Composition Exercises

by Salvatore Pane

A few of you have asked me to post the in-class writing exercises I mention in both my English Composition and Advanced Composition courses. I’ve copied them all here. Some of them don’t match up to the right letter, but you can pretty easily figure out which corresponds to which by looking at the reading assigned for any given day. Let me know what you guys think.

Exercise A

The future can be a strange and frightening place. In “Is Facebook a Fad?” Farhad Manjoo envisions a world where Facebook will actually take over the internet, where “ will be just one small part of the Facebook empire. You may be using Facebook wherever you are online—and no other network will matter.”

How have you been affected by the internet linguistically? Is the majority of the reading you do on the internet? Do you prefer to read on the internet over reading a physical book or magazine? How do you feel about this? Is this a good thing? Secondly, how has your writing/speaking been altered? Have you ever found yourself inserting text speak into a paper? Have you ever said “brb” or “lol” out loud? Does this worry you? Or, is this totally awesome and only paranoid people are nervous about this, i.e. the same people who said TV would rot kids’ brains back in the 1950’s?

Exercise B

In “Keep Doing What You Are Doing, James Franco”, the writer Ben Percy does something strange: he writes a fictionalized short story about a real life celebrity, James Franco. Then he does something even stranger. Percy writes about multiple copies of Franco running around completing any number of tasks that would be impossible for any human to actually complete.

For this exercise, write your own fictionalized account of a real life celebrity. It doesn’t have to have a beginning, middle, and end. Experiment. Write the end. Write the beginning. Who are you interested in? Andrew Luck? Lady Gaga? Tom Hanks? Pick someone and give us a fictionalized version of their life. It doesn’t need to be based in reality.

Exercise C

Did you or didn’t you call the phone number in “The Peter Singer Solution to World Poverty”? Why or why not? What was the phone call for?

Exercise D

In the opening to “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” Peter Singer plays with his readers’ expectations, introducing us to Dora from the film Central Station, a sympathetic young woman who ends up with more than she bargained for. Notice the verbs Singer uses, how Dora delivers, settles, resolves.  In one respect, Singer upends the conventional wisdom that an introduction should prepare its readers for what is to come.  After all, we soon discover that the essay is about a global solution to poverty, not a critique of a Brazilian film. Yet we get a sense of Singer’s logic, of his style as a writer and the way he presents his argument using ever escalating examples.

For this notebook assignment, choose one introduction from Best American that you find interesting and look at it more closely.  What do these opening paragraphs tell you? What do you expect the essay will be about, and how would you describe the style of the writing?  The tone or atmosphere?  Focus in on the details.  What do you notice about sentence structure or word choice?  Any interesting uses of punctuation?

Joan Didion, who has published numerous novels and plays, as well as books of essays, famously said that she taught herself to write by typing out Hemingway’s sentences.  Because she admired his prose, she wanted to learn it from the inside out, not simply to read, but to write its syntax and diction, its rhythms and shape.  This week, we would like you to try something similar.  Begin by writing out the essay introduction you examined closely—one or two paragraphs is fine.  As you write, pay attention to the sentences; feel them in your hands.  Then, begin writing an opening for Essay #1 imitating as closely as you can this other writer’s approach.  When you have finished, tinker with it until you get the reverberation just right. You will probably not use this introduction for your own paper, but it may be a useful way to begin thinking about the essay.

Exercise E

The argument. It’s the most common essay there is and a valuable writing style to master. For this exercise, write an argument about the NFL’s head injury rule and concussions in sports in general. Do you feel that increasing violations and creating specific rules to end violent hits are necessary in light of recent scientific breakthroughs concerning ex-players’ brains? Or, do you believe that violent collisions are part of football and that no one is forcing people to play? Secondly, what about sports on all levels, everything from the NBA to high school hockey? What needs to be done to insure players don’t suffer concussions? Or should nothing be done? Is this simply the risk of playing sports?

Exercise F

So far, most of what you have read for this course has been assigned to you.  Now it is time for you to do some more extensive reading on your own, to explore the essays in Best American Essays according to your own tastes and interests, and to think about your criteria for judging writing.  What, for you, makes an essay interesting, or meaningful, or pleasurable to read?  To write?

You might begin by returning to some of the essays whose introductions you read last week, continuing on to see where they lead.  Perhaps there are other titles that grab your attention now, essays you had not considered before.  Begin by reading a few paragraphs or a page.  Does this essay interest me enough to keep going?  Perhaps you will follow it through to the end, perhaps not.  Follow your interests and pleasure, but think of this as a chance to discover new approaches to writing as well—new voices, ideas, or perspectives.  Challenge yourself to move beyond the familiar, to widen your own sense of what an essay can, or should do.

Then, focusing on an essay you admire, respond to the following questions:

  1. How would you name or describe the style of writing?  How does this essay exemplify qualities that you admire or might like to produce in your own work?
  1. How would you compare the writing in this essay to the kind of writing you are being asked to do in this class?  What do you think of those similarities or differences?

Exercise G

xTx’s “We Have to Go Back” is one bizarre, little story. It imagines the main character into a remade version of her favorite TV show, ABC’s LOST. However, things are changed. The smoke monster is replaced with the cloud monster, and when cast members die this time, they die in real life. Over the course of the story, we begin to realize that the main character is not really on a new version of LOST, but that this is merely a strange version of her life.

For this exercise, try and imitate xTx’s story only pick a TV show or movie that matters to you. Try and write a story that imagines yourself in a remake of your favorite show or movie. What’s different? What’s the same? What would it feel like to be there on set. Imagine yourself in the familiar coffee shop of Friends. Imagine yourself chatting it up with Charles Barkley during the NBA halftime show. What’s this experience like? Give us concrete details like xTx does.

Exercise H

In “The ‘Poor Jen’ Problem” sportswriter Molly Lambert argues that Jennifer Aniston is eternally considered a loser because her ex-husband Brad Pitt left her for Angelina Jolie. Secondly, she suggests that there’s a double standard in Hollywood and media in general. If the roles were reversed and Jennifer Aniston left Brad Pitt for another leading man, it’s very unlikely that the average American would pity Pitt for being single. Look at George Clooney. He’s fifty and single, and very few people feel bad for him.

Do you agree with Lambert’s argument? Is there a double standard in Hollywood and media and in life in general? Are we predisposed to feel bad for women who are single after a certain age? If so, why don’t we feel the same way when a man is single at the same age?

Exercise I

The revisions you’re being asked to do in this course are extensive, and in many ways, more difficult and work intensive than the first drafts you’ve already handed in. After reading the revision handout, consider this: are these the types of revisions you’re used to writing? Think back to your high school classes or other courses you’ve taken here at UIndy. Did they often ask you to make the sweeping changes being asked of you now? Or were they simple fix the grammar type revisions? What is your relationship with revision? Is it something you hate doing? Why?

Exercise J

In “A Profound Sense of Absence” writer/professor Roxane Gay laments the lack of diversity in the publishing world. She asks, “Can you name five contemporary black writers? Or Latino/a writers? Or Asian writers?” knowing that most of us can’t.

Is there anything that can be done to better diversify the publishing world? If so, what? If not, why not? Why do you think a best of collection can be published intoday’s day and age and the material inside is 95% about rich, white men? Secondly, is this even a problem that matters? Would Gay be better served focusing her attentions on something else? If no, why? If yes, then what?

Exercise M

What points about censorship do you think “Itchy and Scratchy and Marge” is trying to make? What is it criticizing in our culture? Do you think the writers did an effective job of satirizing the way we feel about censorship?

Where do you stand on censorship in culture? Do certain things need to be censored for the good of our citizens? Or, do you take the viewpoint adopted by Marge at the end of the episode: that nothing should be censored, otherwise our very democracy is threatened?

Exercise N

Break up into groups of four. Debate “Clean Out Your Desk” and decide whether or not firing this many teachers is a good idea. Tell us why. Then, come up with three problems with the educational system as is and give us three solutions. Write these down. Be ready to present to the class your take on the article and your three problems and three solutions.

Exercise O

Who exactly was Mike Rose’s mentor in school? You don’t need to know their name, just tell us a little bit about this person and why they stuck out in Mike Rose’s mind years after he graduated from high school after experiencing dozens upon dozens of teachers. Explain this relationship.

Secondly, out of all the teachers you’ve ever had, who is the one you most look up to? Has a teacher ever taken you under their wing? Has there ever been a teacher who you thought taught you so much more than all the others combined? What was valuable about this experience? Would you say that you’ve been affected by good teaching in your own life?

Exercise X

First off, what is your opinion on street art? Think locally. Think globally. Are you for it? Against it? Something in between? Why? Secondly, what do you think of the work Banksy is doing? Bring up specific examples. Is he an art star prodigy, a fraud, or at worst, a criminal on the run?

Secondly, what did you think of Mr. Brainwash? Were you surprised that he stepped out from behind the camera to produce his own artwork? Were you surprised by his sudden success and fame? What do you think he was trying to gain from this entire project?

Exercise H

Soon, you’re going to be writing detailed descriptions and analyses of your educational history. Before we get into that, however, I want you to think back to any moment in your educational history where you felt uncomfortable. Think of a classroom situation where you felt ill at ease be it in college, high school, elementary school, whatever. Then, describe that scene for us. Let us see it. Let us experience it. Try to make us understand why you felt the way you did. Do not rush into this assignment. Take your time to think and remember.