One of my greatest hopes as a writing teacher is that my students will become conscious of the ways small moves can subtly shift the impact their words have on readers. Unfortunately, what sounds easy in theory often ends up being cumbersome in the execution. We discuss the significance of diction and syntax in their writing–one of my favorite mini-lessons is exploring the minefield of connotational problems when choosing synonyms for “beautiful”–but when it comes to closely examining the real impact of tiny moments in writing, I find that our conversations are too few and far between.
When we encounter a particular turn of phrase in a text, we might stop and chat about it, but there’s always something inherently hypothetical about the discussions. “Why do you THINK this essayist chose such a strong verb?” Or “How would the impact have been different if Coates had chosen THIS phrasing?”
When it comes to feedback on their own writing, I find such conversations to be far too infrequent as well. Conferences about small moments and individual moments of phrasing tend to give way to larger-scale concerns like paragraph organization or problematic use of evidence or the like.
In other words, my kids don’t talk shop about the actual raw power of words and sentences nearly often enough.
Enter Twitter! Specifically, the fascinating, robotic magic of “Editing the Gray Lady”. You’ll find this delightfully indifferent twitter feed at @nyt_diff .
The Power of a Subtle (or Unsubtle) Headline
This Twitter account keeps track of every alteration the New York Times makes not only to headlines, but abstracts of articles as well. The format is simple and clean, and creates a visual map of the editors’ process in modifying the language of the newspaper. Unchanged headline text is in normal black font, phrases removed are highlighted in red, and added phrasing is in green. That’s it! A crisp visual annotation of changing headlines that thousands of Americans will read and be influenced by! What could be better for talking about why words matter?
all images via Twitter
Headlines have taken on added significance in the past 18 months or so, but really, they’ve always been a contentious part of journalism. Especially in the era of online journalism, headlines that read more like “clickbait” than reasonable approximations of the actual news story provide an added wrinkle to the already-challenging task of reducing an entire, potentially complex piece into a brief, informative heading.
What’s lovely about this as a bell-ringer activity or even a small assessment is that in a single feed you’ll find myriad reasons behind syntax and diction choices. Some are clearly the result of new information altering the story–fascinating for a study of how even verb tenses can impact messaging–while others are clearly efforts to reframe the tone or context of a piece.
Below I’ve explored a few examples of how I’m framing these discussions for my students, but you’ll have a lot more fun browsing the feed for yourself. The Gray Lady never sleeps, after all!
Talking Like an Editor with Your Amateur Editors
The sample I included earlier is one great example of how rephrasing can shift tone–I love how the revision gives the Yankees some slack for just being tired, as opposed to getting “pushed aside” by those bullying Astros!
Republicans get a similar break in this rather interesting example of editing by way of omission. Looks like the NYT editors weren’t so sure portraying Republicans who oppose the extremism of Bannon necessarily constitute “dissidents.”
In other cases, there’s clearly an intent to strengthen the position of the paper, as with this abstract that suddenly went from tip-toeing about an issue with toxic chemicals to becoming rather openly appalled by the issue. An intriguing conversation for students: did the newspaper gain new information in the interim, or find some moral courage and decide to whip up more public anger than the original abstract would have?
Similarly, this piece about Megyn Kelly reacting to Bill O’Reilly’s sexual harassment suit sees the focus of the headline shift from Kelly’s new role to her actual thoughts about the issue (which conveniently include a clickbait-worthy pull-quote).
Halloween Bonus Twitter Feed!
Looking to have some fun with your student writers as Halloween approaches? Check out this fun topic for a notebook entry!
How do you get your students talking about diction and syntax? Where do you like to go for mentor texts about the power of language? You can connect with me on Twitter @zigthinks or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.