Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

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Location: Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, United States

Sunday, September 18, 2011

More long and winding ...

Another long way home, this time by way of the Rio Grande Gorge.


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This time around, we took the scenic route eastward along U.S. 64, a drive best known for fall colors. This early in the year, just a few of the cottonwoods and willows along the streams were just beginning to turn gold. Unfortunately, insect ravages (tent caterpillars in the aspens, bark beetles in the firs) have made for less than vibrant colors in recent years. Still, the scenery was dramatic.

At Tres Piedras, we took a right and took the back road to Pilar. The descent into the Rio Grande Gorge is rather rough, but before the high bridge was built in 1965, that was the way to get from one side to the other. The stagecoach ride from the train station at Taos Junction into Taos must have been grueling.

By this time, it was dark, so we didn't get as much enjoyment out of the scenery as we might have. Darned days are getting shorter now.

(Stats on this journey, according to Google Maps: 214 mi.; 4 hours, 28 minutes.)

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Saturday, September 03, 2011

Rhetoric Moment: Well developed writing

Beefing up your paragraphs

When you write an essay, you need to provide sufficient supporting details to prove the point that you are making. If you don’t have enough details, your reader may not be able to figure out exactly what you mean. The same holds true for many types of writing. If all you have is a collection of broad, general ideas, you may have a picture inside your mind of what you mean, but your reader may form a totally different picture inside of her head.

Short paragraphs have their place. Carefully placed following several long paragraphs, a short paragraph packs a punch, giving special emphasis to the idea it presents. It makes the reader take notice. But if every single paragraph in your essay (or whatever else you are writing) is only one or two sentences, chances are you haven’t filled in enough details. You need to bulk up those wimpy, short paragraphs.

Let’s start with this very short one-sentence paragraph from a hypothetical essay reviewing a restaurant:

The service was crappy.

Faced with a paragraph like this, I would start by asking the student, “What do you mean by this?”

“Well,” the student might say, “it was, you know, crappy.”

“No, I don’t know. Can you tell what you mean by ‘crappy’? What did the server do that was crappy?”

“He took so long bringing out our food that it was cold when we got it. He was never around when we wanted our iced tea refilled. And he had an attitude.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, you know, an attitude.”

“No, I don’t know. Was it a happy attitude, or a sad attitude, or angry? How could you tell what kind of attitude he had?”

“He acted superior. He never looked directly at us, and he always had a frown on his face. We had trouble getting his attention when we wanted something, as if we were invisible. It’s like he didn’t want us wasting his time and energy.”

Here’s a beefed-up version of the student’s paragraph that makes use of these details:

The service was crappy. Our server took so long bringing out our food that it was cold when we got it. He was never around when we wanted our iced tea refilled. And he had a superior attitude. He never looked directly at us, and he always had a frown on his face. We had trouble getting his attention when we wanted something, as if we were invisible. It was like he didn’t want us wasting his time and energy.

Now we have a stronger, brawnier paragraph that gives the reader a clear idea of how crappy the service was and in exactly what way. If you have lots of wimpy paragraphs in your writing, see if you can ask yourself the same sorts of questions to bring out the details. Or if you have trouble thinking of questions, try to find someone else who can help you. It doesn’t have to be a teacher or tutor, either. It could be a friend, family member, or classmate – anybody who can spot where you have a vague, general term that could use more explanation.

Here’s another activity you can try for developing a beefy paragraph. Start with the sentence, “As soon as I woke up, I knew it was going to be a(n) ____ day”; fill in the blank with an adjective of your choice. The day in question can be any day in your life – today, or some important milestone date – or something completely made-up. Now, write at least ten sentences supporting that statement. If you get on a roll and find yourself going beyond ten sentences, that’s great; keep going! But you must produce at least ten sentences describing how your day began.

These exercises may seem very hard at first. It’s going to take some work to beef up those scrawny paragraphs. But Arnold didn’t get those muscles overnight either. He had to do a lot of work. As you work on your paragraph-building, your writing will gradually bulk up its muscles, too.

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