Classics-Based Writing

Janice Campbell

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Summer Lesson

July/August 2013

 Excellence in Literature Graphic

classicsbasedwritingaugIn honor of America’s Independence, which we celebrate every summer, this lesson features one of the most important documents of our country’s history. By the standards of modern government documents, it is almost miraculously brief, but its carefully crafted sequence of ideas and skillful use of rhythm and parallel construction makes it powerfully memorable.

As you study this outstanding example of clarity in thought and writing, I hope you’ll learn lessons that you can apply, not just in formal documents, but in all your writing. And who knows? Perhaps you will someday have the honor of helping to draft something as important as a declaration of independence!

May you have a wonderful rest of your summer.

Mrs. Campbell

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Writer’s Toolbox

Before you begin, let’s take a moment and talk about why you’ll be doing some of the recommended activities. A few of them, such as analysis or creation are fairly obvious, but others may seem too simple to be useful. The fact is, each activity will help you develop different skills, and each is important in creating a mental toolbox of knowledge, skills, and techniques that will make you a better thinker and writer.

Deep Reading: If you are working with a poem or other short piece of literature, you’ll want to absorb it by reading deeply. If you are going to spend four weeks thinking and writing about a work, it’s important to fully understand it, and deep reading is the first step in understanding.

My method of deep reading has three steps:

  1. Read it at a normal pace in order to get acquainted with the piece as a whole.
  2. Read it again slowly, with a pencil in hand. Underline words you want to look up, and draw a vertical line next to lines that seem to be key turning points or just something you want to remember.
  3. Read it aloud, using proper diction and inflection that helps to convey the meaning of the piece. If you are working with a scene from a play or a speech, dramatize it. Try to speak it as the character or original speaker might be expected to present it.

Copying: One of the first ways human babies learn anything is by copying others. They watch brothers, sisters, and parents talk, walk, and do all manner of interesting things, and if all goes well, they’ll learn to do those difficult early tasks simply by copying others.

Copying isn’t just for babies, though. If you’ve ever spent time in an art museum, you’ve probably seen college students and artists sitting in the galleries, copying masterworks. If you’ve ever taken music lessons, you don’t start off by trying to compose your own music. You begin by playing or singing music written by masters. As students copy the paintings of a master artist or play the compositions of Bach or Handel, they learn about the painting or composition at a very fundamental and experiential level. It’s the way generations of apprentices were trained into craftsmen and artists.

Writing is an art, just like painting or composition. To become an amazing writer, you need to be deeply acquainted with amazing writing. Copying not only acquaints you with master craftsmen, but it also allows you to absorb an excellent work and to closely observe how a great writer has used tools such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, or metaphor, and how word choice and sentence structure work together to create a beautiful or persuasive or powerful piece of writing.

When you are instructed to copy as part of a lesson, never use your computer to copy and paste the document. That completely short-circuits the lesson and bypasses the necessary focus. Studies in biology and psychology have proven that the physical act of putting words on paper helps the brain sort, categorize, and focus on the details of what is written. You simply learn more when you engage both brain and muscles to interact with a text.

The key to using copywork effectively is to copy, then move on into analysis or creative work based on the work you’re studying (creative pieces based upon another work are usually called “derivative works”). For Classics-Based Writing, you will usually go on to analyze the structure and details of the piece, then transform it in some way, and finally create your own derivative work. The skills you’ll learn by going through this process will help you in all the writing you do in the future, and will provide you with the tools to move even farther into completely original creative work.

Transformation: Why change prose to poetry or poetry to prose? Why retell an ancient story as an editorial, or a modern news story in Shakespearean style? The answer is actually pretty simple. It’s not that you’re going to be submitting corporate reports in iambic pentameter (something you’ll learn about in our September lesson).

The answer lies in Legos™—those snap-together plastic blocks that form castles and catapults, dinosaurs and dollhouses. Whether you’re building a helicopter or a hobbit hole, you would need more than just an introductory set of 100 medium size blocks. You’d want to have a generous supply of blocks of all shapes and sizes, with extra accessory pieces you could use in various ways.

It’s the same thing in writing. If you’re going to be writing your way through high school and all that comes after, you don’t want to be limited in the skills, tools, and techniques you can use. The more you use words, structures, literary techniques, and other building blocks of writing, the more fun you’ll have with communication, and the more competent your writing will be.

Transforming a single piece of writing into multiple different shapes can be fun, and it’s definitely a way to build your word-crafting skills. Like the super-chef who figures out eighteen ways to use the Thanksgiving turkey leftovers, you’ll be challenged to find creative ways to make a story fresh and interesting, even when it’s completely familiar. I hope you’ll enjoy the process!

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Janice Campbell is a writer, conference speaker, and lifelong learner with an abiding love for classic literature. She graduated with honors from Mary Baldwin College (an English major, of course!) and is author of the Excellence in Literature curriculum for grades 8-12, Transcripts Made Easy, Get a Jump Start on College, and other resources. She is also Director of the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.NAIWE.com). In every facet of her business life—writing, speaking, and NAIWE—Janice’s goal is to share knowledge and resources that can help ordinary people do extraordinary things.  You can find her online at www.Everyday-Education.com and www.Janice-Campbell.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.