kitchen table math, the sequel: swimming and writing: William J. Kerrigan

Saturday, September 8, 2007

swimming and writing: William J. Kerrigan

from Kerrigan’s first chapter:

Chapter 1


Step 1 is simple. But before we begin with Step 1, I’d like to say something helpful about the method in this book. It is a method, a step-by-step method—and that is what makes this book different from others you from others you may have used. The book itself, as you’ll see at once, talks directly and familiarly with you, instead of formally to your instructor; so it is not so much a book as a conversation.

Now the method taught in this book has proved useful to everyone from grade school students to graduate students in English. (As a matter of fact, one excellent writer, the head of a college English department, told me gratefully that he had learned some things of value from it.) But what you’ll really like to hear is that out of the thousands of college students who have studied this method, not one has failed to learn to use it. And after learning it, not one has failed to write themes that, as both the student and the instructor could see, were quite acceptable—better than the student imagined possible. You too, at this point, can’t imagine how much more impressive and effective your writing will become after you put this simple method to work.

I suspect that what lies behind this method is my experience with swimming. Efforts to teach me to swim, beginning back in my grade school days, had time after time proved utter failures. In crowded municipal pools, in small private pools, and in swimming holes in rural creeks, my friends told me to do this and do that, gave me one piece of advice and then another, held me up as I waved my arms and legs, put water wings on me, demonstrated for me again and again. No use. I couldn’t learn to swim a stroke or to keep myself up in the water for one second.

But one day when I was in my twenties and was paddling my hands in the water in the shallow end of a pool—while other people swam—a friend of mine got out of the water and said, “Walk out there ten or fifteen feet, and turn and face me on the deck of the pool here. OK. Now raise your hands above your head, take a deep breath and hold it, close your eyes if you want to, and just lie face down in the water. You absolutely can’t sink. Then, when you’re out of breath, stand up again.”

I followed his directions and, to my surprise, I didn’t sink.

“Now,” he said, “when you lie down again in the water, just kick your feet up and down. You’ll come right to me at the edge of the pool.”

I did as he told me. When my hands met the side of the pool and I stood up again, I realized that after years of vain effort, I had—in less than five minutes—learned how to swim.

It was the simplest kind of swimming, to be sure; and I need not take you through the steps that followed, in which I moved my arms, lifted my head to breathe, and developed various strokes. Let me say only that today I have an acceptable swimming technique.

When it came to teaching theme writing, then, I wanted a method like that—a method that was going to work for all students, good, fair, and indifferent. What was needed was a set of simple instructions that any and every student could follow, that would lead—like “lie face down in the water”—to automatic success. Other writing textbooks contained plenty of good advice, but not a method of organizing the advice so that it would lead step by step to a successful theme. So I had to figure out the instructions myself. The foolproof method I developed is fully contained in this book.

But before turning to that method, I have a few more helpful words. First, remember that it guarantees that you will write acceptable themes. That is because it is automatic: it relies not on any special skill of yours, but on what you already must know if you are able to read and write. it does not depend on your having good ideas, a good vocabulary, or good expression. For that reason, it cannot guarantee that the themes you produce will be literature. (To produce literature you would ordinarily need to have done a lot of reading and writing, besides, of course, having been born with unusual gifts.)

But after all, what call will there ever be for you to write literature?…


Some of you, however, will protest that you do intend to write literature later on. Good for you! If so, you will find this book a solid foundation for it. Meanwhile, if we are all to achieve the modest goal of this book, you will have to do some work—though I must keep assuring you that it will be work that you, whoever you are, can do, if you can read these words. Remember that the fundamental secret of swimming was revealed to me by my friend in a flash. But I did not immediately become a decent swimmer! No, it required hours of practice in the pool. We learn to swim by—and only by—swimming; we learn to skate by skating; and you—as you don’t recall but I’m sure believe—learned to walk by walking. It should not surprise you, then, that we learn to write by writing.
pp. 1-2

Writing to the Point Fourth Edition by William J. Kerrigan
Fourth Edition
William J. Kerrigan
Allan A. Metcalf
ISBN: 0-15-598313-X
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1987

Kerrigan taught composition at the University of Iowa in the 1950s.

Apparently you have to go back that far to find a writing instructor with a method.

That's not quite true; the text reconstruction people, who appear to have enjoyed a brief heyday in the 1980s before the process tsunami swept them away have a method I think is terrific thus far. (Will get around to posting my results with Analyze Organize, Write by Arthur Whimbey and Elizabeth Jenkins. ISBN-10: 0805800824 ISBN-13: 978-0805800821)

But Kerrigan's method is the whole package, start to finish, including choosing a topic and creating a thesis.

Writing to the Point Fourth Edition Table of Contents
Amazon review Kerrigan & home program
Writing to the Point, first installment
William J. Kerrigan and the sentence
writing and swimming: pp 1 & 2 Kerrigan
To the Instructor


Karen A said...

Catherine--thank you for undertaking the task of posting "Writing to the Point" to the blog. I know that I will benefit greatly from this.

Catherine Johnson said...

You sure will.

I now have a ONE-SENTENCE thesis for Temple's and my book.

I'm not sure I've ever had such a thing before.

Shadow Syndromes & AIT both had a thesis, but I don't think I ever forced myself to write it down - or to be able to write it down - in just one sentence.

This is one of those extraordinary works that alters your perception of a subject you've been on intimate terms with for your entire life.

That doesn't happen too often!

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, I think the text reconstruction book is fantastic.

Check out this sentence C. wrote, after doing just the first 3 lessons in the book:

For Elron Hubberts birthday, green cookies shaped like aliens, with black frosting depicting Tom Cruise, are displayed at the store of scientollgy.

He wrote this without looking at a model.

This sentence, with its sophisticated structure and goofy kid-level spelling (scientollgy) may be typical of the way in which writing improves with text reconstruction. Linden's examples are similar, only starting with extremely incoherent writers.

I'll get those posted, too.

(This is Why Johnny Can't Write.)