We are fortunate, out here on this quiet corner of the Internet, to have a few people amongst the readership who worked on American Top 40 or for Casey Kasem on other shows. One of them, briguyx, commented on Monday’s post, in which I edited a long bit of a 1985 show:
When I wrote for Casey, it was very important to take the listener step by step, from one thought to another in each of the long intros, without skipping a step. You might call that spoon fed!
That’s an excellent definition of the process of informational writing: moving step-by-step from one thought to another without skipping a step. It’s the way to proceed when presenting a concept you want people to learn. In my two decades as an educational writer, it’s something I did all the time.
In education, we talk about scaffolding: building on a base of existing knowledge to introduce new concepts. It’s how any of us gets proficient at anything. We learn the basics, about building a birdhouse, or about biology. Then we learn other stuff that builds on it, until eventually we can make a chair or create a vaccine.
A teacher or instructional designer has to account for the fact that students’ scaffolds differ. Imagine a lesson about that old social studies favorite, triangular trade. A lesson for high-school seniors will be qualitatively different than one for fifth-graders. Although every student’s learning style is a little different, there are some valid assumptions you can make. For example, because upper-level students have a greater background in history and/or economics (theoretically), there are some things you either needn’t explain at all, or you need mention only briefly to refresh the recollection you expect them to have. Also, you can use more advanced vocabulary, because they know more and bigger words. In short, high-school students have a more elaborate scaffold upon which to build.
That doesn’t mean you won’t still spoon-feed—or, to use a better and more accurate term, that you won’t elaborate on certain ideas, explaining them in greater detail. Which ideas get elaborated depend on the age and/or proficiency of the student. The youngest ones (or beginners of any age) get elaboration on practically everything, because they gotta start somewhere. As students get older and/or more experienced, the elaborated concepts are likely to be more complex ones. We also tend to elaborate key ideas that need to become part of the scaffold, so that the students will be able to build on those ideas as their studies continue. Elaboration is meant to illuminate an idea, expand a student’s understanding, and help them connect it to the scaffold. It’s not mere repetition.
The central or main idea of the Casey bit is this: in her new song, Lisa Lisa uses a bit of an old song by a famous singer. Casey wants listeners to understand how Lisa Lisa and the old song and its singer relate. That’s a legitimate purpose, and you can argue that he accomplishes it. After all, I didn’t change a word of his original text, and I added only one word. But I did take out the stuff that sounds like, or perhaps was intended to be, elaboration that helps the listener better understand. I would argue that elaboration isn’t needed here. Casey’s audience of adults and young adults can follow and understand just fine: Lisa Lisa has a new song that is related to this old song by Ella Fitzgerald, and here’s who Ella is. The “elaboration” doesn’t illuminate the main idea, it belabors the point. That’s not good teaching; it’s just bad writing.
Depending on your purpose, taking your reader (or listener) step-by-step from one thought to another without skipping a step is absolutely a valid way for a writer to go. (And if it’s what the boss or the client wants from you, you’ll have to do it.) But for that approach to be truly effective, it has to account for the expectations and capabilities of the audience. Assume too much, be too complex, be unclear, and your piece will fail to accomplish its purpose. But you can also assume too little about your audience’s capabilities—and end up insulting their intelligence. That’s my gripe with the Ella Fitzgerald bit.
Am I overthinking this? Maybe. In any event, we will get around to a more mundane discussion of the AT40 show from August 31, 1985, on Friday.