Roger Smith, “Learning How to Write”

 

During the summer of 1962, between my sophomore and junior years at Canton High School in Canton, Massachusetts, a summer school course was offered taught by my older brother’s English teacher, Robert W. Tighe.

I had had practically no writing instruction during my first two years of high school. I was interested in writing and motivated to become a better writer. So I decided to take the course, although my grades in the first two years in English had been straight A’s and the summer course was not required.

But, prior to taking the course, I did self-instruction. I bought a paperback book, Shefter’s Guide to Better Compositions by Harry Shefter, and studied it intently. This, along with the course that followed, was a decisive juncture in my development as a writer.

Shefter stressed the importance of having an effective opening to your composition. He counseled and explained how to write an effective lead paragraph, like a journalist would do. Once you had an effective lead, you would state your thesis and develop and expand upon your ideas from there.

In my first composition for Mr. Tighe’s summer course, I began by describing a recent game that took place on June 18, 1961 at Fenway Park between the Boston Red Sox and the Washington Senators — I saw it on television– in which the Red Sox, in the first game of a doubleheader, scored eight runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to win 13-12. They won it on a grand slam home run by catcher Jim Paglioroni.

I ended the opening paragraph of my composition with the words “the ball nested in the nets.” Mr. Tighe liked this and commented to the class on what a felicitous phrase it was. (There were only three students in the class, including me. The other two boys were taking the class as a requirement, because they had failed English.) I followed by saying something like, “that’s why baseball is my favorite sport.”

I was off to a good start with Mr. Tighe. He said, in his sardonic fashion, rubbing his forehead and pushing back his glasses, “I hate to have to admit it, but you’re good.”

I did an awful lot of writing in the next few weeks, and got very close attention to my papers. I put a lot of effort into them.

My last paper was entitled “The Folly of Frugality.” We had been given the assignment of reading a writer, in my case Vance Packard, and trying to emulate his style.

The course was invaluable to me, and I did not at all mind the hard work.

Mr. Tighe had been an inspiring teacher and crucial mentor of my older brother. I had him for English in my junior and senior years. I worked very hard in his class and paid close attention to anything and everything he had to say about writing. I could never figure why he gave me a C+ for the first marking period in my junior year. I think he was trying to take me down a peg, to send me a message. (But, I was not by any measure conceited.) Also, I heard years later that it was his policy to give practically everyone a low grade the first time they had him for a teacher.

 

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The Three Basic Elements of Good Writing

Mr. Tighe said that there were three elements to good writing: unity, coherence, and emphasis.

The first, UNITY, means that you must stick to the point, be it in your thesis statement (at the opening of a composition) or in a topic sentence.

One of our first assignments was a standard one for beginning writing students: describe something. I wrote a paper describing my bedroom. The emphasis and details were meant to convey what a snug, cozy place my bedroom was — how I liked to be there reading or studying, for example.

When I had nearly finished, I inserted an additional sentence in which I referred to the room’s “long windowless walls.” Mr. Tighe, in grading the paper, underlined this sentence and gave me a low grade. The sentence had conveyed the impression of a dreary place, at variance with the impression created by the other descriptive details. I had violated the principle of UNITY.

The second element of good writing was COHERENCE. Mr. Tighe explained that this was sort of like glue. You had to tie all your paragraphs and sentences together by using transitional words that guide the reader: on the other hand, in contrast, furthermore, however, and so on. I got the idea quickly and was soon larding my essays with such words. It became a little heavy handed. When I became a more experienced writer, I learned that you can achieve this in more subtle ways. But, I have never forgotten or neglected the importance of coherence.

The third element of good writing, EMPHASIS, is the hardest one to achieve; to perceive the presence or lack thereof in a piece of writing; or to explain. It is akin to what a composer strives to achieve in music. A myriad of thoughts, observations, or details in a piece of writing without the proper emphasis can leave the reader disoriented and confused.

Emphasis is achieved by placing weight or stress on certain key points or sections in the essay and on the conclusion. The skillful writer can achieve this sometimes without being obvious. A key point might be made to emerge where one wouldn’t expect it.

 

Ground Rules

Mr. Tighe taught us to make an OUTLINE before writing. As I grew older and became a more experienced writer, I found that I didn’t have to do this anymore. But, it helped me a lot in school. Even when I had an essay exam, I would jot down a quick outline before starting to draft an answer. I did this on college essay exams, and it helped me get good grades even when I was not that well prepared.

Once I wrote a paper for Mr. Tighe in which I began by making an outline, as usual. Then, at the last minute before beginning to write, I decided to use the outline, but in a totally different order. Mr. Tighe gave me a poor grade and commented that there was a major problem with organization.

I learned a lot about GRAMMAR and STYLE from Mr. Tighe — what you might “Strunk and White precepts” — including precepts about writing that stuck in my mind. For example, when to strike out words. He told us to avoid cumbersome phrases like “the fact that.”

He was strict in grading and it was said he would lower a grade due to a couple of spelling errors, but I didn’t see him do this.

My older brother got at least one A+ from Mr. Tighe on a paper. It was said to be very hard to do. I recall how proud he and my parents were on that occasion. Late in my senior year, I finally got an A+ from Mr. Tighe for a paper on the Romantic poets. (I criticized them. Mr. Tighe did not particularly like the Romantic poets.)

 

Writing on Demand

In my senior year, we had Mr. Tighe for first period. Often, he would have us start off by writing. It was very difficult to do that — especially, it seemed, at that hour.

He would usually start off by quoting from some piece of writing, an excerpt from The New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly, for example. Then he would say, with what seemed to be fiendish glee, “say something clever and witty about that.”

The next day, he would have prepared for the class a rexograph sheet containing excerpts — which he had typed up from our handwritten work — from four of the pieces submitted on the previous day. Then he and we the class would discuss and critique the writing samples. It was invaluable instruction in writing — trained me to critique my own work.

I learned to write on demand, which served me very well in college on essay exams (as noted above) and in writing last minute papers, which — due to severe case of procrastination which I suffered from — I usually had to resort to.

 

Senior Research Paper

In our senior English class, the term paper at the end of the year was a big deal. Mr. Tighe taught us how to do research and keep track of our sources using index cards. My paper was on J. D. Salinger. I did research in the Boston Public Library. But, being a procrastinator of the worst sort (as noted above), I had to stay up all night the night before the paper was due and barely got it written and typed. I wrote the paper in one draft on my older brother’s typewriter without revision.

I recall that I got a B+. The title of my paper was “Salinger and Utilitarianism.”

From the research paper assignment, one learned how to write a college paper with footnotes. It was the first time I had ever done research, and I enjoyed it. The only Salinger book I read for the assignment was The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger’s Franny and Zoey had been published by then, but I did not read it for purposes of the assignment. (I did read it later and didn’t particularly like or understand it.) I included some criticism on Salinger, which I had read as part of my research, in the paper. I really enjoyed doing research in the Boston Public Library, reading early published fiction by Salinger that most people didn’t know of.

 

— Roger W. Smith

     December 2015

 

 

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. He hosts separate websites devoted to the authors Theodore Dreiser and Pitirim A. Sorokin and to classical music as well as family history/genealogy.
This entry was posted in Canton High School, Canton, MA, writing (the craft of writing; good vs. bad writing; my training, experience, and lessons re same) and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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