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In all this talk about teaching English composition in secondary schools, going on heatedly now some twelve or more years, one very essential matter seems seldom to have been thought of, and never fully grasped. It is this: that if ever boys and girls are to learn to express themselves easily and naturally in writing, and with anything like the facility with which they express themselves in talk, they must be taught at the start, not "rules” of writing, but habits of writing. This is because they must be brought to feel fully and vividly, and that too at the very entrance to their work in composition, that writing deals primarily with ideas rather than with words, with what one has to say rather than with how one is to say it; and that they themselves already have an abundance of fresh, entertaining ideas, peculiarly their own, which they can put into their school themes, and which it is really great fun to put there, - lessons to be learned, not by any rule of thumb, but by habit alone.
A few years ago it was the fashion to begin a text-book on English composition with a chapter on words, the last thing a boy or a girl learning to write ought to study; and now, although the chapter on words is usually shifted to the end of the book, it is all too frequently the custom to begin with a review of English grammar, a treatise on punctuation, or some other of the miscellaneous trappings
of composition. Here and there, indeed, a writer seems to have realized, all too dimly, however, that a book on English composition ought to begin with something else than a review of grammar or a treatise on punctuation, and has therefore devoted some of his earlier pages, but seldom at the very front of his book, to matters like subjects and titles, selection of material, outlines, and the like. But if the truth would be told, most books on English composition begin very far away indeed, and then back and fill in a most intolerable manner.
Surely, the only order by which boys and girls can be taught at the start, not “rules” of writing, but habits of writing, the only order on which the whole course in English composition should be based, is the order a trained writer lays down for himself more or less instinctively in the writing of a specific composition an essay, say, which may be taken as the type of written discourse. And right here it may be well to urge that a composition is really a growth - a thing of life. It is like a flowering plant: there is the seed, the root sent downward into the earth for drink and food, the stalk shot upward for light and air, and by and by the perfect flower. The growth of the plant is always the same: the root always grows downward, the stalk always shoots upward, and the flower comes last of all. How much better do we understand the flower when we understand how it has grown from the seed! How much better, likewise, will boys and girls understand the writing of a composition when they understand how a composition grows from its germinal idea in the mind !
What, then, is the order a trained writer lays down for himself more or less instinctively in the writing of an
essay? At last analysis the order is substantially this: first, he chooses the subject of his essay; next, he limits that subject to the purpose in hand; then he gathers his material, selects the material gathered and arranges what is left, and, after that, he may even determine, in a general way at least, the sort of paragraphs he will write, before he sets about the real task of writing. Having done this much by way of prevision, and having then written with the rapidity that enthusiasm always begets, he next proceeds to matters of revision, — to the remodelling of his sentences and the betterment of his diction.1 Some step in this process, it is true, may, in some particular bit of writing, be omitted, or taken so easily that the writer is scarcely conscious of having taken it; but, as a general thing, each step is taken, and taken in precisely the order stated.
Therefore the first four chapters in this book (Parts I and II), which constitute a reasonably systematic course in the elements of composition, are arranged in the order in which we may suppose a trained writer, working under normal conditions, would plan and write a single essay. Chapter I, which deals with the whole composition, affords practice in each separate stage of this order, so that by the time Chapter II is reached, the order of thus rightly planning and writing an essay is developed into a habit. Chapter II takes up the paragraph, the first of the three elements of the whole composition to receive the attention of a writer, and treats first of isolated paragraphs (Sections 12-24), and then of related paragraphs as they stand together in the whole composition (Sections 25–27).
1 The order is further explained in Section 10, Exercise 21, and at pages 131-132.
Thus far the work of the course has to do mainly with matters of planning, since we plan or previse our whole compositions and our paragraphs before we actually write them. Part I, therefore, is styled “ Planning and Writing.” At this point the work changes, and has to do mainly with matters of rewriting. This is because Chapters III and IV (Part II) deal with sentences and words, which we never plan or previse, but first write, and then revise or rewrite. Part II, therefore, having to do mainly with the work of rewriting, which, however, always follows writing itself, is styled “Writing and Rewriting.”ı
Part III treats of letter-writing and the four kinds of composition, — narration, description, explanation (exposition), and argument. Until a few years ago these subjects, with the exception of letter-writing, were reserved for the college, but they are now taught in the better sort of high school. This is as it should be, because here at last the student comes to see how composition enters into the larger interests of life, and seeing this at the most sensitive and quickening period of his mental and moral growth, the ultimate effect is correspondingly great. Nor should it be forgotten that those high school students who are never to enter college, and who, unfortunately,
1 In Part II, where the student is likely to lose sight of this basal idea, that sentences and words are the objects of revision, and not of prevision, the exercises are so planned as to keep the idea always before him. There he is required to write his theme first at white heat, with his mind only on what he wants to say, not on how he wants to say it, — not, that is, on any “rule” of sentence or word, — and after that to revise slowly, with his mind on how it is best to say what he has already said imperfectly and in haste. This is the one way to write at all times; especially is it the way to write if results worth while are to be accomplished in the study of sentences and words.