What's the word . . .

In the medium of blogging, I sense a tension between the desire for a colloquial tone and the need for precise diction. In the absence of visual and aural cues, we rely on the naked word. At school this afternoon, while cleaning out my files in preparation for the new year, I came across this journal entry.

Today, one of my seventh graders decided to use a
thesarus to improve her writing. Her original

"The Monkey's Paw" is a story set in a small home.

Her revision?

"The Monkey's Paw" is an allegory set in a brothel.

Lisa, I said, do you know what a brothel is?

Yeah, she replied triumphantly. I looked it up -- it
means "house."

Yes, but do you know what _kind_ of house?

As an English teacher, it is easy to lament that internet communication has deteriorated writing skills. (Ever get an e-mail that looks like this? “i want 2 know asap if I can give the paper 2 u late ttfn”?). Blogging, however, gives me a weekly lesson in audience and word choice. I know how to write for class parents, I know how to write for my students, I know how to write for my professors. But six months into blogging, I still wonder what tone should I take with an audience I *think* I know — I’ve spent my life among Mormons — but which is realistically a mystery to me. This fall, the first unit on the docket is “personal narrative and memoir.” I imagine my lesson plans will look somewhat different than they did last September.


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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  1. J. Stapley says:

    I think, perhaps, that it is not so much writing for an audience or finding the specific tone for Mormons, but writing good content with the tone you are comfortable with and the audience comes that appreciates it.

  2. Heather O. says:

    There is a book I think you would enjoy, Deborah, called _Eats, Shoots and Leaves_, which is all about punctuation and its decline. She has a chapter about what the internet has done for punctuation, which, of course, is nothing positive, but she does say that the internet has rekindled writing in a generation everybody predicted would be practically illiterate due to TV, video games, etc. Writing on the internet, blogging included, is practically an entirely new language that has some linguists going bonkers with excitement. But you are right in saying that it is often difficult to convey all the meaning one wants to in a blog post, simply because of the limitations of the medium. Hence things like :), ;), #$%$!?!, *enter whatever you want to emphasize here*, etc, etc are used to try to convey a tone that the typed word cannot. (All of this new use of former punctuation marks has the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves totally up in arms, BTW.) It’s definitely a problem, especially when we are talking about emotionally charged topics, which we Mormons are sometimes prone to do. And I’m not sure exactly what the solution is. Take things less personally on the blogs? Use more smileys? Butcher the punctuation marks we have even more to come up some code that means: Enter sarcastic tone here? Maybe as the medium evolves, so will the tonal language.

    In any case, that revised story your student wrote sounded pretty interesting….

  3. Dave says:

    The smaller and narrower the audience, the less one need be concerned by the whole tone issue. But when a few dozen people each week actually read what you write — some of them coming in from who knows where via Google searches — it does change your tone. Especially because people who are offended at a term, phrase, or claim are much more likely to leave a comment or email the author.

    So I now try to write posts in such a way that anyone, from any background, who could potentially read one of my posts can understand what I’m talking about and not get offended unless they have a real chip on their shoulder. Everyone develops their own style, of course, but as I see it if you blog, you blog for the whole world.

  4. Seraphine says:

    Deborah, your story about your student made me laugh. I teach freshmen writing at my university, and I have a lesson on word choice every semester. We discuss using the thesaurus (especially the thesaurus on word) and how it’s something the students should use with caution (i.e. they often don’t know definitions of words, and even more, when they know definitions, they often don’t know connotations).

    My favorite part of the lesson is discussing sentences that I’ve pulled out of the papers they’ve turned in all semester (that have word choice problems). We usually end up having a good laugh.

    As for tone and diction on blogging, I don’t really have any profound thoughts. I tend to do what J. Stapley suggests–write with a diction and tone that feels comfortable/right to me, and then hope someone appreciates reading my thoughts. 🙂

  5. Deborah says:

    I suppose J’s right, but I find writing for this forum both more difficult and more exhilirating than other writing, including the kind that actually pays me. I’ve never written for Mormons before, and I do wonder how it changes the language I use and the topics I pursue. As a teacher, I’m used to reading and playing off an audience — and I often feel like I bring my teacher hat to my face-to-face interactions with church members when I’m getting to know them. Namely, I choose first to watch and listen carefully before sharing personal stories. With a hidden audience — one that is bound to me (however loosely) by creed — I feel a need to be more precise in my language even though the medium lends itself in informality.

    Heather: I have that book above my head as I type this — a gift from a student. Haven’t read it yet, but sounds like it might be useful in helping combat my students’ dreadful e-mail language! I am curious to see what publishing will look like in 30 years. While I’ve been concerned about some of my students myspace activities, others write and maintain lovely sites about the history of fashion, poetry, fanfic, etc. The trick 10 years ago was to help students believe writing was valuable. After we published an op-ed on Darfur in a small local paper, is was picked up by dozens of blogs and led to a stream of e-mails to the school. The power of Word may be experiences a revival.

  6. Buck says:

    I have noticed the need to write differently in blogs than in e-mail, even e-mail lists. The lists are more focused and the audience usually shares a common background on the subject. Blogs are open to the world (I’m amazed to see from our own Web logs the international scope of readership). I have noticed a need to use more Plain Language,” fewer idioms, and to be careful with wordplay. I recommend a fine little book to all writers: Joseph M. Williams, Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace.

  7. John says:

    It’s interesting to read the different advice presented here. My take on blogging is that it occurs within communities, and each community has its own idiom to reinforce the sense of belonging. Young technophiles have their 1337(“leet, elite”)-speak, teens adopt slang that baffles their elders, lovers have their pet names and baby talk, and gangs and religions and professional communities have their own insider language that divides those who belong from those who don’t as effectively as any walls.

    What I’m trying to say is that some of the suggestions may work in the Bloggernaccle, but may not work at all on other blogs. For example, some teen blog communities want to be obscure to *us* and will use (perhaps not consciously) alternative spellings, crazy punctuation and crude language to reach out to those who are comfortable with it.

    I read a couple of papers at Sunstone this year. One was an academic essay, and it was like audible Ambien. Words that well supported the argument struggled to get past my teeth. But the other paper was a composite of three blogposts, and it was a joy to read out loud. The words danced and leapt off my tongue quite naturally, and I’ve reflected on this. Your post, Deborah, provides some answers. Thank you.

  8. Deborah says:

    Buck: Yup. I’m frankly fascinated to watch what readers google brings our way — and wonder what they make of this little slice of Mormon life!

    John: I wish I could have heard *either* talk, but let me say I was deeply moved by your podcast #3. My interfaith marriage was a choice, and poses it’s own challenges and opportunites. Hearing a devoted couple who married in the temple discuss their diverging then converging faith journey . . . it’s a topic I’d like to hear discussed more. At some point I realized that while my parents are both members, they are in some ways more “interfaith” than my husband and I. How many couples face a quiet spiritual tug-of-war? Major thread-jack on my own thread. I’ll put that on my “future post” list . . .

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