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Lesson III

In this lesson, we will tie together skills from the previous two lessons in these three new genres of writing:  

  1. The Arts Review
  2. Nonfiction prose
  3. Business documents

Skill Exercise: Reading an Arts Review

In the following excerpt from Jennifer Waldock’s review of Andrew Pham’s novel Catfish and Mandala, we see an example of an arts review, also called a commentary. This is one of the different kinds of prose excerpts that may be included on the GED® exam. This genre of writing is similar to a brief essay, in that it has an introduction, a body, and a conclusion that doesn’t really conclude anything because its purpose is to incite you - the reader - to read his novel. Whether it is commentary about film, art, dance, or literature, commentary is a way to convey a feeling about the arts to an audience.

As you read the passage below, ask yourself a few questions:

1. What seems to be the author’s attitude towards the work she is commenting on? Does she see the work in a positive or negative light?

2. Does the author support her opinion with concrete examples? Does she make her point clear through the use of these examples?

Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala is a raw memoir of the author’s quest to understand his identity as a transplanted Vietnamese man in American society, as well as his identity as a “Viet-Kieu,” or a Vietnamese-American, in his native Vietnam. The story hinges on Pham’s attempt to bicycle his way from California around the Pacific Rim, through Japan, and finally through his homeland, covering the stretch of the American-built Highway 1 from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) to Hanoi. Catfish and Mandala jumps between Pham’s narrative of his journey, his escape from Vietnam upon the fall of Saigon (now HCMC), and his childhood in the United States. The book is interspersed with details of his family’s struggle against racism and language barriers. Pham and his siblings were torn between the Vietnamese customs of their family and their new American identities, while also trying to please an abusive father and succeed in school. The author’s older sister, Chi, after bouts of delinquency, sexual identity conflicts and depression, committed suicide, prompting Pham to set out on his journey.

Very few people had confidence in Pham’s ability to bicycle through Vietnam. It was dangerous, and most skeptics warned that he would find the country changed after a 20-year absence. Nevertheless, after fending off scams and assaults, Pham finds himself cycling around his homeland—with more emotional baggage than he had expected.

-Jennifer Waldock

In nonfiction prose like the above example, we look for different elements than the ones we looked for in fiction prose. These are voice, style, structure, and thought.


When we read fiction, the voice we are hearing is the voice of the narrator, not to be confused with the voice of the author. The narrator is the voice constructed by the author that does not necessarily impart the feelings and opinions of the author. It is a fictional narrator. When reading nonfiction, it is the author’s voice that is speaking directly to the reader. This does not mean that the feelings and opinions being expressed are necessarily the author’s own, but there is no middle-man narrative voice. This is a major difference between the two types of prose.

Also, since we are hearing the author’s voice directly, we can get a feeling for the author’s tone. This is the tone that he or she creates by way of the attitude that they express toward the subject at hand.


Across the board, style is the term used to describe word choice, voice, description and syntax and does not vary in name between fiction and nonfiction. In general, you may find that essays espouse less description than novels or short stories, as they usually have a point to prove or a general feeling to elicit. This is where thought comes in. An essay is formatted to present an idea, not to tell a story. As far as structure goes, there are four main essay formats: speculative, narrative, argumentative, and expository. The author picks the format that best suits the point he or she is trying to get across. Thought and structure, therefore, are tied closely together, as the structure of the essay responds to the kind of thought being dealt with.

Skill Exercise: Interpreting Nonfiction Prose

Reading nonfiction prose is like a cross between reading commentary and fictional prose. The format can be the same as that of prose, but this genre is usually reserved for writing biographies and histories. The following example is an excerpt from Helen Nicolay’s The Boy’s Life of Abraham Lincoln.

1. A President’s Childhood

Abraham Lincoln's forefathers were pioneers--men who left their
homes to open up the wilderness and make the way plain for others
to follow them. For one hundred and seventy years, ever since the
first American Lincoln came from England to Massachusetts in
1638, they had been moving slowly westward as new settlements
were made in the forest. They faced solitude, privation, and all
the dangers and hardships that beset men who take up their homes
where only beasts and wild men have had homes before; but they
continued to press steadily forward, though they lost fortune and
sometimes even life itself, in their westward progress. Back in
Pennsylvania and New Jersey some of the Lincolns had been men of
wealth and influence. In Kentucky, where the future President was
born on February 12, 1809, his parents lived in deep poverty.
Their home was a small log cabin of the rudest kind, and nothing
seemed more unlikely than that their child, coming into the world
in such humble surroundings, was destined to be the greatest man
of his time. True to his race, he also was to be a pioneer--not
indeed, like his ancestors, a leader into new woods and
unexplored fields, but a pioneer of a nobler and grander sort,
directing the thoughts of men ever toward the right, and leading
the American people, through difficulties and dangers and a
mighty war, to peace and freedom.

Question 1

1. How does the author seem to view Lincoln’s presidency?  

a. destructive and powerful

b. amazing and beautiful

c. righteous, noble and good

d. dishonest and sinful

Answer: C. Even if you didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln was president of the U.S., you can ascertain that information from the allusion the author makes when she says “In Kentucky, where the future President was born on February 12, 1809…” and then when she later says that he “was destined to be the greatest man of his time.” The final six lines are dedicated to extolling the virtues of this president and the author’s clear opinion that Lincoln was a decent, just, peace-seeking president. 

This is an important example that shows us the prevalence of an author’s bias. Regardless of your own personal opinion about President Lincoln, it’s imperative to note that the author is presenting him in a certain way that will then color the rest of the biography in the same light. When reading nonfiction prose, you must be able to see the author’s opinion for what it is so that you do not blindly read on, uncritically agreeing with everything they write because, from the first few paragraphs, they have told you how to think about what they are writing. This skill of clear, critical thinking is necessary for the GED® test and necessary for life.

Question 2

2. How does the author characterize Lincoln’s forefathers?

a. as invaders who pushed people and animals off of land that was already theirs

b. as pioneers who claimed territory that they believed the "wild men" had no right to, founding America for generations to come

c. as thieves of land, history and resources

d. as useless travelers, voyaging without focus or direction

Answer: B. Once again we see the history book bias of the author in the correct answer to this question. The way in which she addresses this question is by writing off the rights of the people who inhabited America before the English came by calling them “wild men.” She explains their “westward progress” as one of valuable hardship and victory since they succeeded in bringing “civilization” to “uncivilized lands.” Once again, regardless of whether or not we agree with the author’s historical bias, it’s important to be able to recognize it and thus critically assess its effects on the rest of what she has to say.

Skill Exercise: Interpreting a Technical or Business Document

Reading a technical or workplace document requires different skills than reading any of the other forms of writing that we have discussed thus far. Business documents lay out points, are not metaphoric, and are instructional in nature. Office mission statements, contracts, codes of conduct and the like are all important documents to know how to read and interpret.

Read the following passage and refer to the questions below:

The following is an example of a sales contract drawn up between the lawyers of the Seller of a jewelry store, Risa Scott, and the Buyer, Peter Cotton.

Seller’s obligation pending closing. The Seller promises and agrees with the Buyer as follows:

1. The Seller is responsible for conducting business at the store up to the date of closing in the regular manner, keep available to the Buyer the services of its present employees, and maintain good contact with the Seller’s suppliers and customers, to the best of her abilities.

2. The Seller is responsible for keeping and maintaining accurate records of all inventory sold during the regular course of business, dating from January 31, 2004 until the date of closing.

3. The Seller is required to give the Buyer full access during regular business hours to the premises, records and properties of the business.

4. The Seller is required to provide the Buyer with information regarding the operation of the business at the Buyer’s reasonable request.

5. Risk of loss: The Seller assumes all risk of loss, damage or destruction due to fire or other disaster up until the date of closing. If such destruction does occur that materially interrupts or decreases the Seller’s business, the Buyer has the right to terminate this agreement. If any destruction does occur that does not materially interrupt or decrease the Seller’s business, the purchasing price will be adjusted at closing to reflect this appropriately.

Question 1

1. Who, in the above document, assumes all risk of destruction to the business in case of disaster?

a. The Buyer

b. The Seller

c. The Seller’s attorney

d. The Buyer’s attorney

e. The suppliers

Answer: B. In the fifth obligation, the document states that the Seller “assumes all risk of loss, damage or destruction due to fire or other disaster up until the date of closing.”

Question 2

2. Obligation #2 states that the Seller is responsible for maintaining accurate inventory records beginning from what date and extending until what date?

a. January 31, 2003 until January 31, 2004

b. January 31, 2004 until February 31, 2004

c. December 1, 2004 until closing

d. January 31, 2004 until closing

Answer: D. This is another directly stated answer. It is important in business documents to carefully read the words used and the implications behind them. In a document such as a sales contract, you are agreeing to a set of obligations so it is imperative that you understand what you are agreeing to and the conditions behind it.

Question 3

3. In obligation #5, what happens if there is any destruction that does not materially interrupt or decrease the Seller’s business?

a. Nothing

b. The Seller will have to pay the Buyer $10,000

c. The purchase price will be adjusted at closing accordingly

d. The contract will be cancelled

Answer: C

Back: Reading Lesson 2 | Next: Reading Lesson Summary

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