Quirky Styles

This exercise was contributed by Orysia Mack.

Topic Strings
Old and New Information
Identify/Generate the principle
Time: 15 minutes

You can make this exercise about any writer with a quirky, distinctive style addressed to a regular group of readers, although the particular reasons the style seems quirky and/or disjointed will of course change with the writer.

I found that using a Maureen Dowd column from the New York Times was an entertaining and effective way to teach topic strings. Since her “style” is so distinctive, almost any column will do: you can pick columns related to something in the news at the time.

Directions: Hand out the text of the column beforehand, or give your students a few minutes to read it in class. My students reacted as I thought, exclaiming in one voice that it was the most “disjointed” piece of writing they had ever read. The exercise lies in figuring out why. Break the students up in small groups and give each a part of the article to analyze. If you break up the article by paragraphs, they will likely find that the topic strings are surprisingly consistent within paragraphs. Then have the groups compare topics within paragraphs: listing them on the board, you’re likely to find a pretty unified cast of characters.

What’s the problem, then? Students go back to their small groups to look at their paragraphs in context and diagnose why the style still feels disjointed.

Various right answers, most true of any given paragraph:
1) Paragraph is 2-4 sentences long: topic string is not sustained long enough before jumping to new one.
2) Although new topic is related, this relation is not made explicit: reader expected to bring old information to reading themselves.
3) Author may use more than one name/nickname for the same character, which students may or may not recognize, skipping between them at will and with no warning: again, not a problem if reader is clued in—very frustrating to students, though.

Discussion: Ask students who the intended audience is for the piece and what they have to know/be aware of to a) understand it and b) find it amusing. To them, this works like a puzzle that they have to piece together: they ask you questions, and, as you provide the necessary information, they make the connections that eluded them before. Depending on the column, the students may or may not be familiar with the political topic at hand. So it’s a good opportunity for discussing different audiences and the nature of old/new information.