Be More Brilliant: The Back-to-School Issue

All right friends, we’re on the wrong side of Labor Day, and schools just about everywhere are back in session, so I’m devoting this episode of The Habit Weekly to academic writing. 

“Love your reader.” If you’ve heard me talk about writing very much at all, you’ve probably heard that one. You’re not really going to grow as a writer until you stop thinking about what you’re going to get out of writing (significance, respect, love, money, recognition, etc.) and start thinking about what you can give through your writing. What do you have to give to your reader that he can’t get for himself?

Most of us learn to write in academic settings. And in academic settings, the carrots and sticks are set up in such a way that you are almost always writing to get something. If you write well enough, you get gold stars, you get good grades, you get to move on to the next grade, you get into a good college. If you are a professional academic, you write to get published, to get a job, to get promoted, to get tenure. When there’s so much to get from writing, what does giving have to do with it? How do you love your reader when your reader is a teacher or professor?

Text and Subtext

The text of an academic paper can be about almost anything—mitosis and meiosis, the Weimar Republic, existentialism, federalism, Paradise Lost, What I Did Last Summer. But whatever the text is about, all academic papers share more or less the same subtext: GIVE ME AN A. THINK I’M SMART. APPROVE OF ME. Really, I don’t see how that could NOT be the subtext of any essay you’re submitting for a grade. 

But too often, I suspect, students think of GIVE ME AN A as the real  text of an academic essay, papered over with just enough information about the purported subject (Romeo and Juliet, the Whiskey Rebellion, etc) to make the A possible.

That kind of thinking is behind students’ diligent efforts to figure out “what the teacher wants.” Having been on the receiving end of hundreds, maybe thousands of student essays, I can tell you what the teacher wants. The teacher, like any other reader, wants to be surprised and delighted. And you can’t surprise and delight a reader with an essay about, say, French Impressionism unless you have thought about French Impressionism enough to form actual opinions and insights—which is to say, unless you learn to care enough about your subject to be able to say, “Here’s something I want to show you.”

What I am recommending is that you actually write about what you claim to be writing about rather than merely thinking of an assignment as a way to make the case that you deserve a good grade.

Be More Brilliant

I don’t have any secrets that will guarantee brilliance every time you sit down to write. But I do have some principles that will help make your academic writing more brilliant.

Principle 1: Your best ideas won’t come until after you’ve started writing. The act of writing clarifies your thinking; it triggers creativity and new connections. That’s why it’s so important just to get started. Get the pen moving. Do the best you can. And somewhere along the way you’ll figure out what you actually have to say. 

When you embrace this principle, you will hold less tightly to your original idea/thesis/outline. Obviously you have to have some idea to start with, or you won’t start at all. I usually need at least a rough outline before I start putting words on the page. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the outline is probably wrong. Sometimes teachers require students to submit a thesis statement before they write their papers. Even so, hold it loosely. Hopefully your teacher will rejoice alongside you when discover a more compelling thesis statement later in the process. Here’s my point in a nutshell: Don’t limit yourself to the amount of brilliance and insight you have at the beginning of the writing process.

It would be great if your best ideas came first, and then you could start with full confidence that the end product was going to be brilliant. Sometimes that happens. Usually not. Usually you have to take a step of faith, believing that if you just tend to your business, good things are going to happen.

Principle 2: Reorganize around your best ideas. If you’re writing a five-page essay, somewhere around the four-and-a-half page mark of the first draft you are going o have a brilliant idea. You will think to yourself, “Aha! I have discovered my conclusion!” Not true. What you have discovered is your introduction. I don’t care that it is on page five. You had to get those first four pages out of your system so you could get to that great idea. Take that idea—your new thesis—build an introduction around it, and start again.

You’ll probably be able to rescue a lot of your original draft. Some of those ideas that were feeling a little flat will now take on new significance in light of your new, better thesis. Some of your ideas, to be sure, will have to go. Your new thesis will clarify what belongs and what doesn’t. By the time you get to page five again, you probably will have come up with another brilliant way to articulate, summarize, and synthesize your ideas. There’s your conclusion.

Principle 3: Start early enough to put Principles 1 and 2 into practice. None of this is helpful if you start at 10:00 the night before your essay is due. It takes time to get to your best ideas, and it takes time to reorganize around them. So often I have received five-page essays that are dull, dull, dull until page five, then brilliant for half a page. Most of those writers knew where the real action was in their papers. They just didn’t have time to do anything about it.

I know if can be hard to start. I have procrastinatory tendencies myself. But I refer you to Principle 1 above: it’s a lot easier to get started when you give yourself permission to write a bad first draft. You don’t have to wait until the brilliance comes. Just get started and trust the process.

One more thing: try to remember that the person who has to read your academic writing is an actual human being with dreams and hopes—a person who values his or her time and probably isn’t getting paid much and has to read a whole lot of dull essays. Love that reader. Surprise and delight that reader. Your grades will take care of themselves.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Writing Hospitably

A while back one of my online writing students asked the following question:

I’m finding that I’m having trouble striking a balance between too much scene-setting (delaying the really important action) and too little scene-setting or detail (so that the reader has difficulty knowing why the main action is important). Do you have any advice on either how to mentally frame things when starting to write so that there’s room for the complete action to unfold, or for how to approach the editing/revising to more clearly see what’s lacking and why?

I love this question because it gets at a core principle of good writing: you are forever balancing some tension (and usually more than one tension at a time). This writer is struggling with the tension between the need to set the scene–both literally, showing the reader where the action is taking place, and figuratively, giving the reader why some context for why this action is happening and why it’s important–and the need to get on with the action.

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Love Letters–Valentine’s Day 2019

When I was a much younger man, I found myself in the greeting card section of some store or other while my young bride was shopping. To pass the time, I started reading the greeting cards–first the funny ones, then the lovey-dovey ones. And what I saw among the lovey-dovey ones shocked and mortified me: Every idea or feeling expressed in every one of those cards was an idea or feeling that I had, at one time or another, considered putting into a poem or letter to my wife.

Somehow we get it in our heads that our emotions are unique. It was a blow to my ego to stand there in the greeting card aisle and realize that all those highly refined feelings I felt about my wife had been felt before–and by enough people that those feelings could become the basis of a mass-market product! 

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Facts and Non-Fiction

A former online student wrote with a question about facts and non-fiction:

When I write, I make it a serious aim to be truthful and honest. I don’t want to force meaning into something, but bring out what’s already there, as you taught me years ago. But in order to tell something in an interesting and compelling way, sometimes you have to bring it together in an artful way that might not be 100 percent accurate. The heart of the truth is preserved—sometimes even better than it would be if you confused the issue with useless (to the reader) information … So as long as I’m concerned for the truth and kindness toward everyone I write about, is it okay to not be totally accurate? 

This writer had written up a non-fiction account of an event involving a few friends. When she showed it to one of the friends who had been there, the friend was bothered by the fact that she had telescoped several hours’ worth of events into a short scene and changed a few other details. The writer, on the other hand, was bothered by the fact that her friend was bothered.

So, how much are you “allowed” to monkey with the facts of a piece that purports to be non-fiction? At what point have you crossed the threshold from non-fiction into fiction—or into lying? I get this kind of question relatively often.

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Love Thy Reader (Part 2)

Last week I wrote about loving your reader—flipping the switch from writing for what you can get from the reader to writing for what you can give to the reader. I didn’t quite get around to practicalities, but here in Part 2 I will attempt to show how loving your reader changes the way you think about every aspect of writing, right down to your grammar.

Loving Grammar

I’ve been putting together a new online course called Grammar for Writers. The driving principle of this course is that good grammar is a way to love your reader. I realize we don’t usually associate grammar with love. Even people who say they love grammar usually mean they love correcting other people’s grammar. (Did that sound judgmental? Well, if the Grammar Police are going to dish it out, they’d better learn how to take it too.) Consider the glee with which people collect and correct grammar and usage mistakes. Such grammar policing has nothing to do with love. I’m sure you’ve noticed how correct usage and spelling have been weaponized in online comments sections. If I can point out an opponent’s grammar and spelling mistakes, that feels like a pretty decent substitute for the moral high ground.

Too often we think of grammar in terms of correctness. Correctness tends to be about the writer. I strive for correct usage, not so much because I love my reader, but because I love myself and don’t want my reader to think I’m unintelligent or undereducated. 

Instead of thinking of grammar as a way of signaling something about me and my credentials, I have found it helpful to think of good grammar as a means of making life easier for the reader who might want to hear from me. A few weeks ago I wrote about the fact that the passive voice requires extra decoding work from your reader; I argued that when you ask more of your reader it’s important that you give them more. That’s an example of what I mean when I say that loving your reader is relevant even to the grammar you use.

A friend of mine recently wrote the following sentence in a piece she submitted to a well-known website:

Social media shows us tight circles of friends, inside jokes, and meet-ups we weren’t invited to, all providing fertile soil for jealousy.

Her editor pointed out that the word media is plural, not singular, so it would be more proper to write:

Social media show us tight circles of friends, inside jokes, and meet-ups we weren’t invited to, all providing fertile soil for jealousy.

The editor was correct. The word media is technically plural and technically should take a plural verb. But notice how the the grammar draws attention to itself in that clause, Social media show us. The reader pauses, steps out of the sentence, stops thinking about social media and inside jokes and jealousy altogether, and thinks, Social media show? Shouldn’t that be social media shows? No, social media is plural. I guess the writer got it right after all. 

Now, if you’re a certain kind of writer (I almost said certain kind of person), you may think this is an excellent outcome: the reader has thought about your skills as a grammarian and has judged you correct. If you are that kind of writer, you have your reward in full.

But if you care about your content and you care about your reader, and you want to introduce them to one another, you don’t want your readers to think about your grammar at all. You want them to stay in the sentence and think about social media, tight circles of friends, inside jokes, and jealousy. So you look for another way to skin that cat—a way that is grammatically correct without calling attention to the grammar. You might write something like: 

If you’ve spent any time on social media, you know about the tight circles of friends, the inside jokes, the meet-ups you weren’t invited to; all of this is fertile soil for jealousy.

That’s another lovely thing about English grammar: it is so flexible that it always gives you another way to love your reader.  

Loving Word Choice
I’ve gotten a number of questions lately about vocabulary and diction. This is another area in which it is helpful to discern your motives: are you choosing your words because you hope your reader will think or feel certain things about you, or are you choosing words that connect a reader you care about with content that you care about?

I appreciated the honesty of a writer who got in touch a couple of weeks ago, when “sophisticated fifth-graders” came up: 

I read the thesaurus when I actually was a quasi-sophisticated fifth grader, and I liked to try out new words in casual conversations with my big brothers. They often called me out. “Did you learn a new word today?” Even now, if I read an unfamiliar word in a novel, I stop and look it up, and often applaud the author. Basically, I have an abundant vocabulary, and I use it when I write. 

I’ve had occasions where I’ve used a word that I think is exactly right, but it might be a little obscure, and an editor will change it to something more commonplace. I understand — I don’t want to come across as a thesaurus-hound who tries to fancify my pedestrian prose — but I liked my word better!

There is nothing unusual about this writer’s struggle with word choice. I suspect that most of us who care about words could have written a similar couple of paragraphs, so I don’t wish to single this writer out for criticism. But do you see how much of this passage is concerned with how the writer comes across and what the writer wants? He doesn’t want to look like a thesaurus hound. He applauds authors for their obscure words and wants to use obscure words of his own. He pushes back on his editor because he likes his words better than the editor’s words. In these two paragraphs, there is a writer, there is an editor, there are even critics (the writer’s big brothers), but there is no reader. 

This writer (like the rest of us) needs to stop thinking about how he comes across and which words he likes to use, and he needs to start thinking about what helps connect the reader with content that the reader needs. When he does, that formidable vocabulary of his takes on a new significance. Now a big vocabulary represents more ways to give good gifts to his readers. Sometimes they need simple, straightforward words; sometimes they need to be stretched; sometimes they need metaphor and simile; sometimes they need vivid imagery; sometimes a well-placed five-dollar latinate word is just the thing. 

“I like my word better!” won’t convince an editor. But “I chose this word because it gives X and Y to the reader”—that’s a response an editor has to listen to. 

Killing Your Darlings

Somebody famously said, “Kill your darlings.” (Faulkner is usually credited as the source of that quotation, but this article from Slate suggests otherwise.) What are your darlings, and why should you kill them? In your writing, your darlings are those passages that cause you to suspect that you are a genius after all. You must be willing to sacrifice those darlings for the sake of the work—for the sake of the reader—”even when it breaks your egocentric scribbler’s heart,” as Stephen King put it.

But isn’t it possible that your writing that you love the best might actually be your best writing? It would be a shame to kill those darlings too. So how do you decide which darlings must be put to death? Once again, the principle “Love thy reader” comes to the rescue. 

Ask yourself why a darling passage is so dear to you. Is it dear because it makes you feel good about yourself? If so, feel good about yourself; you have written something beautiful or clever or funny or insightful. Rejoice. But that doesn’t mean you should foist it on the poor reader, who never signed up to affirm you or give meaning to your life.

But on the other hand, perhaps that passage is dear to you because it would be dear to your readers, giving them something that they couldn’t get for themselves. In that case, let that darling live. 

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