Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Writing to Teach

I haven't really talked about the kind of writing that I do for a living. Writing for education is a serious challenge. Not only do you have to use the language well, as any writer must, but you've also got to write in such a way that your reader retains the information you have given him. But it's even more difficult than that. Education is a sub-field of psycholgy, and there are a lot of psychological principles that have to be followed if you want to teach. It's not good enough to simply write well, you have to write well within the context of these guiding principles. In my fiction writing, and science fiction writing in particular, I'm absolutely free to write whatever I want, using whatever imagery I want to tell the tale. In my education writing, I have to consider very carefully how information is presented so that it is not only fun and entertaining to read, but also so that the student can undersand and remember the material. In addition to all of this, I have to keep in mind that everything I write must conform to the national educational standards (the documents that state what, for example, a sixth grader should know about science). It also has to be written using language and concepts that are appropriate for the reader's cognitive stage of development. It adds a level of requirements to the writing that even most non-fiction authors don't have to worry about.

On the other hand, I think learning to write educational activities and other materials has been a good apprenticeship for me when it comes to writing fiction. When you are writing for a fifth grader, who is probably just barely out of the concrete operations stage of development, you have to choose the words and descriptions very carefully so that the child can build a picture of the material in his or her mind. That's the same skill we try to achieve as fiction writers, to a certain extent. I think learning how to work within constraints has gone far in making me a better fiction writer when those constraints are removed. It remains to be seen just how well I apply those lessons in the new realm, however.

I think we all hope that at some level our readers will be more than just entertained by our stories. Many of us became writers because we have something to say -- we just want people to have fun while we're saying it. To a certain extent, we're all educational writers. But thank Heavens we don't have to worry about the No Child Left Behind Act in writing fiction!

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