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Exercises in Style
Claude Strassart-Springer, from the book "Alphabet" by Raymond Queneau (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Teach revisions and the infinite possibilities of rewriting the same paragraph with this exercise, adopted from Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style.
This assignment is meant to be a fun activity that allows students to exercise their creative muscles, while simultaneously demonstrating the possibilities of revising style for different audiences. The lesson plan in adopted from Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style (first published in English 1958). In this book, Queneau writes a single (2 page) short story, in which a narrator sees an argument on a bus, and then later recognizes one of the men on the street due to his strange hat. Queaneu then rewrites the story 99 different ways--for example, he rewrites the book as a sonnet, in slang, using exclamation points in every sentence, and even grouping words by the number of letters they contain.
I use this assignment immediately after students submit the first draft of their second essay, giving students the opportunity to either complete it in class, or work on it for credit over the next week. Students select what they believe to be their weakest paragraph from the essay they just submitted. How they evaluate the term "weakest" is up to them--all I ask is that it is a paragraph that they would genuinely like to rework and to which they would like to pay closer attention. After having students answer questions about why they would like to revise that paragraph, I turn them loose on revisions. Typically I provide a copy of Exercises in Style for reference, but some sample exercises I suggest are:
- Translate the paragraph to another language, and then back to English (either on your own or through Google Translate)
- Rewrite the paragraph as a tweet with 140 character limit (include mentions and hashtags if possible)
- Create lists of parts of speech, and place each word under the correct category
- Record yourself reading the paragraph outloud, and set it to music or remix it
- Rewrite the paragraph as an internet meme
After rewriting the paragraph five times, students are asked to respond to a few questions reflecting on the process, before revising the paragraph for the next draft. The reflective questions ask them to consider their own writing voices and styles. The assignment is graded as complete/incomplete--students that actively participate in the assignment and satisfactorily meet the requirements get credit for attending class, those that do not meet the requirements are marked absent for the day.
I suggest skimming Exercises in Style in order to familiarize yourself with some potential options with students. PDFs of the first few story permutations are easily found through Google, and most University libraries should have a copy (the most recent edition is published by New Directions, and translated by Barbara Wright). Creating your own list of suggested processes is useful as well--students might be paralyzed by the "anything goes" aspect of the assignment, and creating a list of suggestions helps them get started.
Reflect carefully on the essay that you just submitted, and choose the paragraph that you believe was the weakest in the essay. In a few sentences, describe the specific reasons you felt this paragraph needed improvement. Did it not have enough quotes? Too many quotes? Was it too long or short? Did it feel repetitive? Out of place in the essay? Did you just plain run out of time to revise it?
Experiment with your paragraph by rewriting it five times in entirely different styles. You might choose a model for your style (a favorite book, movie, song, etc.). Rewrite it as a poem. As a speech. Or you might choose a constraint a la Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style. This is your chance to be creative and stretch your wings. The sky is the limit on this assignment.
Once you have rewritten the paragraph in five different ways, reread them all. Which was your favorite, and why? Was it just the style that made the paragraph your favorite? Or did you substantively change your paragraph's content as well? Now, answer the hardest question of all: Why don't you always write in this style? Is it the demands of the formal academic context? Or had you just not considered it at all? Do you think this style can be assimilated to your own voice when writing papers?
Now that you've had a little fun, and really atomized how the paragraph is put together, revise it in a way that you would like it to appear in your revised. And remember: sometimes the only way to improve a draft is by playing around and experimenting with it.
In order to be considered complete, the following must be submitted in a single document:
- The original paragraph from your essay
- A reflection on why or how it needs improvement (minimum 1 paragraph)
- FIVE rewrites, with an indication of the rewrite's style
- A reflection on the experiment process, answering the questions in the third paragraph of the assignment instructions
- A fully revised paragraph for the next essay
If you rewrite a paragraph in a non-text format, include links to the material, or email it to me separately.
The key to this assignment is effort, so I suggest a simple complete/incomplete grading rubric. Numerical or letter grades might discourage students' creativity or invention--the use of which are not always highlighted in introductory composition classrooms, but which are critical for high levels of writing.
This was an especially successful assignment in my class. Students responded positively, and they especially enjoyed the ability to follow their own interests. Some asked me about whether or not they could use curse words--I encouraged it as long as it was relevant to the style of their rewrite. The assignment was completed by all students within a 75 minute class period (with computers available in the room).
The Wikipedia article on Exercises in Style, which includes a list of all styles used in the book.