Big Picture Writing: Things to Ponder

A few years back, I had the opportunity to visit the Chicago Art Institute. I moved from room to room, observing many pieces of art, but the main attraction going in, the one that I remember best and spent the most time with, was Georges Seurat’s masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Seurat was the pioneer of Pointillism, a painting technique that involved painting tiny dots onto a canvas instead of brush strokes. Stand back to take in the whole painting big picture (it is quite large) and the whole image seems to shimmer with the vibrancy of its colors. Stand closeup, and you see the tiny dots of paint, sometimes more than one color dotted together.

You realize looking at it closeup that your brain is actually collaborating with the painting to create the colors you see when you stand back. You, the viewer, are collaborating with the painting itself.

I spent over an hour and a half just staring at it, big picture and closeup.

I have spent much of the past school year using this space to explore my idea of Big Picture/Closeup writing. I am now on summer break for a bit, so I thought I’d use this intermission of sorts to reflect on Big Picture Writing this month and Closeup Writing next month before starting a new take on writing in the new school year.

Big Picture writing is exactly what it sounds like – what you see in a piece of writing when you stand back from it a bit: topic, genre, focus, tone, organizational structure, choice of supporting ideas or events, grabber and clincher, and transitions. Sadly, much of the time our students have little choice about the big picture elements of their writing – at least in school. In the name of making writing measurable, we often supply students with a topic, genre, and focus in the form of a prompt. Many teachers also provide students with a precise scaffold for their organizational structure: the five paragraph essay. Some teachers go as far as to dictate students’ choices for grabbers, clinchers, and transition words.

How hard do we ask students to think about their writing? Or do we instead ask them to not think much at all?

If you, like me, want to set students free to make actual choices with their writing, it’s worth noting that setting students free gives them a lot of things to think about. When you actually think about the big picture of your writing instead of following rote formula, it can be a bit overwhelming. In fact, that might be why so many teachers – and quite a few students – are much more comfortable following a formula. Following a formula is easy for everyone. Instruction is easy. Writing is easy. Grading is easy. But when you actually think about the big picture of your writing, question after question will occur to you.

Any writer, of any age, needs to ask these questions. They aren’t just kid stuff:

What gives me the authority to write on this topic? Personal experience? Deep research? The fact that I’ve read about it on Instagram? The fact that it reflects the views of my friends or family?

How do I know what I am saying is true? Is it an idea I am parroting from someone else? Is it an idea that comes out of my own experience? Does my idea require me to do some research? If so, whose ideas and research do I trust? Is my big idea a knee-jerk, emotional reaction or something I have actually thought through? Have I taken the time to look at the opposing view or views and really understand them? Is the issue a binary, two clear sides to the issue – or are there multiple perspectives and therefore multiple solutions? Is a compromise possible?

If my essay is argumentative, am I merely trying to knock the other side down and achieve victory? Or am I actually trying to get people of opposing views to change their mind? Is starting out with my thesis wise, or might it turn off the very people I want to convince and make them stop reading? Is it necessary to find common ground with the opposing side? Can I actually change the opposing side’s mind, or are my aims more modest? Could I settle for getting them to think about my side? Could I settle for a limited audience of people who are “on the fence” about the issue? If the essay is informative/expository, why would people want to read it? Am I framing the topic in such a way to make it enticing?

Does the order in which I present my ideas take my reader on a journey they are willing to follow? Does each idea build on the last? Does each idea follow logically from the previous idea so well that transition words are hardly necessary? If I put myself in the shoes of a reader who disagrees with me, am I turned off by the ideas or inspired to give them serious consideration? Am I making broad generalizations that might not be true? How can I change those generalizations to true statements?

Does the tone show disdain for the opposing side? That seems to be the default online these days – but it never, ever persuades someone. Disdain causes people to dig in deeper on their own views. Does my tone instead seem reasonable? Jay Heinrichs, in Thank You For Arguing, says the first rule of argument is to be agreeable. Are you writing to persuade an audience of people who are undecided or who disagree with you, or are you actually writing to people who already agree with you? Are you preaching to the choir?

Does your grabber lure people in, but also make them wonder where you are coming from? If they sense that you are on the opposing side, they may just shut down and not listen to you. Does your clincher tell your reader what to think, or give them the chance to think for themselves? The latter is always more effective.

If you are writing fiction, are your characters and their goals, personalities, and conflicts clear? Is the setting vivid and specific? Is there a theme? Is everything in the story related to the theme or themes? Does there have to be a theme in this story? Is your goal to have a clear, open moral to your story, sort of like a fable? Is that moral clear? Does it seem valid or does it come off as preachy? Is the story meant to be ambiguous, and if so, is the ambiguity clear? (I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but there is a difference between a completely baffling, nonsensical story and one that leaves you thinking about something specific without telling you exactly what to think.) What will make the story compelling to a reader? How will you structure it? Chronologically? As a framed story? As a series of flashbacks? Who will your narrator be?

These are not the only questions to ask students to ask themselves about their writing, but they are the kinds of thinking they need to be doing if they are to become flexible, persuasive, effective writers. You don’t necessarily have to show them all these questions at once. It would be overwhelming. Modeling this kind of self-questioning and thinking in your own writing is one way to expose them to it. Another is to give them one or two questions to ponder as they draft, conference, or revise their writing. You could also have students make lists of topics they have experience with and can speak with authority about and topics they are interested in but would need to research. The point is to make writing about thinking – about audience, purpose, and what will actually reach an audience instead of turning them off or boring them.

It used to be that relatively few students would use writing in a consequential way later in life, except perhaps on the job. If you wanted to be a writer of books, editorial columns, or published essays you generally had to get past the gatekeepers: publishers. But with the advent of social media, the gatekeepers are optional, and we all contribute to our national and sometimes international discussion.

If you have ever been at the receiving end of a toxic comment string, as I have, then you know that many people online aren’t out to actually persuade but to preach to their choir and destroy their opponents. Teaching our students to be more thoughtful about their writing, both what they have to say and how they say it, is not just a question of getting better scores on the state writing test. It is a question of how they are going to present themselves in a world full of arguments and comment strings and divisive issues. I am writing this post on July 3rd, the day before an Independence Day that sees our country as divided as I have ever seen it. It disturbs me.

But there are little bits of hope. I usually ignore the really nasty comments my cartoons sometimes receive online, but when someone seems a bit more thoughtful and civil in their commenting, I will sometimes comment back. I try to be agreeable, respectful, and thoughtful. And when I give them some ideas to consider, the response is almost always something along the lines of “Fair enough.” And when we discuss things in my class or share rough drafts of essays, my students seldom if ever attack each other – they have civilized discussions. Sometimes they agree to disagree. Sometimes they change each others’ minds. Sometimes they find an entirely different way to look at the issue at hand.

Thinking about our writing, big picture, helps us to think about who and how we want to be as people, and as we the people.

I sometimes feel that our public discourse has turned into people throwing great swaths of paint across the canvas of our lives – great swaths of primary colors with no room for subtle secondary colors or grays. I sometimes feel we are just trying paint over each other’s ideas instead of engaging in discussion.

We need a more subtle, more thoughtful way to approach each other. We need to make sure the big picture of our writing doesn’t chase our audience away. It should draw people in, make them want to take a closer look – at our details, at the dots that make up our pictures.

But the dots you see closeup are for next month.

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