I’ve been teaching some aspect of the writing process for over 25 years. Because we homeschool, I get to show the preschooler how to hold a pencil and the high schooler when to use parenthetical documentation. Early years are full of copywork, dictation and written narrations while the later years are spent studying the masters – E.B. White, William Strunk, William Zinsser, et al. Reading a bit about what William Zinsser says about composition will help you appreciate Charlotte Mason’s guidance on the topic. At the end, I share my top five books for teaching composition.
William Zinsser on Composition
William Zinsser, author of the classic On Writing Well, addressed a group of incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I just love this speech and want to highlight some of my favorite parts.
Zinnser talks about the evils of Latin nouns, warning writers to avoid the implementation of multi-syllable, unspecific, pretentious verbiage. Oops. Let me try again.
Zinsser warns against using long, flowery words.
Zinsser then goes on to encourage the use of Anglo-Saxon nouns:
So if those are the bad nouns, what are the good nouns? The good nouns are the thousands of short, simple, infinitely old Anglo-Saxon nouns that express the fundamentals of everyday life: house, home, child, chair, bread, milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road … words that are in our bones, words that resonate with the oldest truths. When you use those words, you make contact—consciously and also subconsciously—with the deepest emotions and memories of your readers. Don’t try to find a noun that you think sounds more impressive or “literary.” Short Anglo-Saxon nouns are your second-best tools as a journalist writing in English.
Brevity and Imitation in Composition
Great advice, don’t you think? If you want to know what he thinks are the best tools, please take the time to read the whole article.
He ends the speech with four guidelines for writing good English – clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity. In talking about simplicity, he tells of a student from Nigeria who told him that if she wrote simple sentences with short words, people would think she was stupid. He wanted to say, “Stupid like Thoreau!” Thoreau being the great American author of Walden who wrote with brevity, simplicity and power. Zinsser cites other examples, Abraham Lincoln among others.
And here’s a very Charlotte Mason thought:
Writing is learned by imitation. We all need models. Bach needed a model; Picasso needed a model. Make a point of reading writers who are doing the kind of writing you want to do. Study their articles clinically. Try to figure out how they put their words and sentences together. That’s how I learned to write, not from a writing course.-William Zinsser
All six of my children have learned writing by imitating the examples set before them. They take the ideas from all their reading and narrating and then subconsciously and sometimes consciously form their compositions in the style of the authors they are reading. Subsequently, all six have different styles and abilities and that honors their personhood.
Charlotte Mason on Composition
Let’s keep in mind that Charlotte Mason didn’t advise any direct teaching of composition in the early years. She famously stated:
In fact, lessons on ‘composition’ should follow the model of that famous essay on “Snakes in Ireland”––”There are none.”-Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1, p. 247
However, for the upper years we read this:
In these Forms (V & VI) some definite teaching in the art of composition is advisable, but not too much, lest the young scholars be saddled with a stilted style which may encumber them for life. Perhaps the method of a University tutor is the best that can be adopted; that is, a point or two might be taken up in a given composition and suggestions or corrections made with little talk. Having been brought up so far upon stylists the pupils are almost certain to have formed a good style; because they have been thrown into the society of many great minds, they will not make a servile copy of any one but will shape an individual style out of the wealth of material they possess; and because they have matter in abundance and of the best they will not write mere verbiage.-Charlotte Mason, Vol. 6, p. 193
My Top Five Book Recommendations for Composition
Written narrations of all sorts should be the habit in the students’ early years. In the upper years, some specific instruction was given for the writing process in Charlotte Mason’s schools. Here are some of the top books about writing and composition that my high school students have enjoyed and I recommend:
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser – we read, compiled commonplace entries, and applied the lessons as we went through this over at least one year.
- Elements of Style by Strunk and White – a classic everyone should read at least once in their life.
- Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin – so full of interesting ideas. We read and worked through many of the assignments.
- Essay Voyage by Michael Clay Thompson – excellent book for learning the elements of a great composition. Uses famous essays as examples and is full of ideas.
- Jensen’s Format Writing by Jensen – this clearly defines the different forms of essays – we didn’t use all of it or as prescribed. In fact, I’ve had more than one graduate from our Truth, Beauty, Goodness Co-op say this was the most helpful text for them as they began their college writing efforts!
Here’s an article by Marvin Olasky that I think gets it just right!
In conclusion, writing and composition should be a joy in your homeschool. It will all come about more smoothly if you lay the foundation of regular and varied written narrations in the early years and you continue in the upper years. My guideline was to make sure they were writing something every day. (Never a problem!) I am thankful for Charlotte Mason’s clear roadmap found in Volume 6, The Knowledge of Man, (d) Composition, pp. 190-195 and I hope you find my top five books for teaching composition helpful as you consider writing in the upper years!
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