Saturday, January 22, 2011

Blue's Clues and High-Definition Writing

My two-year-old son is a huge fan of the children's show Blue's Clues, though he doesn't fully understand it yet. Watching the show recently with him, I came up with a way to illustrate a point I often try to make with students about what good writing does, and I thought I'd share it here.

Let me start with a claim that will seem strange to anyone who knows Blue's Clues.

CLAIM: Blue's Clues always has more than three clues, in every episode.

If you've ever seen the show, you'll probably recall that Blue leaves her paw prints on the clues, but you may be wondering if I can count, since she always leaves three paw prints. One of the catchphrases of the show is, in fact, "We've found all three clues!"

Now, I could just leave you with my thesis statement: The show always gives more than three clues. But by itself, that's pretty cryptic. You might reject it outright, since you don't know why I said it.

So now I have to defend it. Let's consider an example. In one episode, Joe and friends are putting together an "alphabet train" -- a series of boxes, each labeled with a letter of the alphabet and containing an object that starts with the appropriate letter. Joe asks Blue what should go in the "Z" box, and Blue leaves three paw-print clues to tell him what she thinks should go in the box (a stuffed-animal zebra). By the time you or your child is sitting in the "thinking chair" and trying figure out the puzzle, you have the following clues:

1. You know it goes in a box.
2. You know it starts with the letter Z.
3. You know it involves the color white.
4. You know it involves the color black.
5. You know that every time the clues are shown, Blue's Clues plays a snippet of African drum music that's unique to this episode.

That's more than three clues. Only three came with paw prints, but the others are still clues. The show regularly (and cleverly) tucks additional clues into its program. Sometimes there are musical clues, like the one above, or there are pictures hanging on the wall in the background related to the puzzle's answer. But there's always more than three clues for the viewer to think about.

What's this have to do with writing?

Well, from time to time, students will complain to me about writing or reading assignments, saying that we college folk seem to like stuff that's really long-winded. Last term, a student asked me, point-blank, "Why not just come right out and say what you mean? I don't think it's necessary to go on and on about it."

But if I'd done that with my observation about Blue's Clues, you might have rejected my point entirely -- it's a strange point, and without an explanation looks like it must be wrong. To make my point clear -- or even remotely acceptable -- I had to explain what I meant. I had to give an example.

Now, if I'd said, "Blue's Clues has three clues," I wouldn't have needed to explain much. It's a fairly obvious point and not immediately controversial. What's to explain? It can be stated in a single sentence and left at that.

The same dynamics apply to thesis statements in student papers or assigned readings.

If your thesis is familiar and noncontroversial ("Murder is wrong!"), writing three pages on it probably feels strange. It should.

On the other hand, if your thesis is controversial or surprising ("Computer hackers are worse than murderers, and should be executed"), you need to do more than just "get to the point." The point isn't enough. You need to give reasons. (The computer hacker example is real, though Landsburg is playing Devil's advocate a bit, and having fun. Click the previous link to read his argument.)

Which brings us to two of the most significant problems in student argumentation:
  1. Some students write three pages about why murder is bad, and thus say way too much on something that didn't really need it.
  2. Others say we should execute computer hackers (or something similarly surprising), and don't explain sufficiently why they hold such a strange position.
The best writers, conversely, stake out a thesis that requires defense and then engage in what I like to call high-definition writing.

To understand what I mean by "high-definition writing," imagine watching Avatar in high-definition 3D, and compare that experience to watching the same movie on a small black-and-white television with poor reception.

They both have the same plot. They're the same movie.

Would you get the same value out of each of them?

No, of course not. As a skilled film viewer, you'd probably prefer the high-definition experience. It enables you to immerse yourself in James Cameron's vision much better. The tiny, fuzzy, black-and-white image has too much distortion -- sure, you can follow the plot okay, but you're probably going to be distracted by all the technical issues.

That scenario is very similar to two essays about executing computer hackers: a low-definition one that makes its point, but leaves the reasons murky or muddles them with distracting errors; and a high-definition essay that states reasons clearly, provides examples, anticipates objections, and is edited closely enough that we're not distracted by errors. Both papers say we should execute hackers, but one of them is far more likely to persuade us that the writer isn't ... well, insane.

High-definition writing enables us to immerse ourselves in the author's strange, personal world without being distracted by technical issues. We emerge at the end of the experience having seen the world differently, having seen the world through another person's eyes. We can go to our friend and represent your point of view accurately, even if you're not there to speak up for yourself.

In short, while Blue's Clues highlights three clues for its viewers, I prefer to emphasize just two clues for student writers:
  1. Practice coming up with points of view that require defense.
  2. Practice defending them, perhaps by getting into friendly "Devil's Advocate" arguments with friends.
Of course, just like Blue's Clues, I might have embedded a few other hidden clues along the way.

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