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.


“Poetry Written in Porcelain” reads the headline in today’s New York Times about Edmund de Waal, potter and author. The headline asks us to consider de Waal’s carefully crafted vessels as metaphorical poems.

Or are we meant to take the statement literally?

“My making and my writing is one thing,” Mr. de Waal is quoted as saying “Pots turn into words, and words turn into pots.” And later: “When I make something, I hear it.”

This proposed equivalence between poetry and concrete objects isn’t new at all. You’ll find it, among other places, in Keats’ ” Ode on a Grecian Urn” and in Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica.”

If the “practice of criticism” has a theoretical side that consists, in part, of defining the terms in which that practice is conducted, then poetry is one of those terms we’re called upon to define.

What is poetry? Should our definition be broad enough to encompass de Waal’s pots as literal poems? If not, what would our definition require in order for the pots to count as metaphorical poems?