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Entries in Writing (8)


What is the purpose of a book review?

I've been working on a critical review of the book St. Augustine: A Life. When I first saw the assignment, and saw the adjective "critical," I knew Dr. Haykin was not looking for something I might put on my blog. The fact that it has to be 2,500 words was a sure indication of that.

Part of the assignment involves interacting with other critical reviews. Yesterday, I spent some time reading some. The reviews came from Christianity Today, The Calvin Theological Journal, Christian Century, and one in First Things, so there is a measure of comfort that responsible people were reviewing this book. 

What I noticed in all of these reviews was the lack of a concluding phrase that said the reviewer either recommended or did not recommend the book. Certainly, someone can read between the lines and discern if the reviewer likes the book. However, in the review from First Things, the author actually has a few indictments for Gary Wills. These criticisms are written alongside him calling the book "delightful." Yet, he did not conclude the review with a recommendation.

I was left wondering how much the presence of Amazon book reviews has affected what I perceive to be the components of a book review. I don't always look at the reviews on Amazon, but when I do I notice that the majority are not very long, and are usually five star ratings combined with some one or two star ratings. It's hard to get a feel for the book when the reviews fall into such poles.

We want recommendations so that we know we're making a good purchase. But I wonder if the prevalence of Amazon as a marketing engine has changed our expectations of what a book review ought to contain. Of the reviews I read, the one from First Things was the best because the reviewer interacted not only with what he liked, but what he disliked, and that was helpful. I've read (and written) some reviews where the glowing endorsement is far too good to be true. I would rather have more information about what the book actually contains. I was once given a book to review and was very honest about what I saw as problematic content. I have never been asked to review anything by this publisher again.

In future, when I read book reviews, I think I'll be less concerned about a recommendation and more about whether the reviewer gives me enough information to make my own decision one way or another. And if I end up hating the book, that's not a big deal. No one ever died from reading a bad book.


The mechanics of writing matters

Every student who has ever written something for someone has been evaluated on structure, spelling, grammar, and usage. Well, one hopes this is true, anyway. I have not had children in public school for a while. When I homeschooled, those things mattered. How can we communicate good answers unless we structure them properly?

Every rubric for a writing assignment includes a small amount for structure; usually 10% or so, depending on the teacher. When I was in university, and taking an introduction to academic writing, the prof exhorted us regularly with this reminder: don't blow off those ten little marks. They're an easy ten marks. As long as one has a manual of some kind to provide guidance, those ten marks can be earned. Many of us think instead, "It's only ten marks, who cares?" Ten marks is ten marks, and they could make a big difference.

What if my arguments are weak? What if my arguments are poorly supported? I'm going to lose marks. Wouldn't those ten marks provide a nice cushion if I just can't wrap my mind around what I want to say? Those ten marks can really help.

I've never really had a lot of trouble with the mechanics of writing. In all of my hermeneneutics papers, I got the full marks for structure, grammar, and usage. It was good that I did, because on one paper, I struggled with a particular point, and I saw that I lost marks because of it. Similarly, this past spring, on one of my papers for my Old Testament in the New Testament class, I got careless and made a few mechanical errors (I was lazy, and didn't proof read enough), and it pulled my mark down. I was mad at myself, because a little extra attention could have saved me a few marks.

Well-structured writing is a joy to read. It makes it easier for the one marking the paper as well, which means you may get it back from the teacher sooner rather than later. As someone who used to help students edit their papers, I can tell you that it is very hard to evaluate someone's writing if you can't make heads or tails of it. It takes very little effort to check things out. And that goes for blog posts, too. I've read some blog posts that could use some editing, and I've written some that needed editing. It really isn't hard work to learn proper sentence structure, grammar and usage. With manuals like The Chicago Manual of Style and A Manual for Writers, there is help. And barring that, do a little self-teaching with a high school grammar program, easily obtainable at any homeschool book seller.

School is back in session. If you have a child who balks at checking for grammar, spelling, structure, and usage, just tell him or her that a little cushion didn't hurt anyone.


The death of the paragraph

The best class I ever took in university was English 109, with Dr. North. My daughter, who is a PhD student at my alma mater, told me that it has changed a lot since I took it. That's a shame, because it was a great course.

Each week, we met for a forty minute lecture to discuss the material upon which we'd be writing. A couple of days later, we had a three hour writing lab, where we would have to submit our essays at the end of the class, complete with an outline. If we didn't hand the essay in at the end of the class, it was an automatic failure of the course; there was no taking the essay home and handing it in later. It was a good discipline. This process forced us to think of essays in proper terms: an argument that is supported by evidence, which is expanded up on paragraphs which contain the supporting statements. It was a course good not only for writing essays, but for understanding that all writing generally puts forth an assertion of some kind. 

There are many ways in which the internet has changed the way we communicate. As we become a more image saturated society, and our attention spans become shorter, writers are encouraged to write short paragraphs. I think that's a good idea, but more and more what I see is writing where every sentence is its own paragraph.

After a longer pargarph, it can give dramatic effect.

Especially if someone is being transparent.

I think it's supposed to make us stop and think, "wow."

Now, not every article or post has to be written in a formal academic style, but there is something to be said for constructing an argument, however brief it may be. In some of the articles where I have seen this device (over) used, it's almost as if the writer has been unable to decide if he/she wants to write poety or prose. Is this the new stream-of-consciousness?

When I sit down to read something, I want to see something unfolded, whether it's fiction or non-fiction. Just imagine A Tale of Two Cities being written in the short paragraph format:

It was the best of times.

It was the worst of times.

It was the age of foolishness.

It was the epoch of belief.

It was the epoc of incredulity.

It was the season of Light.

It was the the season of Darkness...

It kind of reminds me of this:

See Jane run.

See Dick run.

See Spot run.

Recently, I was reading John Stott's book The Cross of Christ. There was a paragraph that was quite a bit longer than others, and I did find myself wondering when he would wrap things up. But there are many other times when I'm simply caught up in the point Stott is making. When I read writers trying to make a point with sixteen one-liners instead of an entire paragraph, my visual mind can't follow along. I end up not reading. And that's too bad, because there may be something worthwhile in the article. Writing is a presentation of an idea, and sometimes, if the presentation isn't great, the idea gets lost. I am showing my age, and there are many who would disagree with me.

That's fine with me.

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