April 16, 2012

Excellence in Writing

Writing is a skill we can continue to hone no matter our age. The Superb Writers' Blogathon, brought to you by Grammarly grammar checker, is a web series dedicated to helping all aspiring writers achieve greatness.

I first became aware of Grammarly by their funny geeky posts on Facebook, and then they emailed to ask if I would like to participate in their Superb Writers’ Blogathon. The point is to talk about excellence in writing.  I am so on board with that!  Any time we can promote good grammar and excellent writing, I am thrilled.

When I was getting my master’s, I taught freshman composition.  I so much enjoyed it ~ meeting people with such good will and so focused on their futures and on figuring out the world.  However, they came into the classroom with such stark fear on their faces.  Someone once did a poll on what college students feared most.  Number one was nuclear war, but right after that was writing for English class.  Now that says something. 

Another thing.  Inevitably, someone would get in a jam or think they were getting away with something and would turn in a plagiarized paper.  Now I ask you: Do you think a master carpenter can tell the difference between the work of Jack Handyman and another master carpenter?  Do you think a pianist of 30 years’ experience knows the difference between the playing of a college student and someone who is her or his peer?  Can a doctor suss out the difference in effectiveness of treatment of your home remedies versus tried and true scientific method?  Well, we would certainly hope so. 

And so it was with the plagiarized papers.  Because the students couldn’t tell the difference between their own writing and the papers they plagiarized, whether it was bought from a paper mill or pulled together from sources on the net, they thought I couldn’t. 

All this to say, there are standards of excellence in writing.  Sure, there is a lot that is subjective, and once you reach a certain level, it is based more and more on personal taste, but there is a definite difference between poor, good, and great.

So what exactly is excellent writing?  Well, there are libraries full of books to tell us just that, but let me give you the three-minute version.

Clarity ~ Good writing is clear writing.  You don’t use big words to bolster your confidence or try to snow your readers.  You don’t use big words to try to make yourself sound important.  Your goal is to be as clear and straightforward as possible, using the simplest words that you can to convey your meaning.  Sometimes, though, you need to use big words, but that’s because those words fit the rhetorical situation you are in and the concepts you are trying to convey.

Precision ~ Le mot juste, or the right word.  Don’t guess when you use a word.  If you are a little hazy on its meaning, look it up.  I’ve edited seasoned professional writers who will stick a word in there that they think approximates the meaning they were searching for, but it will be all wrong.  It happens with verbs, but it also with proper names ~ in this age of the internet, you have no excuse for not looking up the exact wording or spelling of a proper name.  You don’t use a quarter inch ratchet when you need a 6 mm, and you don’t use affect when effect is the right word.

The right details ~ Along with precision comes the right details.  If your detail only does one thing in a scene, it’s not enough.  Each detail needs to do two or three or four things.  It needs to tell us about character and about setting and so much more.  Interesting and surprising and luscious details.

Muscular verbs ~ Your verbs do the work and pull the reader along.  Try to use active verbs and avoid to-be constructions when at all possible.  Related to this is to avoid passive tense as much as possible, as it leads to convolution.  This isn’t possible in all situations, as often in professional writing the doer needs to be submerged so there’s plausible deniability, but as much as possible, active verbs.

Structure ~ Having a predictable structure makes it easy for your reader to follow your thoughts.  We’ve all read those impenetrable papers.  If you’re writing nonfiction, the structure of a thesis-based essay is not a bad place to start.  The first part is a hook to draw your reader in and ends with a bald statement of your assertion or thesis.  Then the sections below each have their own assertion that supports the thesis and each paragraph has a strong topic sentence followed by rich evidence. You end where you started ~ at your thesis ~ but watch out because you’ll often argue yourself into a slightly different place.  For fiction and other forms of writing, structure is just as important. Study your writing heroes for their tricks.

Unity ~ I would tell my students, a piece of writing is like a well-designed tool ~ everything in it is there for a purpose.  Nothing is just thrown in for good measure.  That is, it’s unified.  It all has a reason, and you don’t just throw something in that you think will be interesting. If you have a sneaking suspicion that it needs to be left out, it does.

Coherence ~ I don’t mean as opposed to incoherent, the general term for confusing, but rather the technical writing term that means everything in the right order.  You should have an order in mind (chronological, theme, frame structure, whatever) and then follow through on it.  This is often a problem in technical writing where the writer doesn’t follow an overall plan. You’re teaching your reader your structure from your very first line, so it’s important to set it up and telegraph it to the reader so they know what’s coming.  And for heaven’s sake if you set it up one way, follow through.

Development ~ A few people are blessed with the ability to go on and on (and they become English majors) but everyone else tends to write short.  Things have to be adequately explained, or developed.  Topic sentences need to be supported with evidence.  The argument needs to move forward slowly and steadily.  In fiction, your readers need all the help they can get ~ don’t keep them guessing.  Of course, you may also have to trim, but err on the side of development, especially on the first draft.

Awareness of audience ~ You’re not writing to a void.  The point of writing is to communicate and so be aware of the audience or audiences you are writing for and make it as easy for them as possible.  Give them credit for intelligence, but don’t make it hard for them. Think about their vocabulary and what they know and don’t know.  In fact, every writing situation you are in, you should first ask, “Who is my audience?” and then you need to adjust your rhetorical stance to best reach them.  How do you hook them?  Are you addressing two audiences with opposing views, which is very difficult?  Perhaps you should bury your thesis toward the end and try to get people on board before you baldly state your objective.

Style ~ It’s hard to talk about style.  It is the ineffable.  But, whether fiction or nonfiction, the best way to develop your style is to start by mimicking the greats.  Try to write like your writer heroes.  If you like spare, try Hemingway.  If you like lush, try David Foster Wallace.  If you’re trying to combine storytelling and magazine style, try the wonderful Susan Orlean.  If you’re working on hard-hitting news reporting, read the major papers. Whomever. And don’t be afraid to experiment, but know that part of the learning process in anything is failure, so don’t be precious about it and throw out what doesn’t work and keep going.

Be interesting ~ One of the things freshman have a hard time getting to is that their work needs to be interesting.  Unpredictable.  Surprising.  That’s why the five-paragraph essay can be deadly because they don’t reach, they don’t surprise themselves, and the reader is left to yawn.  This is part of audience awareness too.  This is a good one for fiction writers ~ you need to follow your genre but you also need to be above all interesting, to vary the convention.  Ask yourself: has this been done millions of times before? Always, always, push yourself and your ideas.

So, how can we achieve excellent writing?  Lots and lots of lots of work.  10,000 hours, as Malcolm Gladwell says.  You need to revise everything you write.  You need to get feedback from your friends who are writers.  You need to read extensively, in your genre and grammar books and dictionaries and the OED, for heaven’s sake.  Strunk and White is your bible.  Words need to become the tools that you know inside and out, their connotations, their denotations, their matrilineal ancestry, and where they like to hang out and have a beer. 

You are a carpenter of words, my friend, and whether you are bent on a bird house or the Taj Mahal, do the work to make it the finest you can.


Brent Stratford said...

Thanks for the great direction Tamara. The one thing I would add is if you, as a writer, do not love what you have written you cannot expect others to like it.

I periodically struggle with getting a sentence or a scene or even a whole chapter to feel "right." After revising and revising I sometimes convince myself that it is ok and is good enough to get by. Inevitably, those are the sentences or scenes or chapters that get garner the most criticism.

So my recommendation would be to massage your writing. Play with it. Coerce it. Wrestle with it. Do whatever it take to get it to the point that you love it. Don't satisfice. Be great.

Tamara said...

I love that! Play with it. Coerce it. Live with it. A great motto for writing.

I would also add ~ not just love but hate. Sometimes when you're dragging stuff out from within you that is so painful you want to curl up in a ball, that's the the most powerful stuff.

Exactly. Don't be satisfied; be great. I love that!

Thanks, Brent!

~ Tamara

Optimum Awareness said...

thanks for helping your fellow writers

Tamara said...

Thank you, OA!