Schoenfish Shows How Not to Write an Essay

Representative Kyle Schoenfish (R-19/Scotland) posted a Legislative update of sorts in the Yankton Press & Dakotan this week. As writing, it stinks, but hey, at least he tried; up here in District 3, while Rep. Drew Dennert gave at-the-Capitol Facebook updates from the special session, none of my three legislators have put any essays in the paper for months, at least not that I can recall.

But if a legislator is going to communicate in writing, he should try to write well. Rep. Schoenfish fails to demonstrate the basic composition skills I would expect of a high school graduate. Let’s start with his introduction, paragraph #1:

Rep. Kyle Schoenfish (R-19/Scotland)
Rep. Kyle Schoenfish (R-19/Scotland)

I was invited to speak at the Memorial Day Service in Canistota this year. We have the freedoms we have today because of the sacrifices our veterans have made. Memorial Day is the day we honor those who gave their lives fighting for our country. Last year my dad, Randy Schoenfish, gave the Memorial Day address in Menno. He served 21 years in the National Guard until he retired as a Lt. Colonel. The seven core values of the National Guard are loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. I see my dad exemplify those core values when he’s interacting with his friends and family, serving his clients and the taxpayers as a certified public accountant and serving in church and the community [Rep. Kyle Schoenfish, “Core Values; A Special Session,” Yankton Press & Dakotan, 2017.06.19].

I use the term paragraph lightly. A paragraph is a collection of sentences flowing in logical sequence to develop one topic. One of its sentences—the topic sentence—will explicitly state that topic, thus serving as the one-line summary of the paragraph’s intent. These seven sentences neither flow nor develop any unified topic. Schoenfish says he spoke in Canistota on Memorial Day, then doesn’t tell us what he said or what happened there. He interrupts his thinking about Memorial Day to issue a standard formula about freedom, sacrifice, and veterans. He returns to Memorial Day to describe its general purpose, to honor those who died fighting for America, then bounces to talk about his dad, who didn’t die fighting for America. Schoenfish switches topics to talk about the National Guard and its values. Then the National Guard disappears, and Schoenfish just tells us what great values his dad exemplifies at the office and around town. No one sentence on the page summarizes what this block of words is trying to do. Instead, Schoenfish rambles through three ideas—my dad and I make speeches; soldiers sacrifice for America; my dad’s a great guy—none of which is sufficiently developed to qualify this introduction as a paragraph.

I also use the term introduction lightly. An introduction is not just the first words out of one’s mouth. An introduction introduces the thesis of the essay. It tells readers the main idea that the writer is going to develop with the following paragraphs. A review of the subsequent paragraphs indicates there is no main idea.

I attended the retirement party for the superintendent of Freeman High School, Don Hotchkiss. The importance of quality, dedicated administrators like Hotchkiss in our schools cannot be overstated. It’s vital to have communication between school officials and legislators and Hotchkiss is a passionate advocate for our schools [Schoenfish, 2017.06.19].

Memorial Day, military service, Dad’s values—poof! All gone! And—spoiler alert—they aren’t coming back. Now Schoenfish praises Don Hotchkiss and (O, blind irony!) the importance of communication. “Passionate advocate” is a nice note, but “cannot be overstated” is a cliché. We can overstate the importance of school administrators: Without quality, dedicated administrators, our kids will all become criminals! Cliché indicates Schoenfish is thinking about details to develop his point; he’s just recycling fancy-sounding phrases he’s absorbed from other speakers and writers to fill space. For a retirement party, Rep. Schoenfish could have brought at least a couple sentences with specific details about Hotchkiss’s service.

But we mustn’t linger on any one topic too long. On to Rep. Schoenfish’s actual job as Representative:

A special session was called to address the issue of non-meandered waters. A study committee came up with a compromise that opens up the lakes that were closed due to a Supreme Court decision while also giving landowners rights that they did not have before the court ruling. This issue has been ongoing for years. The bill was HB1001; I voted yes, it passed 52 to 16. It was amended in the Senate to sunset in 2018; when it came back to the House; I voted yes again; it passed 54 to 12. Due to the sunset clause, it will likely be dealt with again in the 2018 session. The bill was an emergency, so it required 47 votes to pass [Schoenfish, 2017.06.19].

Here I give Schoenfish credit: this paragraph hangs together, focusing on the Legislature’s response to the complicated issue of access to new lakes that have flooded private land. However, nonmeandered waters and the new law are so complicated that Schoenfish should have dedicated several paragraphs—let’s say the entire column—to this topic. What lakes were opened—any in District 19? (Answer: yes! Island South in McCook County!) What new rights do landowners have? (Answer: closing access to unlisted nonmeandered lakes with signs and buoys, petitioning for closure of listed nonmeandered lakes like Island South.) Why has the issue been ongoing for years? Why was the bill an “emergency”? (Hmm… how was it an emergency if it was going on for years?) Why was the new law passed for only one year, and what if anything does Rep. Schoenfish want to do to make the law better in the 2018 Session?

With all those substantive questions to address, Schoenfish’s dedication of half of his paragraph to vote counts seems misplaced. The paragraph hangs together as an account of the special session, but it doesn’t say enough about how the new law resulting from the special session affects constituents.

But enough about constituents—let’s jump to a completely different topic!

I have been appointed to the workforce housing summer study by the legislative executive board. My experience as a CPA working on muncipal audits and housing/rental components of income taxes will be beneficial on the committee. Businesses across the state are looking to expand and hire more workers, but the workers need places to live. This is an issue in rural and urban areas all across the state. I have been reaching out to community leaders for their input on workforce housing issues. The committee had our first meeting the day after the special session. We heard from various stakeholders who spoke and took questions during the meeting. Speakers consisted of several mayors, representatives of housing associations and government agencies and others. Topics discussed were affordability, taxes, tax credits, dilapidated houses, lending and more. There are many components that make up our housing and rental system and the committee will continue to work on this major issue that South Dakota faces. The committee will meet again later this summer [Schoenfish, 2017.06.19].

Again, Schoenfish gets credit for keeping each sentence in this block focused on one topic… albeit a topic with no connection to anything mentioned above. Alas, as with nonmeandered waters, Schoenfish leaves the problem of workforce housing underdeveloped by crowding brief details about the problem and legislative procedure into one paragraph instead of dedicating a full essay to the issue. Imagine the above paragraph expanded into a few detailed paragraphs:

  1. The Problem: Workers have trouble finding housing, so we’re having trouble finding workers. Give us some examples, and tell us why: Are wages too low? Are houses too expensive? Are we short on building contractors?
  2. The Legislature’s Response: We’re conducting a summer study. Who’s on it? When and where are we meeting? This is the paragraph where Schoenfish could tuck in his mention of his involvement and qualifications… plus maybe an explanation of how municipal audits and income tax affect the availability of housing.
  3. What We’ve Heard So Far: We learned a lot about the problem at our June 13 meeting. Give specific examples of who said what.
  4. What I Think So Far: Given what we’ve learned (see how that flows?), we should look at the following policy actions. Give the public a preview of what you’re thinking and invite their feedback.

That multi-paragraph explanation would make a great essay all by itself. Do the same with the Special Session, Don Hotchkiss, and Memorial Day, and holy cow, Kyle! You’ve got material for a month! Your name and smiling face appear next to useful, informative prose every week in the paper. (Plus, you can further delay answering those darned questions Scott Ehrisman, Angela Kennecke, and your neighbor Senator Stace Nelson keep asking about you and GEAR UP.)

Instead, constituents get one slapdash, one-darn-thing-after-another pile of sentences that toss out at least four unrelated topics that don’t tell the voters as much as they deserve.

19 Responses to Schoenfish Shows How Not to Write an Essay

  1. Part of the reason that I read this blog is for the grammatical advice. Thanks Cory!

  2. Porter Lansing

    The use of possessive and personal pronouns (e.g. I, me, my, mine etc.) is non-professional. Constructing a sentence without these isn’t hard. Being an elected official isn’t a personal or possessive thing. It’s about what you can do for others. (e.g. The sentence, “I have been appointed to the workforce housing summer study by the legislative executive board. My experience as a CPA working on muncipal audits and housing/rental components of income taxes will be beneficial on the committee.” is better for your image if constructed as, “Having been appointed by the legislative executive board to the workforce housing summer study, experiences as a CPA and the application of municipal audits and housing/rental components within income tax preparation will contribute highly to the committee’s research.”

  3. SD is having trouble finding workers because of lack of housing? That’s a new one. The bigger problem is low wages but Pubs never mention that.
    Potential employees of business are going to be a lot more motivated to apply for a job if it pays above poverty wages.
    I really find it hard to believe that in Sioux Falls you can’t find a place to live.

  4. I do hope they address the lack of affordable rental property. There has to be a way to help subsidize housing for the workers that simply cannot afford the high rents. When you tack on utilities and other expenses that are a part of the rental, the paycheck is not big enough to shoulder that burden.

  5. Porter Lansing

    This so called “workforce housing summer study” doesn’t pass the smell test. Are we to believe that all of a sudden the legislature wants to create some facet of a safety net when they despise and deplete every other facet, continually? This is about getting money and cheap loans for owners of old homes to fix them up, not about helping workers. What workers, anyway?
    Here, let me solve the issue for you. HUD Section 8 is all about helping landlords fix up their properties inexpensively, if the landlords will accept Section 8 renters (workers who need a hundred or a couple hundred bucks a month to help pay rent they can’t afford, using means testing) There are guidelines in place within Sec 8 that expose and highly mitigate fraud. Why would SoDak need their own program? What can a small state with small state money do that HUD can’t do as large group with large group buying power? Are you just so stubborn you won’t participate because it’s a program from Washington? It looks that way. Is this a way for known fraud artists to pocket some tax payers money for their own use? It looks that way. Beware Voters. The majority in Pierre has shown over and over they don’t care about workers. They care about creating a program, appointing friends of the party (who overcharge for unnecessary operating expenses) to oversee it and diverting money from the poor to the hands of the privileged. It’s a pattern that can’t be fed again!!

  6. Careful, Porter: your attempt to depersonalize Schoenfish’s statement produced an even less grammatical and less comprehensible sentence. You create a dangling modifier: “Having been appointed by the legislative executive board to the workforce housing summer study” does not modify “experiences as a CPA and the application of municipal audits and housing/rental components within income tax preparation.” The entity it does modify, author Schoenfish, is gone, and we can’t have that.

    I understand the professional preference to remove personal pronouns. I struggled with that style in academia, because it removes identity, context, and clarity. I agree that public service is about the people, not oneself. But I think professional communications are better, more clear and direct, when they properly give the perspective of the speaker. I don’t mind a legislator saying, “Leadership appointed me to committee X because my experiences Y & Z will help the committee study the issues at hand.”

    Depersonalizing communications also leads to too much passive voice. “Hearings were held… decisions were made… mistakes were made…”—no way! Sentences need subjects, actors. Tell people who held hearings and made decisions and mistakes.

    Schoenfish’s first-person language clearly has a component of self-marketing, which we can expect from every good politician. Every smart elected official writes about what’s happening in government and about what he or she is doing to make good things happen.

    Schoenfish’s recitation of his votes could be omitted, not because we need to get rid of “I” but because it’s repetitive, irrelevant, and superficial. It’s o.k. to say “I voted yes” (legislators should tell voters how they voted), but say it once, and then give the more important why: “I voted for the bill because lets people get back to fishing while affirming landowner rights.”

  7. Everyone can afford decent housing if every employer pays decent wages. The market should be solving this problem; we need to watch the Legislature and make sure they aren’t cruising toward yet another subsidy for businesses who don’t want to pay their workers what they are worth.

  8. In Rapid City, as an example, here are the apartments from $400.00 a month for a studio to $1,600.00 and above for more bedroom space. If you are a young family, this is not affordable. Here is Sioux Falls, trending in about the same. Again, if you are single without a lot of personal stuff, maybe a studio would work for you. If you are a family, these are not affordable for the room you would need.

    I have heard that the number of affordable family housing units that are lacking in Rapid City is about 850 and for Sioux Falls, somewhat higher. In the other areas like Aberdeen, we would need to as Joop.

  9. Porter Lansing

    Not the first time Porter’s been called a dangling modifier. :0) I believe that using personal and possessive pronouns leads readers to assess that the writer loves to talk about himself, which is mostly boring, sometimes offensive and not winning my vote. I don’t agree that it removes clarity or context. Passive voice, done compassionately with empathy, mitigates the blowhard style, so prevalent today. With effort one can tell people who held hearings and made decisions and mistakes without being self promoting, which is better left to others. As you say, it’s important to stress the why and because but I’d rather see less of the me and more of the “you the people”. If politics is sales and the product is the politician, talking about yourself should be reduced to once a paragraph at most.

  10. Porter Lansing

    From the “Porter talks too much, file.” …
    Cory mentioned my favorite political person in the podcast. I believe James Carville would critique my amateurish and grammaticaly deficient style of writing as, “Sometimes colloquial prose can sell more eggs at breakfast than poetry.”
    LOL ~ Have a great night.

  11. Passive voice, people!
    Ban it.

    Consider the staffer’s note handed Senator Al Franken in the middle of his Senate subcommittee questioning of a witness, “You’re being an a——.” (Al Franken, A Giant of the Senate by Al Franken)
    You, like Franken, were correct. Franken then used other ways and means to advance his point.

  12. Mr. H gives us more proof that teachers, or even ex-teachers, can sort out the good teachers from the average teachers and provide us with the mechanism for defining the SILT (seven indisputable levels of teachers.)

  13. Nick Nemec

    Cory mentioned it four comments up this thread. Wages in SD are the real problem. I sure hope we don’t go down the path to government subsidized housing. We already subsidize low wage companies by giving their employees free groceries. Maybe someday low wage companies will realize that the reason they can’t find employees is because people don’t want to work for less than it takes to live on. If you increase your wages you will get employees and those employees will be able to afford a place to live and to purchase their own groceries.

  14. “Affordable Housing” is the newest buzz word for gov’t subsidies going to builders (one of the main reasons I moved from Spearfish) Living wages, like Cory said, lets people move into “affordable housing”. Period. End of statement. Not government giveaways to those that don’t need it. What a boondoggle.

    Hot off the press this morning in the Rapid City Journal, is an article discussing “affordable housing” and TIF’s……

  15. Dana, good article! I’ll write that up!

    Porter, the passive voice certainly has its place. Sometimes the passive voice says things more accurately and/or more poetically than the active voice. But too often, it is used to hide information and puff up sentences.

  16. Porter Lansing

    Well said, Cory. Thank-you. For what it’s worth, passive and active voices are like cheese, chiles and Scotch whisky. A blend is more palatable than the firm. It moves the reader’s emotions up and down on a bell curve.

  17. Passive voice is really strong cheese, to be used sparingly lest it stink up the joint.

    [Note my use of the passive voice after the comma. I didn’t think about; it just flowed naturally from the structure of the sentence. Of course, if I’d gone all passive, that last half would have read “…to be used sparingly lest the joint be stunk up.” That usage would have overdone it and muddied my emphasis on the cheese as the stinker. ;-) ]

  18. Porter Lansing

    … an even more Shakespearean synthesis might be, ” … lest you desire to stink up the sonnet.”

  19. Roger Elgersma

    Typical Republican, talk as if you know a lot about the subject without ever mentioning what it is that you know or any real proof that you know anything. Then vote on issues and assume everyone thinks that you know what you are doing without ever finding out what it is that you are doing. That makes for an accountant who can look at books for eight years and not discover the problem or solve it before the whole program blows up. Some people actually learn when they are there and some do not. He does not. Neither did his Dad or uncle at GEARUP. People learn methods from their parents and he did, just not a competent method. Some are just better off in jobs where someone tells them what to do because they will not figure out the whole process on their own anyway. But when the Republicans do not believe in the government doing anything, then when he does nothing, they think he succeeded. Taking this to the point that wages should be higher is true. but both way to deep of thought for a Republican and does not fit their state of mind, or their political philosophy.