee said...

I'm okay with meandering postings. Sometimes a post is just a post, not an essay.

Maybe I'm a horribly undemanding reader.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Lucas, I didn't write this about anyone in particular. I actually wrote it out of frustration. The kids have been fighting me on essay writing.

Jim, you are delusional. It's why I love you. It's why I hide outside your bedroom window and wait for you to sleep.

Lee....meandering blogs are fine. Everyone has their own style.

SQT, it's hard sometimes to do a posting. We have so much else on our plates, that when we stop and think about blogging, we don't necessarily want to think of it as work. And we certainly want to be careful of it as formal writing.
I always worry some editor will read my blog and shake his head.

Donkey, great minds think alike. It reminds me of Covey, beginning with the end in sight, one of the habits of highly successful people.

Charles, it was about pimples. Good call.

Matt, I can't believe how hard it is for some of my kids to shift into critical thinking mode. When i tell them they must back up all their stated opinions, they stumble around as though blind, writing whatever comes to mind, making sentences that would have driven Joyce to drink. Or made him sober.

Thank you Donetta. I appreciate those words. Especially from you.

Lee...the other lee...sometimes a post is a post. If something isn't fiction, then it is non fiction. If it is non fiction, it is still communicating an idea. As I said earlier, I don't care if someone meanders, but I do care if my students do in their papers.

lee said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etrj_rlIlOk

ss -that is where you can see billy thorpe -it's live back in 1972. Oh do have a look :).

JR's Thumbprints said...

I use the KISS method when teaching my students how to write an essay--Keep It Simple Stupid.

etain_lavena said...

I always wish someone can crit some of my work, not in a mean hateful way, but just chick: that needs work, this does not make sense....you get what I am saying....hihih...I wanna be slightly cheeky and say does anybody ever get what I am saying.....That stream of consciousness I have...good golly:)
Very (lekker)great post:)

Tammie Jean said...

At least the pimples were paying attention.

Is it possible to get teenagers excited about anything other than video games? Just curious... ;)

spyscribbler said...

What an image! I'm frightened of those pulsating pimples, too.

I often find myself publishing my post and then reading it over, thinking, "I forgot to make my point!"

*sigh* What can you do?

Travis said...

Writing a story without an idea of how it ends is the best way I can think of to never finish anything.

Trust me on this one gang - I've been there for 15 years!!

It's lovely sometimes just to write and let the words flow. But stories have character and plot and conflict...and how will you get to a climax if you don't know how it ends????

Stewart, I agree with you about essays. How does one research and support an essay when one is not clear on the idea? Without the central idea - or point to what you are trying to communicate - how will you put forth anything other than an opinion paper?

Good luck with getting the pimples...uhm...students to see and respect and utilize the BIG IDEA.

Crunchy Carpets said...

I constantly read blogs in which people have been talking about the same 'issue' and then kick myself because they have done a far better job than me in putting it simply and clearly.
I waffle.
But also don't spend time editing either!