October 29: Rules for Correspondence Day

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On this day in 1890, Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), English writer and mathematician, published an essay entitled “Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing.” Best known for his works Alice in Wonderland and “Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s essay on letter writing was included as a booklet in the “Wonderland” Postage-Stamp-Case, a product designed to help letter writers organize their postage and correspondence.

In his essay, Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, offered tips on opening a letter, closing a letter, and keeping a registry of correspondence.  The main focus of the essay, however, is the section entitled “How to Go on With a Letter” in which he provides his key considerations for the body of a letter.  The nine rules are summarized below:

Rule 1:  Write legibly.

Rule 2:  Begin with remarks about your reader or your reader’s last letter rather than about yourself or about your apologies for not having written sooner.

Rule 3:  Don’t repeat yourself.

Rule 4:  If you think your letter might irritate your friend, set it aside for a day and re-read it again.  Then, re-write the letter, if necessary, to make it less offensive.  Also, keep a copy of the letter so that you’ll have a record of what you actually said.

Rule 5:  If your friend makes a severe remark in his or her letter, either ignore it or respond in a less severe way.

Rule 6:  Don’t try to have the last word.

Rule 7:  Watch out for sarcasm and humor.  If you write in jest, make sure that it is obvious.

Rule 8:  If you write in your letter that you have enclosed something, stop writing for a moment and get the item for enclosure and put it into the envelope immediately.

Rule 9:  If you get to the end of the note-sheet and you have more to say, take out another piece of paper instead of cross-writing. (Cross writing was a paper-saving practice of writing vertically over the horizontal lines of your letter) (1).

What seems to unify Carroll’s rules is the consideration for the reader.  Carroll reminds writers to avoid egocentricity and to craft every sentence with the reader in mind.  Even though letter writing today is certainly less popular than in Carroll’s time, his emphasis on this universal writing principle — “Put the reader first” — makes his rules applicable to just about any form of writing.

American humorist Will Rogers stated the rule using an apt metaphor: “When you go fishing you bait the hook, not with what you like, but with what the fish likes.”

Today’s Challenge:  Rules for Email

What are your rules for crafting an effective email?  Brainstorm some rules that effective writers and communicators should consider when writing an email, either for personal or professional purposes.  State at least three rules, and follow each rule with an explanation and rationale, using specific examples where appropriate. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Carroll, Lewis. Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing. 1890. Public Domain Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38065/38065-h/38065-h.htm.

October 28:  Salute to Contemporaries Day

On this day in 1930, British playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) spoke at a dinner honoring Albert Einstein (1879-1955).  Shaw presented a short speech saluting the scientist for his work, calling Einstein “the greatest of our contemporaries.”

Shaw began his speech by identifying eight great men of history whom he called “makers of universes.” These men were Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Kepler, Copernicus, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein — all great men of science, who unlike the “makers of empires” did not have hands “stained with the blood of their fellow men.”  Shaw continued by comparing Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and Einstein, explaining how Einstein challenged Newton’s rectilinear view of the universe, replacing this view with his curvilinear universe.  The Englishman Newton presented a model for the universe that stood for 300 years.  In 1916, at the age of 26, Einstein gave the world a new model, his theory of general relativity (1).

Today’s Challenge:  A Tribute and a Tip of the Hat

When we speak of “contemporaries” we are talking about people who lived at the same time.  For example, George Bernard Shaw and Einstein were contemporaries; Einstein and Newton were not.  What person living today would you argue is the most influential?  Who would you label as the greatest of our contemporaries?  Brainstorm some names of great people who are still living.  Identify the one you would honor, and like Shaw, write your short tribute, making your case for the person as the most influential person alive.  For some help in your research, read one of Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People” editions.  This annual issue features the most influential living people with tributes written by their contemporaries. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Safire, William.  Lend Me Your Ears:  Great Speeches in History.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 1997: 206-8.

October 27:  The Federalist Papers Day

On this day in 1787, Federalist Paper 1 was published in the Independent Journal of New York.

Today Americans take the Constitutional form of government for granted.  But in 1787, shortly after the young, ragtag nation had thrown off the British monarchy and won its independence, a constitution was not a given.  The questions at that time were — would there be a central federal government at all, and if there were, what would be its powers?  The original basis for the united thirteen states was the Articles of Confederation, but this gave the federal government little power:  no power to levy taxes, to regulate trade, or to enforce laws.  The Constitution, which offered a plan for a federal government based on checks and balances, was drafted in September of 1787, but it still needed to be ratified by at least nine states.

In October 1787, therefore, the federalists began their debate with the anti-federalists.  One of the chief proponents of the Constitution was Alexander Hamilton, the chief aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War and an elected representative from New York state to the Congress of the Confederation.  Hamilton knew that New York would be a key swing state in the debate, so he hatched a plan to write essays that would be published in New York newspapers to promote and explain the new Constitution.  To help him, Hamilton enlisted James Madison, who had served in the Continental Congress, and John Jay, a lawyer and diplomat.

Between October 1787 and May 1788, the trio wrote a total of 85 essays, totaling more than 175,000 words.  Each essay was published anonymously under the pen name “Publius,” an allusion to Publius Valerius Publicola, a supporter of the Roman Republic.

The Federalist Papers served as a kind of user’s guide to the Constitution, explaining how the people, not a king, would govern and how a federal government was needed to increase efficiency and to prevent the risk of another monarchy.  The papers also explained the separation of powers between the branches of government, and how government should operate to maintain individual liberty without anarchy.

In the end, the federalists won.  All thirteen states ratified the U.S. Constitution.

Today we have all 85 Federalist Papers intact as testimony to the work of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.  Reading them, however, is not easy. They are written in dense 18th century prose.  With careful focus and attention, however, they can be understood.

It is this kind of careful close reading that the College Board had in mind when it redesigned its Scholastic Aptitude Test, which took effect in 2016.  One specific area of emphasis in the redesign of the SAT reading test is U.S. founding documents, which includes the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Federalist Papers (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Federalist Paper in a Nutshell

What are the keys to writing a good summary?  Read Federalist Paper 1, or one of the other papers, and write a one-paragraph summary.  Read and re-read the passage until you understand its main ideas.  Before you write your summary, consider the following “Six Summary Secrets”:

  1. Open with a topic sentence that identifies the author and title of the work being summarized.
  2. Make sure your summary is clear to someone who has not read the original.
  3. Focus on the main points rather than the details.
  4. Paraphrase by using your own words without quoting words directly from the original passage.
  5. Be objective, by reporting the ideas in the passage without stating your own opinions or ideas regarding the passage or its author.
  6. Use concise, clear language.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- Beck, Glenn with Joshua Charles.  The Original Argument:  The Federalists’ Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century.   New York:  Threshold Editions, 2011:  xxi-xxxi.

2- The College Board.  The Redesigned SAT  “Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation.”

https://www.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/founding_documents_and_the_great_global_conversation.pdf.

 

October 26:  Four Word Film Review Day

On this day in 1999, a web developer named Benj Clews had a brief but ingenious idea.  Clews wanted to create a website for movie reviews, but he wanted it to be different.  His idea was to limit the movie reviews to four words or fewer.  That same year he created the website Four Word Film Review, which in the internet tradition of crowdsourcing, invites readers to submit their reviews.  Most of the reviews at www.fwfr.com are not so much reviews as they are new titles, but the fun comes in the wonderful wordplay that results. Puns, alliteration, and adaptations of other film titles are all a part of the creative writing game of making every word count.

For example, here are seven examples of reviews for the film Jaws:

Gulp fiction

Shaw shark retention

Jurassic shark

Shooting barrel in fish

Gil against island

Diet: fish and ships

Amity’s vile horror (1)

Reading four-word movie reviews is fun in itself, but there is also something to be learned here. Shakespeare said that ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’ In other words, the essence of good writing is economy. As you read four word reviews and begin to write your own, you’ll learn that wordplay can be hard work, but the rewards are satisfying for both you, the writer, and your readers. Also read newspaper headlines and notice how headline writers work with the same kind of wordplay to attract the reader’s attention. A good title is vital, so when you write an essay, take some time to write a short, but sweet, title of four words or fewer.

Today’s Challenge:  Four Word – Fantastic Flair

What are some classic movies or books that you could write four word reviews for?  Create your own four-word film reviews. But don’t stop with movies. Write a four-word review of your favorite book. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Clews, Benj and Michael Onesi.  Four Word Film Reviews.  Massachusetts:  Adams Media, 2010.