February 5:  Summary Day

On this date in 1922 the first edition of Reader’s Digest was published. The magazine was the brainchild of DeWitt Wallace, who was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1889.  Recovering from wounds he suffered while serving in World War I, DeWitt began working on his idea of publishing a monthly periodical featuring condensed versions of articles from other magazines.  

First issue of the Reader's Digest, February 1922.pngWith the help of his wife Lila, Wallace published the first edition of the Reader’s Digest, producing 1,500 copies and selling each for 10 cents.  By the end of the decade the circulation had reached more than 200,000, and in the 1930s, Wallace expanded his company to include condensed books. In addition to its smaller, condensed articles, the magazine itself is half the size of a typical magazine, just about small enough to put in your back pocket.  The circulation for Reader’s Digest, however, is not small; it has more paid subscribers than any other magazine in the world (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Read, Ruminate, and Digest

How can you paraphrase the main points of an article in 50 words?  In order to write a summary, or to digest an article by breaking it down to its essential points, you must read carefully.  The purpose of a summary is to capture the writer’s main point your own words.  Select an article of at least 250 words, and write a 50-word summary.  Use the following step to guide you:

Step 1:  Read and annotate the text carefully, focusing on the main ideas and main details.  Underline key ideas, and circle any unfamiliar vocabulary.  Remember, the purpose of a summary is to sum-up the writer’s idea, not your reaction to the writer’s ideas.  So, resist the temptation to inject your opinion.

Step 2:  Draft a brief summary in your own words on a separate piece of paper that captures the writer’s main point or claim.  Don’t include the author and title in your summary.  Also, don’t waste words saying things like: “this article is about” or “the author argues that.”  Instead, just state the main ideas.  Don’t worry about the number of words until you have finished your draft.  

Step 3:  Revise and edit your summary.  Count the number of words and revise as necessary to write the most clear, concise, and correct summary of exactly 50 words.  Read your revised draft aloud to make sure that it is clear, that the sentences are complete, and that there are no wasted words.

Step 4:  Write the final draft of your summary.  On the line above the final draft of your summary, write the author’s last and first name, followed by the article’s title.  Then, on the line below the author/title, legibly write your complete final draft of your 50-word summary.

Quotation of the Day:  The dead carry with them to the grave in their clutched hands only that which they have given away. -Dewitt Wallace

1-http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/nyregion/03bookwe.html?_r=0

 

December 4:  Pascal’s Apology Day

On this date in 1656, French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote a letter in which he expressed one of the central paradoxes of writing:  it’s faster and easier to write a long composition than to write a short one.  

Blaise Pascal Versailles.JPGPascal expressed the paradox as an apology to his reader:  “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter” (1).

According to Ralph Keyes in his book The Quote Verifier, Pascal’s quotation has been falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Johnson, Henry Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Voltaire (2).  The popularity of Pascal’s sentiment reveals both how much writers value brevity and how difficult it can be to obtain.  Being clear, concise, and cogent is hard work.

Another illustration of the “less is more” writing philosophy comes from an anecdote about Mark Twain, who received the following telegram from his publisher:

NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS.

He responded:

NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES

Perhaps the best explanation of the value of concision in writing is by William Strunk in Elements of Style.  Instead of an anecdote, Struck uses an analogy:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

When you write, consider another analogy:  

Imagine each word you write is an employee of the company you own.  Each word needs a job to do.  You can’t afford to pay a salary to words or employees who do nothing.  Your job, therefore, as the writer is to keep your workforce — your “wordforce” — at a size no larger than what it takes to get the job done.

Today’s Challenge:   Exactly 25 Words – No More, No Fewer
How would you summarize an article in just 25 words? One excellent way to practice revision and to practice economy in writing is to write 25-word summaries.  Select an article of at least 200 words, and read it carefully to determine the writer’s main point.  Then, write a brief summary that captures the main point in your own words.  Don’t waste words saying things like:  “This article is about . . .” or “The author argues that . . .”  Instead, just state the article’s main ideas.  Don’t worry about the number of words until you have finished your first draft.  Next, count the number of words and revise as necessary to write the most clear, concise, and correct summary of EXACTLY 25 words.  Read your revised draft aloud to make sure that it is clear, that the sentences are complete, and that there are no wasted words.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination. -Louise Brooks

1-http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pascal/provincial.xviii.html

2-Keyes, Ralph. The Quote Verifier, 120

12/4 TAGS: Pascal, Blaise, paradox, The Quote Verifier, Twain, Mark, Strunk, William, Elements of Style, analogy, summary, 25-word summary