Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Creative Writing 101

I wrote yesterday about the two groups pushing to have the government put correct information into the abstinence-only sex-ed curricula. Today, the nuts are up in arms.

Check out this beauty from the Abstinence Clearinghouse:
WASHINGTON, Sept. 13 /U.S. Newswire/ -- Today, two groups known for advocating teen sexual activity filed a baseless challenge to abstinence education, states the Abstinence Clearinghouse, the world's leading proponent of abstinence education. The challenging organizations, Advocates for Youth and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), contend that abstinence education is medically inaccurate. Their specious claims are based on a discredited report released last year by California liberal, Representative Henry Waxman (D-30). Biased Groups Challenge the Wrong Programs, Say Abstinence Experts

Look at how this writer depends on adjectives to carry this paragraph:
  • Biased
  • Wrong
  • baseless
  • inaccurate
  • specious
  • discredited
  • liberal

Here's a little tip for the author of this piece. It is much better to let nouns and verbs carry the weight for you. When you squeeze off a string of adjectives like that, people get the feeling that you're emotional and have nothing to say.

See, a "sentence" consists of a subject and a predicate. The subject must contain a noun or pronoun, and there needs to be a verb in the sentence. Like this: Something happens. That's a sentence. Now, if you write Something bad happens, the sentence is still, really, Something happens, with a modifier. Now the reader knows that the thing that happened had a particular negative quality, but in their head they're processing the fact that something happened. And if you say Something specious happened, or Something baseless happened, the extra word doesn't actually have much semantic impact compared to the noun and verb.

From this first paragraph, the reader understands that somebody the author doesn't like did something they don't approve of. Am I right?
"Abstinence education programs are among the most heavily referenced and thoroughly monitored in the United States education system," said Leslee Unruh, president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse. "These false allegations show promiscuity promoters are up against the ropes. They have to hide the truth of their own programs by attacking healthy, responsible abstinence education."

See what I mean? Positive adjectives for your stuff, negative adjectives for the other guys' stuff, and the nouns and verbs are neutral. Or, worse than neutral, absurd: "promiscuity promoters?" Really! That kind of language might work at a Klan rally, but it doesn't convince anyone on the Internet.

Look what your verbs are in this paragraph:
  • Is
  • Show
  • Are
  • Hide
  • Attacking

Well, those last two are OK, I guess, but they come too late. Good writing would rely on high-impact verbs, supported by vivid nouns, in order to convey a convincing sense of indignation and superiority. This ... this doesn't work.
A review of the sex education curricula promoted on the SIECUS website revealed very questionable content. For example, "Becoming A Responsible Teen", a program for adolescents as young as fourteen years states, "Some 'grocery store' lubricants are safe to use if they do not contain oil: grape jelly, maple syrup, and honey." "Reducing the Risk" advises teens, "You do not need a parent's permission to get birth control at a clinic." "Be Proud, Be Responsible", a curriculum for thirteen year olds advises students in class to "Think up a sexual fantasy using condoms." The curriculum also advises the teens (who may be underage in many states) to "Plan a special day (with their sexual partner) when you can experiment. Just talking about how you'll use all of those condoms can be a turn on."

Good writing involves not only the use of concrete language but also, in a case like this, it is necessary to use a good strategic presentation.

For instance, in this case, it would have been much better if the author had omitted the titles of works and where they could be found, so that readers would not be able to go to the SIECUS website and see the bibliography, which says at the top of the page:
This bibliography contains information on commercially available curricula that represent effective approaches to teaching about sexuality-related topics. Their inclusion in this bibliography does not, however, imply an endorsement by SIECUS.

In other words, attack-dog writing such as this needs to be strategically savvy. The authors' careless use of the phrase "promoted on the SIECUS website" leaves the reader doubtful, when he or she discovers that SIECUS in fact does not promote these materials.
"If these groups want to investigate dangerous and misleading information given to kids, they should start with their own recommended curricula," said Libby Gray Macke, director of Project Reality, a national abstinence education program.

Again, a strategic error. The smart reader will quickly notice that Libby Gray Macke is a rarity -- somebody who gives you exactly one hit on Google. Her bio as director of "Project Reality" informs us that she has a Bachelors degree in Psychology from Saint Mary's College in Indiana.

One hit. Didn't Andy Warhol say, someday everybody will get one hit on Google? Will the reader really be impressed that a statement is attributed to Libby Gray Macke? --Strategic error.

Look, Abstinence Clearninghouse Bad Writers, let me repeat something that I said before. If you want to teach abstinence, which is essentially like teaching Nothing (and I enjoy the Sartrean flavor of that), that's fine. Sit kids in a classroom and say "Don't have sex" over and over again. I don't see how it'll do any harm ... just don't waste my kids' time with it.

But if you think an "abstinence-only" class is a license to flat-out lie to the kids, please, if you're getting federal funding, it's got to stop.

Now, back to our lesson. Let me see what I can come up with, something with a little pizazz:
Sex-fearing nutcases today jumped onto the track in front of the powerful train of common sense, hoping to clog up the machinery badly enough to throw it off the track. Their screams were drowned out by the roar of the locomotive's motors and the resonant whoop of its whistle as it churned steadily down the mountainside.

The train was crammed to the roof with impatient and reason-starved citizens who, after enduring several years of desperate ignorance, sang anthems of good cheer surging through the daylight, bringing common sense back to the wide land below.

See? Mine's better, isn't it?

Here's what it is: use adjectives for color, and let the nouns and verbs carry the weight. Then people will buy it. At least it's worth a try.


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