O ye powers! (for powers ye are, and great ones too)—which enable mortal man to tell a story worth the hearing——that kindly shew him, where he is to begin it—and where he is to end it——what he is to put into it——and what he is to leave out—how much of it he is to cast into a shade—and whereabouts he is to throw his light!
—Lawrence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
Book II, Chapter XVI
I’ve been working for weeks on what will probably be an 800-word article. Well, I’ve just been writing and writing and writing… searching for the right small focused part of the big [picture]. . . .
I’ve gotten more patient with the writing process, and with that period when you want to have all the thoughts in a row but they’re running around like kids at a playground.
Time is a good editor.
—Farai Chideya, @farai on Twitter
Farai Chideya is a journalist, author, radio host, and podcaster. Among other achievements, she was a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute from 2012-2016.
Along the same lines, Natalia Cecire (Senior Lecturer in English and American literature at the University of Sussex, @ncecire on Twitter) recalls the advice she was given about learning math:
Some things are just so hard you have to see them ten times to get it. So if you don’t get it right now, that’s because this is only time one.
Why is writing so difficult?
For many reasons. For example, writing is not natural, like talking or walking, so it requires a special effort. It also requires careful attention to lots of annoying details like punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Many of the ‘rules’ for English punctuation, grammar, and spelling don’t make much sense. Moreover, writing requires you to do two conflicting things at the same time: think about what you are saying, and also think about how you are saying it. And so on. To put it briefly, writing well is one of the most difficult human skills.
Why is it so frustrating?
Because usually, improvement takes a long time. Even worse, improvement is not gradual. That is, if we made a graph of writing improvement it would NOT look like this:
Instead, a graph of writing improvement would look something like this:
The second graph helps to explain an almost universal experience: you work, and work, and work, but your results don’t improve. Why? Because you are on one of those long, flat portions of the line. If you let the frustration defeat you, then you give up trying and you never reach the next level. But if you remain patient and determined and keep working, you will eventually reach that point where everything you have been working on suddenly ‘clicks’ and you jump up to the next level.
So now you want to know . . .
How does one become a good writer?
It’s not so complicated, but it’s not so easy, either.
- Read! When you read, you learn what words and sentences look like when they are written. If you read very little, your understanding of what written words and sentences look like remains weak and uncertain. How is that word spelled? Should I put a comma here? What’s the right way to use a dash, or a semi-colon? Hundreds of such questions confront a writer, and it’s impossible to learn the answers to them by memorizing a grammar book. However, someone who reads a great deal learns to answer most of those questions correctly simply by seeing so many words spelled and so many sentences and paragraphs written correctly. So there’s the first key to success as a writer: good writers are voracious readers!
- Pay attention. Once you become an enthusiastic reader—when reading is a pleasure, not a chore—you can begin noticing how writers write. After all, if you enjoy reading, then you enjoy the results of someone else’s writing. At first, and for a long time perhaps, you may be content just to benefit from other people’s hard work. But if you’re lucky you will develop an interest in the craft of writing—how do they do that?—and want to try it yourself. You may discover that, although writing well is very difficult, the satisfaction of succeeding at it is very great.
- Write! You learn to walk by walking, and not giving up even though at first you fall down a lot. You learn to play the piano by playing the piano. You learn carpentry by doing carpentry. You learn to play football by playing football. You learn to write by writing. Find good writers, and copy what they do. Then find others who write very differently, and copy what they do. Practice, practice, practice. Seek out good coaches, and take their advice.
And as Winston Churchill almost said, never, never, never, never give up.
‘One of the primary creators of this unintelligible academic rhetoric, Judith Butler, is best known for her theory of gender performance central to her 1990 book “Gender Trouble.” Yet in recent years, one cannot be sure that even Butler understands her own writing . . . .’
‘How did we arrive at this moment where learning means parroting incoherent political rhetoric?’
This wonderful brief video on Facebook shows clearly how printing presses worked in the days of hand-set type, and how the pages were then turned into books.
A few key points are missing, however.
- Notice how the letters must be placed backwards in the press.
- Notice why the printing press was called a “press.”
- The small letters were traditionally stored in a lower-level rack, while the capitals were above—hence our terms “lower-case” and “upper-case” to describe them.
- The paper was printed on both sides, not just one as the video seems to show. Each page had to be positioned so that when the sheet was folded, as you see in the video, the pages were right-side up and in the correct order. Try that at home, and let me know how it goes!
From the National Council of Teachers of English, November 2004.
- Everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help students become better writers.
- People learn to write by writing.
- Writing is a process.
- Writing is a tool for thinking.
- Writing grows out of many different purposes
- Conventions of finished and edited texts are important to readers and therefore to writers.
- Writing and reading are related.
- Writing has a complex relationship to talk.
- Literate practices are embedded in complicated social relationships.
- Composing occurs in different modalities and technologies.
- Assessment of writing involves complex, informed, human judgment.
Read the full document here: http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/writingbeliefs
Composing and editing are two distinct processes. Students staring at blank screens or blank sheets of paper are usually trying to compose and edit at the same time. It doesn’t work.
Composing is the messy, chaotic process of figuring out what you want to say. It’s like being sent to the attic to find something. You open the door and see piles and piles of mostly worthless junk that has accumulated for years. Somewhere in one of those heaps is the gold you are searching for. You find the gold only by picking through the piles, piece by piece. The equivalent for the writer is to write down all the bad, wrong, useless ideas until you finally arrive at the one you were searching for.
Editing is about finding the best possible way to express your ideas. Part of this involves spelling, grammar, and punctuation. But most of it involves finding the best possible words to express your meaning. Editing may also be called rewriting, and rewriting is 90% of the writer’s work. Most students spend 90% of their time composing and only 10% editing, which is why most writing by students is mediocre. Good editing creates good writing.
For example, imagine you are asked, “Is music important to you?” Most students will begin their response to this question by writing, “Music is important to me because . . . “ which is a terrible beginning. Students think that because the word “important” appears in the question it must appear in their response. But consider a similar case: you are asked, “Was he friendly?” and you answer, “He was friendly, but his dog was not.” This sentence features two weak verbs (or rather the same weak verb repeated twice) and fails to create any images in the reader’s mind. A better response would be, “He smiled warmly and shook my hand, but his dog barked fiercely and bit me on the ankle.” Now we have strong verbs (smiled, shook, barked, bit) and clear images. The lesson? Just as you need not use the word friendly if asked whether the man was friendly, so you need not use the word important if asked whether music is important to you. Instead, show the man being friendly, and show what music does to or for you. Then the reader will know how important it is.
After reconsideration the writer may arrive at this: “I like music because it helps me relax and forget my problems.” Now the writer knows what she wants to say; she has composed a reasonable sentence. What remains is to improve how she expresses her idea: to edit her sentence. With practice, experience, and effort, she may end up with something like this: “Music washes away my worries.” This sentence makes every word count. It creates a beautiful image, and a particularly appropriate one, because sounds wash over us—they flow, just as water flows. Washing also includes the idea of cleansing, a kind of purification. The sentence has music, too. Notice the rhythms: MUSic WASHes aWAY my WORRies. And the alliteration of w sounds in wash, away, and worries again produces a flowing sensation that fits the sentence’s meaning perfectly.
You will not achieve such happy results with every sentence you write, but you should strive for them nevertheless if you want to write words worth reading.
The poet has no talent.
Can’t sing. Can’t dance. Cannot play a musical instrument. Can’t juggle. Can’t paint.
The poet has only words.
And so the poet uses words to sing, to dance, to make music—and other sounds.
Juggles with words.
Paints with words.
Creates motion, odors, tastes, physical sensations of all sorts.
Unlocks our memories. Makes us aware of what we have previously sensed only dimly.
Makes us wonder . . . about so many things.
All of this with words alone.
For the poet, alas, has no talent.
What’s the difference between social and societal? Not much, but enough that you may become the victim of social stigma if you ignore subtle societal signals.
Societal is the pedantic alternative to social. . . .
I couldn’t agree more, having read hundreds of teeth-grating essays filled with “societal” this and “societal” that. Please, please, please: just say “social”!
Brief, clear, and to the point.
Anyone interested in writing, anyone interested in science fiction, anyone interested in Ray Bradbury who just died at the age of 91, anyone interested in much of anything will find lots to think about in this wonderful interview with Bradbury from the late 1970s, rediscovered and printed in the Paris Review in 2010. Among other things, you will find out who Mr. Electrico and the Illustrated Man ‘really’ were. But my favourite bit is Bradbury’s surprisingly persuasive argument that Edgar Rice Burroughs was “probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world”. Enjoy.
A very useful article on the Mac Observer points aspiring writers to an iTunes U lecture series, a podcast, and an app.
A great piece that ought to be printed out and put on the wall next to every writer’s desk. That includes you, students.
In the first place, you have to buy the goddam cigarettes, unless you just bum ’em off other guys all the time and then don’t even say thanks like that sonuvabitch Ernie Morrow. Anyway, like I said, you have to buy them, and who do you buy them from?—these stinking-rich gigantic corporations with about as much social conscience as your average mass-murderer, that’s who. I mean, they probably hire all these poor people to grow the damn tobacco, pay ’em peanuts, then turn around and sell cigarettes to the poor bastards who can’t afford decent clothes, let alone cigarettes, but they probably can’t stop smoking on account of they’re so depressed about their lousy lives.
And in the second place, once you give your money to these fat corporations,
what do you get? You get to start stinking up everything in your life. Your breath stinks, your clothes stink, your house stinks, your car stinks, your whole life stinks, if you want to know the truth. Gorgeous.
The only good thing about smoking is, if you’re lucky, with the right genes and all, you’ll get lung cancer or emphysema or something and die an early death.
The problem is, you might not die an early death. You might live until you’re about seventy-five with yellow teeth and dried-up, papery skin and ashtrays all over your goddam house, and drapes that stink enough to kill a damn moose and then you get cancer and you spend about three years in the hospital with tubes sticking out of you all over the place and your grown-up kids come visit you and stand around your bed talking when they think you can’t hear them about all the birth defects they got from you and the asthma they got from you smoking around their cribs and playpens when they were little and all and then you wish to hell you’d given all that money to the Red Cross or something instead of buying all those damn cigarettes.
It just goes to show how stupid a guy can be who’s actually pretty smart, if you know what I mean.