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Writing

Prose is connected discourse (larger works of language such as stories, papers, articles, or books). Macro­structure is large-scale structure, as shown in an outline of a written work. It tends to be different for each type of prose.

Newcomer, in an 1899 book titled Elements of Rhetoric, listed four categories of prose. They were: narration, exposition, argumentation, and description.

  1. Narrative discourse tells a story. It is about people and places and things that happen.

  2. Expository discourse explains things. It does not necessarily tell a story.

  3. Argumentation is also called rhetoric. It is language aimed at convincing, persuading, or making a point.

  4. Description is an attempt to "paint a picture" with words. It conveys information without necessarily telling a story, explaining a principle, or mak­ing an argument.

What are four types of prose?

Each type of prose has a distinctive set of large scale organizing patterns (macrostructure). Stories (narrative prose), for example, tends to contain four distinct stages: a setting, a problem, complications, and a resolution.

1. The setting specifies time and place, major characters, and important context-setting events. For example, "Once upon a time there was a brave young knight..."

2. Next the reader learns about the problem (also called motive or premise). This gives the main theme of the story. For example, "A wicked warlock had cast a spell upon the kingdom..."

3. The bulk of the story consists of complications in attempts to solve the problem. For example, the hero fights the wicked warlock and encounters all sorts of difficulties.

4. The last part of the story is the resolution. The problem might be resolved in a happy ending ("They lived happily ever after"). The story might turn out to be a tragedy (the main characters suffer defeat). The story may have a moral: a lesson that others can learn.

What is the typical structure of a story? Where does most of the entertainment in a story come from, usually?

Most of the entertainment in a story comes from step 3, the complications. The premise of the story (step 2) may fade into the background during a series of entertaining complications.

In a very ancient story, Jason and the Argonauts, the pursuit of the Golden Fleece provides the main motive or premise for the story. However, the real story is found in the adventures that Jason and the Argonauts encounter along the way.

That is typical of a hero narrative. Joseph Campbell famously explored this narrative type in The Hero of a Thousand Faces (1949). Campbell pointed out that hero narratives are found in every culture. He argued (following Carl Jung) that the hero was an archetype, an ancient pattern that forms part of universal human heritage.

The four-part story structure can be diagrammed in a story structure hierarchy.

a pyramid shaped diagram shows components of a story
The top levels of a story structure hierarchy

We become familiar with many stories that fit this general scheme. Stereotyped story structures help us do top-down processing, guiding our understanding of the incoming data (the words we read).

Consider this story fragment.

Once upon a time there was a king who lost his wife. He commanded that all the pretty maidens in the kingdom should be assembled in the town square.

One beautiful maiden, named Maude, refused to go. She was in love with a handsome but poor woodsman.

How does familiarity with typical story schemata help a reader make inferences?

Can you guess how the story develops? Based on your past experience with similar stories, you can make inferences (reasonable guesses) such as the following:

"Hmm...the king has assembled the maidens to choose a new wife. The maiden doesn't want to become his wife because she loves the woodsman.

The story will be about the conflict between the king's desire for a beautiful wife and Maude's desire to marry her true love. Maude will probably be forced to go with the king at first, but she will end up with her true love, the woodsman, in the end."

If you can guess this, it is because you have encountered similar patterns or schemas in the past. The separation of true lovers by hostile powers, followed by attempts at reunification, is a common problem or "motive" in romantic stories.

Macrostructure in Expository Prose

A second category of connected discourse is exposition. this is language that seeks to explain.

An example of expository prose is the textbook chapter. Like a story, it has large-scale structure that can be shown in an outline.

If presented in the pyramid shape used for most hierarchical diagrams, an outline fragment would look like this:

An outline in pyramid shape
An outline can be rendered as an "expository structure hierarchy."

This is not a convenient way to construct an outline. But it does show that an outline is a notational device for describing hierarchical structure.

What does an outline have in common with a story structure hierarchy?

Hierarchical structure in prose usually helps both comprehension and memory. If expository prose can be diagrammed in a clear outline, that means each part relates to other parts in a meaningful way.

A clear hierarchical structure serves as a guide for later retrieval. Perhaps that is why stories are so easily remembered; they are usually well-structured. In expository writing, outlines are powerful tools for creating a similar clear structure.

The Importance of Revision

Revision is important in good writing. Research shows that good writers often make major structural revisions by moving a big chunk of a document from one place to another.

Poor writers seldom make large-scale organizational changes. They typically concentrate on small corrections like eliminating spelling errors, without examining or rearranging the larger structure of their written works (Hayes & Flower, 1986).

How do "good" and "poor" writers revise differently? What was Dolch's advice? How might it be amended in light of modern technology?

The best way to make large-scale revisions is to use an outline. Many years ago, E. W. Dolch, in a book titled Outlining for Effective Writing (1923), advised writers to "construct a good outline, and stick to it," in order to produce clear writing.

Based on modern research, one might amend Dolch's advice to read: Construct a good outline, then actively revise it until it works well. Unlike Dolch, you have word processors that make this easy.

After finishing a first draft of a long paper (or speech), you can examine an outline of your work and spot ways to improve the organization of ideas. You can easily cut text from one location and paste it into another, until the unfolding structure of ideas in your work is sensible and clear.

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References:

Campbell, J. (1949) The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Pant

Hayes, J. R. & Flower, L.S. (1986). Writing research and the writer. American Psychologist, 41, 1106.


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