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Short passages of particularly strong or weak nonfiction prose?
October 17, 2009 8:04 AM   Subscribe

In search of short passages of especially strong or weak nonfiction prose!

I’m hoping to build a composition class around short examples of effective and in effective writing. I'm thinking of passages of about 1-6 sentences.

We'll look at excerpted passages as a class and analyze what makes them more or less effective. Maybe we'll even try rewriting them in various ways to note the effect.

Passages from well-loved (or well-hated) prose stylists are very welcome, but bonus points for writing whose quality seems surprising or out of context, i.e. poor writing where one might expect strong (from a respected magazine, author, columnist) or good prose that pops up in off-beat venues (blogs, advertising copy, tabloids, etc.).

Any comments on why said prose is effective or ineffective are also welcome.

Thanks very much, guys!
posted by cymru_j to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
George Orwell's Politics and the English Language begins with five "fairly representative examples" of worthless prose.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 8:10 AM on October 17, 2009


Kate Turabian's guide to writing has a bunch of examples. Open up any book on a cultural theorist and you are likely to find MOUNDS of bad writing.
posted by cachondeo45 at 8:14 AM on October 17, 2009


Check out Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. I think you can take just about any paragraph or handful of sentences from these short pieces.

People love Jill Christman's "The Sloth." I think "Enormous" by Jean-Michele Gregory is dynamite.
posted by Rudy Gerner at 10:00 AM on October 17, 2009


James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is known for its controversial use of prose. Some argue that the beautiful language diminishes the horrors of Depression-era poverty, and many passages are tricked out with weighty, literary terms that arguably distract from the subject at hand. You could have your students excise all of Agee's verbosity to make his accounts more immediate.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:10 AM on October 17, 2009


Fresh from MeFi Projects: him's How to Write Badly Well.
posted by zamboni at 10:34 AM on October 17, 2009


Good:

"Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool. Her fingertips enter the fingertips on the water, her wrists slide up her arms. The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool and ever after."

Annie Dillard, "An American Childhood", page 11.
posted by Beardman at 10:59 AM on October 17, 2009


OK nonfiction prose dropped into fiction. Hilarity ensues.
posted by lukemeister at 9:47 PM on October 17, 2009


Good ideas all around. Thanks, all.

Rudy, Brevity is a great journal-- thanks for turning me on to it. The short length of their pieces makes them great for the classroom.

Beardman, that Dillard quote is just luscious.

Lukemeister, that article is completely hilarious.
posted by cymru_j at 9:05 AM on October 18, 2009


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