Reading Nonfiction: GED Test Prep (page 4)
From essays to commentary to reports and memos, nonfiction texts are written for many different purposes and have many different functions. This article describes the kinds of nonfiction texts you will see on the GED Language Arts, Reading Exam.
NONFICTION TEXTS CAN be literary or functional. The literary nonfiction you might see on the GED Language Arts, Reading Exam includes essays and autobiography/memoir. The functional texts you will see include commentary on the arts and business communications.
How Nonfiction Is Different
While nonfiction texts may be imaginative, they differ from fiction because they are not about imagined people and events. Rather, nonfiction texts deal with real people and real events.
There are other important differences between fiction and nonfiction. In nonfiction, there is no narrator, so there is no "filter" between the author and the reader. In a nonfiction text, the author is speaking to the reader directly, expressing his or her point of view. Thus, the voice in a nonfiction text is the unique voice of the author.
Point of view is important in nonfiction. Remember, point of view establishes a certain relationship with the reader. First-person texts are more personal but also more subjective. Third-person texts are more objective but less personal. The point of view an author chooses will depend upon his or her purpose and audience. For example, an annual report would likely use the third person, which is appropriate for a formal business document, while an essay about a personal experience would probably use the first-person point of view and explore the impact of that experience on the writer.
There are many different types of essays. The four most common types are:
- descriptive: describing a person, place, or thing
- narrative: telling a story or describing an event
- expository: exploring and explaining an idea or position
- persuasive: arguing a specific point of view
There are essays about every imaginable topic, from what it is like to grow up poor (or rich, or bilingual) to why we should (or should not) clone human beings. The basic structure of an essay is main idea support. Even if the writer is describing an experience, he or she has a reason for telling that story, and that reason—why the writer thinks the story is important enough to tell—is the main idea.
Essays will often make their main idea clear in a thesis statement. This statement is likely to come at the beginning of the essay. Notice here how the author states his thesis at the end of the opening paragraph of his essay:
When you think of former president Bill Clinton, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Unfortunately, for many people, the first thing they think of is Monica Lewinsky. Like millions of people around the globe, I was horrified by how much the Whitewater investigation delved into Mr. Clinton's private affairs. No one needed to know the sort of details that were revealed by Ken Starr's investigation. But while I don't want to know the details, I do believe we have a right to know what sort of lives our politicians are living. I believe their behavior in private is a reflection of their true values and how they will behave in office.
One type of writing that you may see in essays (as well as other forms of literature) is satire. Satire is a form of comedy in which the writer exposes and ridicules someone or something in order to inspire change. Satires rely heavily on verbal irony, in which the intended meaning is the opposite of the expressed meaning. Satirists also use hyperbole, which is extreme exaggeration, as well as sarcasm and understatement in order to convey their ideas.
Jonathan Swift's 1729 essay "A Modest Proposal" is one of the most famous examples of satire. In the essay, Swift proposes that the Irish, who are starving, eat their own children to prevent "the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country." Here's a brief excerpt:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or ragout.
Of course, Swift is not really suggesting that the Irish become cannibals. He is using this ridiculous proposal to criticize the British for oppressing the Irish, especially poor Irish Catholics, who often had many children. The outrageous nature of Swift's proposal reflects his feelings about the absurdity of British rule in Ireland at the time and the British government's inability to find a satisfactory solution to the Irish famine.
Autobiography and Memoir
In an autobiography or memoir, the author will—very subjectively, of course—tell the story of his or her life. The difference between autobiographies and memoirs is that memoirs tend to be less comprehensive and more exploratory—they will cover less ground and spend more time examining the impact of people and events. Authors may write to clarify an experience, teach a lesson, or make a statement about a historical event or social movement. As you read an autobiography or memoir, look for what the author feels has shaped him. Why has he chosen to relate these particular events; describe these particular people?
For example, here is a brief excerpt from Frank McCourt's best-selling 1996 memoir, Angela's Ashes:
Next day we rode to the hospital in a carriage with a horse. They put Oliver in a white box that came with us in the carriage and we took him to the graveyard. They put the white box into a hole in the ground and covered it with earth. My mother and Aunt Aggie cried, Grandma looked angry, Dad, Uncle Pa Keating, and Uncle Pat Sheehan looked sad but did not cry and I thought that if you're a man you can cry only when you have the black stuff that is called the pint.
I did not like the jackdaws that perched on trees and gravestones and I did not want to leave Oliver with them. I threw a rock at a jackdaw that waddled over toward Oliver's grave. Dad said I shouldn't throw rocks at jackdaws, they might be somebody's soul. I didn't know what a soul was but I didn't ask him because I didn't care. Oliver was dead and I hated jackdaws. I'd be a man someday and I'd come back with a bag of rocks and I'd leave the graveyard littered with dead jackdaws.
Commentary on the Arts
The purpose of commentary is to illuminate or explain other works of literature and art. These texts review and analyze a work of art (performance art, visual art, and literature) and generally have two goals: 1) to help us understand the work of art and 2) to evaluate its success or value. A book review, for example, will typically offer some background on the author, summarize the basic plot of the story, and describe the main characters and their chief conflicts. It will also point out what makes the novel good (e.g., the characters are especially endearing, the plot has surprising twists and turns, the descriptions are particularly lush, the structure is very unique) or bad (e.g., the plot is trite, the characters are flat and unbelievable, the writing is clumsy, the chapters are disorganized). Thus, commentary can help you determine whether or not a work of art is something you should experience, and if you do experience it, the commentary can help you make more sense of your experience.
The commentary on the GED Language Arts, Reading Exam can be of any sort, including reviews of books, movies, concerts/musical performances, dance productions, musicals, television shows, plays, paintings, sculptures, photography, or multimedia arts. But you are most likely to see commentary on a visual art piece or experience.
When you read commentary, one of the most important skills to have is the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion. While commentators do deal with facts, commentary is by nature highly subjective; they are sharing their personal reactions to a work of art. A good commentator will always explain why he or she feels the way he or she does about a work of art. For example, a movie critic might praise a film because the story was original and moving, the actors convincing, and the special effects stunning.
Remember, however, that the reviewer's feelings about the film are opinions, no matter how well the author might defend them. There are many non-debatable facts about a work of art such as a film, including when it was made, how long it took to make, who made it, how much it cost, the events in the plot, how the special effects were created, etc. But the reviewer's judgment of these facts is a matter of debate, and therefore a matter of opinion. You might find the story in a movie interesting while your friend finds it boring.
As you read commentary, pay attention to word choice. Even in sentences that seem to express facts, commentators can express their opinion. For example, look at the following sentences. They have the same meaning but convey different attitudes:
- Raquel Ramirez plays the role of Ophelia.
- Raquel Ramirez shines in the role of Ophelia.
There is one business document on every exam. These texts can range from employee handbooks and training manuals to letters, memos, reports, and proposals.
Business documents are unlike the other nonfiction texts because they:
- are meant for a specific audience
- have a specific, business-related purpose
While essays, autobiographies, and commentary are meant for a general reader, business documents (with the exception of annual reports) are designed for a much smaller and more specific audience. Memos and letters, for example, are often addressed to only one individual.
The purpose of each business document, too, is very specific. A memo may provide an agenda for a meeting or a reminder about forms that need to be completed; a proposal may describe a plan to improve or expand business; a training manual will show employees how to perform specific tasks.
The purpose of the document will usually be made very clear right from the start. As the saying goes, in business, time is money, and in order to save the reader time, writers of business communications state their purpose clearly at the beginning of the document. For example, notice how the main idea of the following letter is stated in the second sentence:
Dear Ms. Ng:
Thank you for your recent application for an automobile loan from Crown Bank. Unfortunately, we are unable to process your application because information is missing from your application form.
We need the following information to complete the loan application process:
- the number of years in your current residence
- your driver's license number
- the name and telephone number of your insurance provider
Please provide this information to us as soon as possible. You may call me at 800-123-4567, extension 22, or fax me at 222-123-4567. Please put application code XT121 on your correspondence.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. I look forward to completing your loan application.
- Victor Wilson
- Junior Loan Analyst
- Crown Bank
To maximize time and clarity, business-related documents will use several readability techniques. These include chunking information and using headings and lists.
Business writers often organize information into small, manageable "chunks" of data. That is, they will group sentences or paragraphs according to the specific topics or ideas they discuss and set those sentences apart with line breaks and/or headings.
Headings and subheadings provide "titles" within the text to guide readers topic by topic through the document. Headings show readers how ideas are related and help readers find specific information in the document. (Notice, for example, how headings are used throughout this book.)
To make information easier to process, business writers will also use bulleted or numbered lists as often as possible, especially when providing instructions. It is easier to see the items in a list when they are separated and listed vertically rather than running together horizontally in a regular sentence or paragraph. For example, notice how much easier it is to absorb the information in the bulleted list than in the following narrative:
To apply for a permit, you must bring proof of residency, a photo identification, a copy of your birth certificate, and proof of insurance.
- proof of residency
- a photo identification
- a copy of your birth certificate
- proof of insurance
To apply for a permit, you must bring:
Whether the text is a business document or a personal essay, remember that writers always write for a reason. Think about the writer's purpose. Why is he or she writing? Look for clues in both content (including specific facts and details) and style (including word choice and tone). Check for topic sentences and thesis statements that express the author's main idea.
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