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This is the 12th IAE Newsletter
in a series on Credibility and
Credibility and Validity of Information
Part 12: Gaining and Assessing Non-Fiction Credibility
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
I've always enjoyed writing. My earliest vocational goal was to
write the kind of books that I enjoyed reading. I was always happy when
teachers assigned a writing assignment, and I couldn't understand why
many of my classmates felt differently. By the time I completed
college, I had been editor of the school newspaper, yet another branch
My other interest was in biology, more specifically in ecology: how organisms interact to the mutual advantage of all.
I became a teacher, which I later was pleased to realize is an
ecological profession. My first (1949) teaching assignment involved 36
students in a one-room eight grade rural school. I also drove the bus,
which gave us wheels for our many field trip explorations. All of this
for $2,000 a year.
I thought that I could add to my income by writing. Editors disagreed.
Everything I submitted for several years was rejected. I was confused.
I had always done well in all of my school writing assignments. I had
studied Strunk and White's classic The Elements of Style
(1959) and was especially captivated by their appropriately phrased
suggestion: "Avoid needless words." I thought that I had written what I
taught: simple explanations of complex concepts.
My mind finally grasped the fundamental rule of successful non-fiction
writing: We humans are the world's leading authority on our own studies
and experience, and we don't really understand much of anything else.
To the extent that others are interested in good descriptions of our
understandings and conclusions, we'll probably be able to write
successfully. I then gradually realized that my writing base was
focused on the interactive ecological principles exemplified in
teaching, so I started to write about that in both my graduate courses
and in magazine submissions.
My first accepted article was a happy event. A month or so later, I
received a letter from an acquisitions editor at Prentice-Hall. Someone
had alerted him to my article on imaginative things to do during the
first day of the school year (Only 180 Days To Go). The editor told me
that Prentice-Hall was planning to do a series of practical books for
elementary teachers and he liked both my ideas and the way I described
them. Would I be interested in writing a book?
I never looked back. I was fortunate to subsequently work with several
outstanding editors who taught me how to write for publication. After a
50+ year extensive output of books/articles/columns/reviews/editing I
think that I've developed a sense of what constitutes credible
publishable writing. Much of my later writing focused on the
relationships between cognition and schooling—basically on the
ecological interactivity of neurons, and so also on the interactivity
of students who inhabit schools.
I started to read mystery novels during my early adolescence
(Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen, etc.) and I'm still doing it. James Lee
Burke, John Grisham, and such Scandinavian authors as Jo Nesbo and
Henning Mankell are good current examples. I've never seriously thought
of writing a mystery novel for the same reason that I've never wanted
to go into police work or other occupations. I'm a teacher and have no
vocational interest in other careers. It's the difference between the
mentality of being a producer or a consumer.
Credibility for an author begins with a passionate producer commitment.
Why else would one spend the effort it takes to write? When I finally
realized that biology and teaching were basically two important sides
of a single ecological coin I could write successfully about the
ecology of both classrooms and brain systems.
The conventional wisdom is that we need to spend 10,000 hours in a
committed exploration of a phenomenon before we really understand it
(and perhaps can write authoritatively about it). An earlier article in
this series (http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2014-144.html
) described how spending 12 years playing video games taught the author things he probably wouldn't have learned in school.
I could teach successfully as a young person because I had put in my
initial experiential hours as a K-12 student. To advise teachers via
writing, however, required me to spend enough teaching time to
understand their other-side-of-the-desk perspective. Similarly,
athletes are young, but are helped by coaches who tend to be older.
Journalists may be young but those who write columns and editorials
tend to be older. Extended experience certainly isn't the only way to
achieve productive credibility. Innovation and invention come from
those who can imagine a new way of perceiving and doing something, and
those folks are often young.
Those who write effectively in science (or in other complex fields)
must have a solid understanding of the dynamics of their field, but
they must also be able to explain their work in non-technical terms to
normal readers. Many scientists who have difficulty doing this now work
with competent writers who can help them to clarify concepts and
Writing for readers who don't have a passionate commitment about a
phenomenon but who want to know about elements that affect them means
that effective writing should provide a clear jargon-free explanation
of what the reader wants to know rather than descriptions of how much
the writer knows.
The opening segment should thus provide a clear explanation of what
elements the article/book will explore, and (if necessary) a sense of
the level of understanding that reading the article requires. Readers
should usually be able to determine after a paragraph or two whether or
not to continue.
The nature of the publication one is writing for tends to provide a
sense of an author's credibility. Current mass media formats tend to be
focused on a narrow perspective of broad political/cultural issues.
Credibility in writing formerly came from the breadth of understanding
and balanced perspective of the writer, although the article may well
have focused on a narrower perspective. Credibility currently seems to
come from how well the writer can present the publication’s
Writing for Readers
Master the mechanics and rhythms of writing. Verbal communication
repeats single thoughts, writing compresses them. We can speak faster
than others can comprehend so we tend to say something this way and
that way until facial expressions suggest that the hearer understands,
and that we should move on. Conversely, the reader controls the speed
of written information, so good writers typically give each thought
their best shot and then move on. The reader can reread a segment or
stop to think about it.
When I sent my first book chapter to the editor at Prentice Hall, he
wrote back that it was pretty good, but that it could and should be
reduced considerably. I was writing expansively the way a teacher
teaches rather than compressing the commentary the way a writer
I wrote earlier that our ability to understand and make analogies is
probably what separates us from primates and other social mammals
(Sylwester & Moursund, 2014). We're storytellers, as exemplified by
the domination of narrative forms in all of mass media. Non-fiction
articles and books often use narratives to make non-narrative points.
Much writing tends to be formulaic, and mystery novels are an excellent
example. After sixty+ years of reading them, I can generally predict
how the plot of a mystery novel will evolve and what the last dozen or
so pages will include. Why do I continue to read them? Plot is often
secondary to me in a good mystery novel, and analyses of people,
places, and interactions become central. I'm interested in how an
ecosystem functions and how humans especially interact with each other
and the environment. Readers bring different agendas. One reader is
interested in a good mystery novel, another in reading a book on the
flight home, another in the psychology of a series' recurring
characters and settings. Really good fiction and non-fiction writing
can thus satisfy the needs of several kinds of readers.
Editors constantly read manuscripts in search of potentially good
articles and books. An article or book can frequently get rejected
(e.g., the Harry Potter series) but then finally accepted, sometimes to
great acclaim. One acquisitions editor saw what others missed. The same
diversity of perspective occurs with readers, as an examination of the
reader reviews in Amazon.com will demonstrate.
What's neat about writing today is that all sorts of venues are
available for people who want to write—email, social media, online
publications, and hard-copy “traditional” publications. But having
written doesn't insure that you'll be read. Becoming a credible
effective writer is necessary at that level.
In The Sense of Style
, the renowned psycholinguist Steven Pinker (2014) has written an excellent needed update of Strunk and White's Elements of Style
We had become an oral society, but social media have now made writing a
daily experience for many. Pinker focuses on the need for clarity,
precision, and style in word choice and punctuation. It's a humorously
charming and informative book. Read it. Your email, Facebook
correspondents, and possibly acquisitions editors will bless you for it.
Strunk, W., & White, E.B. (1959). The Elements of Style. New York: Macmillan. The book was originally published as The Elements and Practice of Composition.
Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person's guide to writing in the 21st century. New York: Viking.
Sylwester, R., & Moursund, D., eds. (2014). Understanding and mastering complexity.
Chapter 7: The central roles of the varieties of analogy. Chapter 8:
The role of caricature. Eugene OR: Information Age Education. Download
the PDF file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/256-understanding-and-mastering-complexity.html. Download the Microsoft Word file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/255-understanding-and-mastering-complexity.html.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy
(2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit five books for the
IAE Newsletter. He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run.
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