Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and a New Yorker staff writer, told me how he prepared, years ago, to write his first Talk of the Town story.
Talk articles have a distinct style, and he wanted to make sure he got the voice straight in his head before he began writing. His approach was simple. He sat down and read 100 Talk pieces, one after the other.
The story nicely illustrates how careful reading can advance great writing. As a schoolteacher, I offer Gladwell's story to students struggling with expository writing as evidence that they need not labour alone. There are models out there — if only they'll read them!
Gladwell's tale provides a good lesson for English teachers across the country (US) as they begin to implement the Common Core State Standards, a set of national benchmarks, adopted by nearly every state, for the skills public school students should master in language arts and mathematics in grades K-12.
The standards won't take effect until 2014, but many public school systems have begun adjusting their curriculums to satisfy the new mandates. Depending on your point of view, the now contentious guidelines prescribe a healthy — or lethal — dose of nonfiction.
This and similar comments have prompted the education researcher Diane Ravitch to ask, "Why does David Coleman dislike fiction?" and to question whether he's trying to eliminate English literature from the classroom.
"I can't imagine a well-developed mind that has not read novels, poems and short stories," she writes.
Sandra Stotsky, a primary author of Massachusetts' state standards challenges the assumption that nonfiction requires more rigour than a literary novel. One education columnist sums up the debate as a fiction versus nonfiction 'smackdown'.
A striking assumption animates arguments on both sides, namely that nonfiction is seldom literary and certainly not literature. Even Coleman erects his case on largely dispiriting, utilitarian grounds: Nonfiction may help you win the corner office but won't necessarily nourish the soul.
As an English teacher and writer who traffics in factual prose, I'm with Coleman. In my experience, students need more exposure to nonfiction, less to help with reading skills, but as a model for their own essays and expository writing, what Gladwell sought by ingesting Talk of the Town stories.
I love fiction and poetry as much as the next former English major and often despair over the quality of what passes for 'informational texts' few of which amount to narrative much less literary narrative.
What schools need isn't more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing.
Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call 'narrative nonfiction': writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways.
What Tom Wolfe once said about 'New Journalism' could be applied to most student writing. It benefits from intense reporting, immersion in a subject, imaginative scene setting, dialogue and telling details.
These are the very skills most English teachers want students to develop. What's odd is how rarely such literary nonfiction appears on English — or other class — reading lists. In addition to a biology textbook, for example, why can't more high school students read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?
Narrative nonfiction also provides a bridge between the personal narratives students typically write in elementary school and the essays on external subjects that are more appropriate assignments in high school and beyond. David Coleman may dismiss self-expression. Yet he recommends authors, like the surgeon and medical writer Atul Gawande, who frequently rely on personal storytelling in their reporting.
Skilled practitioners can demonstrate the power of facts, and provide models — topic sentence by topic sentence — for compelling narrative.
There are anthologies of great literature and primary documents, but why not great Nonfiction Narratives?" Until such editions appear, teachers can find complex, literary works in collections like The Best American Science and Nature Writing, on many newspaper websites, which have begun providing online lesson plans using articles for younger readers.
Last year, The Atlantic compiled examples of the year's best journalism, and The Daily Beast has its feature Longreads. Longform.org not only has best of contemporary selections but also historical examples dating back decades.
If students read 100 such articles over the course of a year, they may not become best-selling authors, but like Gladwell, they'll get the sound and feel of good writing in their heads. With luck, when they graduate, there will still be ranks waiting for them to join.