Information Age Education
   Issue Number 165
July, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, five free books based on the newsletters are available: Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the 12th IAE Newsletter in a series on Credibility and Validity of Information.

Credibility and Validity of Information
Part 12: Gaining and Assessing Non-Fiction Credibility

Robert Sylwester
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 of writing.

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.

Author Credibility

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 eliminate jargon.

Understanding Readers

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 often-biased perspective.

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 functions.

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.

References

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.


Author

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.

Email: bobsyl@uoregon.edu.


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About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Blog and all back issues of the Newsletter at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.