Often I’m reading an article in a magazine or a chapter in a book, and a particularly well-written passage grabs me. Perhaps unconsciously the passage attracts me because it demonstrates a technique that I am teaching to students at the time. But when I do come across something, I go straight to my printer and copy the piece, thus accruing rich fodder for the next time I see my students.  Just yesterday I was reading Kathryn Schultz’s review of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk [The New Yorker, March 9, 2015] and realized that her elegant and unobtrusive paragraph-to-paragraph transitions would fit the bill for a group of middle school boys I am working with who are eager to learn how to improve their writing in terms of fluidity.

That same issue of The New Yorker offered another piece suitable for these boys, one of John McPhee’s occasional additions to his On Writing series titled “Frame of Reference”.  Widely known as a pioneer of creative non-fiction, McPhee teaches writing courses at Princeton and is the author of many books, including two that were nominated for the National Book Award, and his Annals of the Former World won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.  The gist of his essay is that writers should be wary about mentioning people, places, situations that only their generation would understand, say, alluding to a certain level of a video game only aficionados of that game would ‘get’. Beware of obscure words and phrases, too, warns McPhee, who occasionally broke this rule. One such example: “With his pure-white hair, his large frame his tetragrammatonic mustache, Lawson personified Higher Authority.”  Lucky for McPhee, his kind editor answered the flurry of querying letters that arrived at the magazine.

Please do not think me NYer-centric, as many other magazines and newspapers are troves for teaching and tutoring material.  National Geographic, for example, prints articles that are tailor-made for younger writers, anywhere from fourth to sixth grade.  As lovely as the photographs are, their captions and accompanying articles are mostly written in clear, accessible prose. When I come across prose that is cloudy and difficult, I use samples of it to model “how not to write”.  I’d rather not reveal which publications consistently provide examples of this type!