Miscellaneous advice on writing

With papers coming due in my section of ENGL 170 between October 3 and October 10, this is a good time for some advice on writing. Here are a couple of suggestions from the experts and a link to one frequently updated source of interesting perspectives on the writing process.

First, if you find writing hard, you’re not the problem. Writing is hard. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who blogs at The Atlantic, speaks eloquently to some of the difficulties in the video below.

One of the writer’s hardest jobs is to make reading easy. It’s also one of the most important jobs, though some writers seem to forget this. Student writers, especially, fall prone to the fallacy that longer words and more complicated sentences will make them appear more intelligent. Not so, as this aptly titled article from the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology demonstrates with research (h/t @cjprender on Twitter). In fact, readers are most likely to impute intelligence to writing that exhibits lucidity, simplicity, and directness, as recommended in the SUNY Geneseo Writing Guide.

Self-consciousness about writing can make the process harder than it has to be. Rather than censoring  yourself every few words, try letting yourself write out at least one draft without stopping to revise anything. Then put that draft aside for a bit — at least an hour, preferably a day or so. When you come back to it,  you’ll find it’s not nearly as bad as you thought it was.

But it will still need revision. All writing does. And when you’re done, take some time to reflect on what it felt like to do this particular bit of writing. There’s a time and place for everything, including self-consciousness. You’ll write better if you have a good sense of what writing involves and strive to keep the whole process, with all its difficulties, in view.

One model of this good kind of self-consciousness is the Drafts blog at the New York Times website. The blog features writers writing about writing. Reading these writers’ self-reflections on their writing might give you some new things to think about in your own.

One Reply to “Miscellaneous advice on writing”

  1. It may seem to be a tedious task, but reading your paper aloud can really assist your argument. The spoken word is often the most profound because it is so effectively able to convey pathos, or emotion. Some of the greatest speeches – MLK’s “I Have a Dream,” Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” President Obama’s , back when he was a senator at the DNC convention in 2004, or even William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” – are simple. They use clarity, and are not needlessly esoteric. Oftentimes, the best writing is that which we can imagine being spoken. It emulates qualities of speech, such as a lilt or a pause, that we find enjoyable to read.

    Going along with the idea of diction that is pleasing to the ear, it is worth noting that clarity of voice rests in part on clarity of argument. Disseminating the likes of Sontag or McGann is not easy. Don’t write like them. Not every sentence need be an intelligent run-on full of descriptors and fanciful allusions. To engage in this kind of writing is to compartmentalize ourselves within the “English” box or the “literary theory” box and refuse to engage with the outside world. And to do that is to create a niche in which amateur writing is frowned upon and as a result learning is abandoned. Understanding difficult authors is a matter of having a seminar, having dialogue, that we can elicit meaning from.

    Finally, to go back to the idea of writing as something that is pleasing to the ear, I always find it important to vary sentence types and structures. A few declarative sentences to add assertion (“I” statements). A few with parallel structure to list. A few more neutral sentences for metacommentary. And maybe some with the same beginnings (anaphora). It adds that lilt, that speechlike quality. Gaudy words are appropriate when aptly used – if it accurately describes the situation, use it. But this is a problem for everyone, especially myself; don’t use words simply because you know the definition and want to show the reader. I think persuasion is the objective here, not an image of pompous intelligence.

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