kitchen table math, the sequel: what do authors do?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

what do authors do?

Letting children see what adults and good writers do when they need a word they can't spell is important. Authors don't stop their writing and look up a word. They keep writing and spell the word as best they can. Then they hope that spell check will find and fix it. If not, they depend on their editor to be sure everything is correct before going to print!

Writing Block

First of all

First of all, authors can spell.

I once asked Barry Seaman about this. Barry, I said, do editors ever deal with writers who can write but can't spell? He said, basically, No. We happened to be sitting in the audience of a spelling bee at the time, along with Bob Massie, the third member of our team, waiting our turn to compete. Bob said he couldn't spell, but I am here to tell you he's wrong. He can spell.

On the other hand, not one of us could spell flokati. Flokati, come to find out, is not spelled floccati. The correct spelling is flokati. With a k.

Still and all, when 3 authors hear 'floh-kah-tee' and spell it floccati, that is what we call the exception that proves the rule. Authors can spell.

The reason authors can spell is that Learning to Read and Learning to Spell Are One and the Same, Almost. All authors can read; therefore all authors can spell.

True: spelling is harder than reading. But authors are really, really good readers.

And second

Second: supposing an author is steaming along writing stuff down -- lots and lots of stuff, just like they do in Writing Block -- when all of a sudden, out of the blue, she needs to spell the word flokati and she can't remember whether flokati is Greek (with a k) or Italian (with a double-c).

What does she do?

She stops writing and looks up flokati.

The reason she does that is that she is not steaming along writing lots and lots of stuff down. She is sitting in agony eeking ekeing or eking* out one word, then another word, then possibly another, then hitting back space-delete and starting over again, and that's on a good day, after her 14-year old son has tipped her off to the existence of an Application for Macs that turns off the internet so she can't check her email or read or write a blog about education.

Your choice: write a coherent paragraph about the impulsive-compulsive dimension that other human beings will pay money to read, or look up the word flokati in the dictionary.

I'm taking a poll.

b-ass ackwards
what do authors do?
Four Blocks by Doug Sundseth
Vlorbik on what authors do
cranberry on the real world
Writing Block
Sifting and Sorting Through the 4-Blocks Literacy Model

* thank you, Jean


Allison said...

Sadly, I can think of one place where amateur authors never bother to check that they've typed correctly, whether or not they can spell: in email.

But that's because email doesn't count, somehow. Have neuroscientists determined exactly why we think this way about email?

My guess is it's because in email, we are actually typing what they are voicing to ourselves, a kind of stream-of-talk. And we don't care about spelling when we speak.

Jean said...

I really hate to tell you this, but you misspelled "eking." Unless she's typing by emitting tiny shrieks, that would be funny. There seems to be a question over whether to spell it "ekeing" or "eking" but the dictionary has it as the latter, even though it doesn't look right at all to me.

I believe this is called Gaudere's Law. ;)

John said...

I think the email thing is a bit of red herring. It depends on who you are sending an email to. If it's someone important, you check your spelling; if it's a pal you know well, you probably don't check - unless your pal is Jean, maybe! In other words, we observe the conventions of the genre.
I don't believe there is any such thing as a perfect speller in English. How could you spell a hard-to-spell word you've never seen before when there are so many different spellings for the sounds in the language? We have at least eight common spellings of the sound 'ae', so, until you've been taught the alternative spellings and had lots of exposure, knowing which spelling is going to be tricky.
My daughter was doing her science homework recently and she came across the word 'caecilian', a type of worm. Like the word 'flokati', how would we know how to spell it unless we'd seen it before? OK, knowing the derivation can be a big help and this, being a latinate word, would explain the way we spell the 'ae' and the 's' in 'caecilian'. However, one way to help is to look at the difficult bit in a word. In most difficult words, there is usually only one tricky bit. In 'flokati', it's the 'k' sound. If we are made to notice that we spell it with a k rather than a cc or even a ck, we're much more likely to remember it in future - although there has to be a reason for us to want to remember!

Catherine Johnson said...

Jean - wow!

'Flokati' & now 'eking.'

btw, this further illustrates the ridiculous advice to "circle" words you don't know how to spell.

I thought I knew how to spell eking.

Catherine Johnson said...

The severely annoying aspect of losing a spelling bee because we couldn't spell 'flokati' was that the enunciator actually said something about the rugs being Greek in origin. We just didn't pick up on it -- and there were THREE of us.

If we'd focused on the word "Greek," we would have known the hard c sound was spelled with a 'k,' not a double c.

The teams who knew how to spell the word knew what a flokati rug was.

We three writers had no idea.

As one of us said afterwards (not me), "effing flokati."

Catherine Johnson said...

I always check spelling in emails - another bit of evidence that Authors don't write the way Four Blocks says they do.

I'm certain writers have a kind of obsession re: words, spelling, grammar, etc. that is a core part of their stock in trade.

If you want to train future writers, I think you'd be encouraging attention to detail at every stage of the game.

Most importantly, you'd be teaching spelling and grammar to the point of automaticity.

Catherine Johnson said...

It's true that perfectionism can de-rail writers but I would be very surprised to discover that obsessively correct spelling is involved in writer's block.

Catherine Johnson said...

One of my editors told me that in her entire career she had never had an author who wasn't obsessive.

Independent George said...

Spell check is like a calculator - it's a great convenience for people who don't really need it.

Spell check doesn't understand context, grammar, jargon, or uncommon acronyms/abbreviations - which, if you're in a technical field, constitutes a substantial portion of your writing. You can either add every obscure term you use to the dictionary, thereby guaranteeing that spell check will miss a word later on, or you can learn how to spell the words correctly, and use your own judgment on which words need to be corrected.

And to reiterate John's point above, every time I send an email to a client, an executive, or, really, anybody whose respect matters to me (that is, everybody), you can be sure I check my darned spelling.

SteveH said...

"How could you spell a hard-to-spell word you've never seen before when there are so many different spellings for the sounds in the language?"

You ask the judge for the country of origin. Greek. My son went to the state Spelling Bee contest and we were drilling this into his head. It only works up to a point. The effort required to be really, REALLY good goes up exponentially at the very top.

I understand that email is a different thing, but what I see in email is way beyond sloppiness or informality. In the blog postings encouraged by my son's school, they don't care one bit about punctuation, spelling, or grammar. This is just another form of the low expectations I see in math.

Just like in math, schools desperately try to convince us that less is more. There is a fundamental difference in expectations between my wife and I and many teachers we talk to at our son's school. There is a tension there and I know they feel it.

Are their low expectations a reflection of reality, or does it drive reality? In math, if you allow kids to slide along without enforcing mastery of basic skills, then by fifth grade, teachers have lower calibrated expectations of what is normal. My opinion is that it drives reality. Algebra in 8th grade is NOT something just for math brains. One parent told me that it was the "high honors" track. I wanted to tell her that it should be the normal track.

concernedCTparent said...

Just yesterday I was working on Spelling Mastery with my daughter and there was a section comparing British English spelling to American English spelling. All was well until we got to "glamour/glamor". In fact, the teacher's manual inidicated this to be true, but it just didn't feel right.

Based on all the other examples the pattern would follow that "glamor" would be the American spelling. Nevertheless, I explained this must be an exception. But then why, my daughter asked, is glamorous spelled without the "u"? Good question, why is that? So, we did what we should have done from the very beginning-- we consulted the dictionary.

American Heritage explains:

USAGE NOTE: Many words, such as honor, vapor, and labor, are usually spelled with an –or ending in American English but with an –our ending in British English. The preferred spelling of glamour, however, is –our, making it an exception to the usual American practice. The adjective is more often spelled glamorous in both American and British usage.

Sometimes even a spelling lesson can turn out to be more than you bargained for.

Ben Calvin said...

To go slightly off-topic; is anyone familiar with the Great Books programs ( I have a parent in my son's class who is interested in bringing this in as an enrichment program at our school. I'm afraid my natural inclination is to be suspicious of outside enrichment pushed by a foundation, so it would be quite helpful if anyone here could provide some feed back.

Back on topic, who has time for anything as formal as email? Even in my work the communication is mainly by IM, and I'm much more likely to get a social message via Facebook or text than from email. I do find it amusing though that my phone's browser has a spell checker!

Allison said...

The Great Books program was started by Mortimer Adler at U Chicago in the 50s. It was one of the big attempts to bring great works of literature, history, science, and philosophy to the masses. These are adult works, and meant to be read by adults. The idea at the time was that by working with other well read adults, a person intent on learning could educate himself.

The "program" is usually taught as a ten year sequence. Seriously. You read excerpts from each of the books, and meet approximately once a month to discuss. Each year has a theme. Done right, the first year is the easiest and you work through the works over and over again analyzing more sophisticated themes with them.

Libraries often hold Great Books meetings. Someone is supposed to be a facilitator, and the "program" offers a few starter questions per work.

Some colleges offer courses called "The Great Books" and do some condensed version of the above in two semesters. It seems unlikely that students in middle school or high school would have the time to read these works if they had a real homework load, but if they aren't getting a decent liberal arts education at their school, does that mean there's no nightly homework either (or that it's all filled with craft projects and service?)

I took a dumb-down version in my high school senior year. Our teacher had done the Great Books program at St. John's. We just did the philosophy portions, none of the literature or science.

If the parents were running it with the students, you'd still want an honest-to-goodness liberal arts collegiate at the minimum to help guide the discussion. Someone with real experience in those works.

btw, every few years, the list of the books in the Great Books has changed. I own the set (high school graduation present) and it has works that have been dropped, like Apollonius and Flaubert.

sidenote: I was so thrilled to discover I owned Apollonius. At some point after grad school, I kept my unemployed self occupied by trying to go through Newton's Principia. He did everything based on Apollonius, who I'd never heard of, and Apollonius' geometry was just amazing.

concernedCTparent said...

The Great Books is meant for a mature reader, but the books that the GB Foundation covers tend to be from what is known as "The Good Books" and are specifically chosen for the elementary and middle school years. I went through a training session about 4 years ago through GB Foundation to be a facilitator. We had the opportunity to review their materials (which do include some wonderful classic in children's and young adult literature), but looking back the training was a little on the fuzzy side. If I recall correctly they don't really expect or want you to an expert-- it was more of a guide on the side kind of thing. Basically, I love the idea of The Great Books and The Good Books; Mortimer Adler is definitely a defender of the liberal arts, but I'm not sure if the GB Foundation executes it well with the younger learners. That said, I prefer it to the garbage that comprises most language arts programs in our schools these days. Given the choice between the two (typical language arts program and GB Foundation), I'd go with the Great Books every time.

I do recommend taking a look at The Great Books list over at the Great Books Academy. It's broken down by grade level from Nursery School through 12th grade and has wonderful selections, many which you will find in your local library.

Helping my children choose quality literature these past years has been a very wonderful thing. They've enjoyed so many of the classics more than I could have imagined and it's made them much more selective about what they choose to read in their spare time.

concernedCTparent said...

Clarification: The Good Books are Nursery School through Eighth Grade.

Allison said...

I've seen schools use the Junior Great Books in the younger grades. Are these the same program?

concernedCTparent said...

Yes- Junior Great Books is part of the Great Books Foundation. It's generally an enrichment program paid for by the school or in the case of my training, the Great Books material and training was sponsored by the PTA.

There's a huge contrast between typical Language Arts textbook programs with their abridged texts and stories chosen more for their political correctness than for their quality or timeless message and the Junior Great Books. Whatever its shortcomings, it's a nice little program.

concernedCTparent said...

Allison, you might appreciate the following Great Books Foundation anthology, for example:

Lsquared said...

Back to the writer/editor comment, the person who is writing this description of who does spell checking is living back in the 19060's/70's. My pseudo-reliable sources (authors) tell me that in order to make more money, publishers have mostly done away with copy editors. There's the editor who decides whether to publish the book or not, but the person who devotes time to working with the author to make the book better? He/she's gone.

So, if you can't spell a couple of words, there's a decent chance they'll end up misspelled in the published book. If you can't spell a lot of words? Well, then, the editor won't publish the book. The author had better either be able to spell, or had better be able to afford to hire someone his/herself to fix the spelling, because the publisher sure isn't going to.

There are still editors out there who fix up manuscripts, but they are generally hired by companies putting out non-fiction materials that are written by an editor/content expert team.

Besides, what's this idea that every child is going to grow up to be a writer? Some of them have to grow up to be editors. (And, of course, most of them will grow up to be people who can't afford their own private editor, so they'd better be able to edit their own writing--can't we teach those children too?)

Allison said...

Thanks for the pointer to the physics reader! I already own all but two of the things in it, though. But it'll be a nice gift for someone I know, I think. And it's at least smaller than my current bookcase.

Ben Calvin said...

Thanks everyone for the Great Books feed back! Exactly the type of context I was looking for. I've encountered reference to Mortimer Adler's program, but I didn't make the connection to a K-8 program.