Thursday, December 21, 2006

The following was recently written on the blog The article was helpful for me and I think it will be for you too.

Not sure if this will work for you or anyone else, but it works for me. Not sure if it has a name, or if I just sort of discovered it, but here's what I do when I have something big to write.

Let's say you're writing a paper on the philosophy of tables. Create a space in your brain (just think it, and it's there) for the project. Tell yourself that that's where all the stuff you know about tables and philosophy should go. From now on, during your life, if you see a table, or something that has to do with the philosophy of tables, it will go there. You might be reading the newspaper, and see something on the philosophy of tables. Boom. You're mind will absorb it. Like a sponge. Like a magnet. Furthermore, your mind will also pull thoughts from within. It will take everything you've learned about tables and philosophy before, and store it there, or at least form a connection to it.

Then put as much as you can into physical form. List all the random thoughts on a piece of paper. Type them out. You can do this all at once if you like. Probably better to keep a running list as you get ideas. Store the ideas on a notebook while you're out and about, and then, when you come home, type them into your computer. Put all the thoughts there and look at them. Let the thoughts spill from your brain, to your fingers, to the screen, then back through your eyes again. Think about it.

After I've attracted a small fleet of ideas and written them down, I go skating. If you can't skate, you might want to swim, go biking, walk, do yoga or taiji, etc. Do something that you're good at—good enough not to think about it. I don't have to think when I skate. My mind shuts off and thinks of other things. My body is in physical control of itself, and my mind can now process all the information I've gathered in quite a magical way. I suppose it's a form of meditation. You want to be able to shut off and tune out. Let your body do its thing, and let your mind do its thing. While skating, I'm listening to music and thinking about the project. The randomness of the road, my body's reaction to the curb, the sidewalk, etc., mixed with the randomness of the music I listen to (I set my iPod to random), acts as a sort of tiller, to chop up and stir up ideas and form new connections in ways that I probably couldn't have got just sitting down at a desk. It's like taking all these ideas, putting them in a food processor, blending them, boiling them, stewing them, etc. After a while, a cohesive flavor emerges which is the sum of its parts, even though all you had when you started was a bunch of vegetables and spices.

Sit down and write and the words flow quite easily.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Standard Deviations of Writing

The following link is an article by Roger MacBride Allen on standard deviations of writing. He discusses how incorrect story structure is the most common error in writing. He emphasizes that errors in story writing are most often caused by the story structure, not the story itself. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Age of the Essay

The following is a link which will undoubtedly be helpful for any college students working their way through each painful essay. It seems that we learn to cope with the pain of writing essays throughout school, but do we ever learn to harness the power afforded by a well written essay? I've written a few good essays in my time. I've also written some pretty terrible essays in my time. I think the tips outlined by this website will help us all in being more consistently good essay writers.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing

The above link will send you to Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing. Leonard discussess a few tips that have enabled him to become a more polished, and more importantly, entertaining writer. This site is a must for anyone interested in writing fiction.

Thirty Tools for Writers

By Roy Peter Clark
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

At times it helps to think of writing as carpentry. That way, writers and editors can work from a plan and use tools stored on their workbench. A writer or coaching editor can borrow a writing tool at any time. And here’s a secret: Unlike hammers and chisels, writing tools never have to be returned. They can be passed on to another journalist without losing them.

Below is a list of 30 writing and revising tools. We have borrowed them from reporters and editors, from authors of books on writing, and from teachers and coaches. Many come from reading the work of storytellers we admire. The brief descriptions should be enough to help you build your own tool collection.

Sentences and Paragraphs

1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs, letting subordinate elements branch off to the right. Even a very long sentence can be clear and powerful when the subject and verb make meaning clear early.

2. Use verbs in their strongest form, the simple present or past. Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.

3. Beware of adverbs. Too often, they dilute the meaning of the verb or repeat it: "The building was completely destroyed."

4. Place strong words at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs, and at the end. The period acts as a stop sign. Any word next to the period says "look at me."


5. Observe "word territory." That is, give key words their own space. Do not repeat an emphatic word unless you intend a specific effect.

6. Play with words, even in serious stories. Choose common words that rarely appear in news reports.

7. Dig for the concrete and specific: the name of the dog and the brand of the beer. Details help readers see the story.

8. Rather than settle for clich├ęs, seek original images. Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language.

9. Prefer the simple over the technical: shorter words and paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.

10. Recognize the mythic, symbolic, and poetic. Be aware that common themes of news writing (homecoming, conquering obstacles, loss, and restoration) have deep roots in the culture of storytelling.

11. When the news or topic is most serious, understate. When the topic is least serious, exaggerate.


12. For clarity, slow the pace of information. Short sentences make the reader move slowly. Time to think. Time to learn.

13. Control the pace of the story by varying sentence length. Long sentences create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding, an effect that Don Fry calls "steady advance." Or slam on the brakes.

14. Show and tell. Move up and down the ladder of abstraction. At the bottom are bloody knives and rosary beads, wedding rings and baseball cards. At the top are "meaning" words like 'freedom' and 'literacy.' Beware of the middle, where bureaucracy and public policy live. There teachers are refered to as "instructional units."

15. Reveal telling character traits and the power of human speech. Avoid adjectives when describing people. Don’t say "enthusiastic" or "talkative," but use a scene or quote so the person reveals those characteristics to the reader.

16. Strive for "voice," the illusion that the writer is speaking to the reader. Read the story aloud to hear if it sounds like you.


17. Take advantage of narrative opportunities. Figure out when you're writing a story, as opposed to an article. Think of action, complication, motivation, setting, chronology, and dialogue.

18. Thaw out the Five W's: Who becomes Character; What becomes Action; Where becomes Setting; When becomes Chronology.

19. Place gold coins along the path. Don’t load all your best stuff high in the story. Space special effects throughout the story, encouraging readers to find them and be delighted by them.

20. Use sub-headlines to index the story for the reader. This tool tests the writer’s ability to find, and label, the big parts.

21. Repeat key words or images to "chain" the story together. Repetition works only if you intend it.

22. In storytelling, the number of examples has meaning: One declares. Two divides. Three surrounds. Four inventories.

23. Write endings to lock the box. Place your hand over the last paragraph and ask "What would happen if my story ended here?" Seek the natural stopping place.

The Writing Life

24. Transform procrastination into rehearsal, a way of writing a story in your head.

25. Turn every story into a workshop during which you learn something new about your craft.

26. Break long projects into parts, long stories into chapters.

27. Read for both form and content. If you want to write more clearly, read the clearest stories you can find and figure out what makes them clear.

28. Create a support network of friends, colleagues, editors, and coaches who can give you feedback on your work.

29. Limit self-criticism at the beginning of stories. Turn it loose during revision.

30. Do your best to tolerate even unreasonable criticism of your work as a way of growing as a writer.

This list contains tools, not rules. In using them, we work outside the realm of right and wrong, and within the land of cause and effect. Coaching editors can share them with writers. They are keys to unlock stories and solve problems within them.


Language Crimes: A Lesson in How Not to Write,

The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 1999

Denis Dutton

Pick up an academic book, and there’s no reason to expect the writing to be graceful or elegant. Many factors attract people to the scholarly life, but an appealing prose style was never a requirement for the job.

Having spent the past 23 years editing a scholarly journal, Philosophy and Literature, I have come to know many lucid and lively academic writers. But for every superb stylist there are a hundred whose writing is no better than adequate — or just plain awful.

While everyone moans (rightly) about the decline in student literacy, not enough attention has been given to deplorable writing among the professoriate. Things came to a head, for me, a few years ago when I opened a new book aptly called The End of Education: Toward Posthumanism. It began:

“This book was instigated by the Harvard Core Curriculum Report in 1978 and was intended to respond to what I took to be an ominous educational reform initiative that, without naming it, would delegitimate the decisive, if spontaneous, disclosure of the complicity of liberal American institutions of higher learning with the state’s brutal conduct of the war in Vietnam and the consequent call for opening the university to meet the demands by hitherto marginalized constituencies of American society for enfranchisement.”

This was written by a professor of English. He’s supposed to teach students how to write.

Fed up, I resolved to find out just how low the state of academic writing had sunk. I could use the Internet to solicit the most egregious examples of awkward, jargon-clogged academic prose from all over the English-speaking world. And so the annual Bad Writing Contest was born.

The rules were simple: Entries should be a sentence or two from an actual published scholarly book or journal article. No translations into English allowed, and the entries had to be nonironic: We could hardly admit parodies in a field where unintentional self-parody was so rampant.

Each year for four years now the contest has attracted around 70 entries. The judges are myself and my co-editors at Philosophy and Literature, and the winner is announced in the journal.

No one denies the need for a specialized vocabulary in biochemistry or physics or in technical areas of the humanities like linguistics. But among literature professors who do what they now call “theory” — mostly inept philosophy applied to literature and culture — jargon has become the emperor’s clothing of choice.

Thus in A Defense of Poetry, English Prof. Paul Fry writes: “It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading, the helplessness — rather than the will to power — of its fall into conceptuality.” If readers are baffled by a phrase like “disclosing the absentation of actuality,” they will imagine it’s due to their own ignorance. Much of what passes for theory in English departments depends on this kind of natural humility on the part of readers. The writing is intended to look as though Mr. Fry is a physicist struggling to make clear the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Of course, he’s just an English professor showing off.

The vatic tone and phony technicality can also serve to elevate a trivial subject. Many English departments these days find it hard to fill classes where students are assigned Milton or Melville, and they are transforming themselves into departments of so-called cultural studies, where the students are offered the analysis of movies, television programs, and popular music. Thus, in a laughably convoluted book on the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding affair, we read in a typical sentence that “this melodrama parsed the transgressive hybridity of un-narratived representative bodies back into recognizable heterovisual modes.”

The pretentiousness of the worst academic writing betrays it as a kind of intellectual kitsch, analogous to bad art that declares itself “profound” or “moving” not by displaying its own intrinsic value but by borrowing these values from elsewhere. Just as a cigar box is elevated by a Rembrandt painting, or a living room is dignified by sets of finely bound but unread books, so these kitsch theorists mimic the effects of rigor and profundity without actually doing serious intellectual work. Their jargon-laden prose always suggests but never delivers genuine insight. Here is this year’s winning sentence, by Berkeley Prof. Judith Butler, from an article in the journal Diacritics:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.

As a lifelong student of Kant, I know that philosophy is not always well-written. But when Kant or Aristotle or Wittgenstein are most obscure, it’s because they are honestly grappling with the most complex and difficult problems the human mind can encounter. How different from the desperate incantations of the Bad Writing Contest winners, who hope to persuade their readers not by argument but by obscurity that they too are the great minds of the age.

Travel Writing for Fun and Profit

There is a poignant scene in the film Jules and Jim by Francois Truffaut, in which, one character (Jules) expresses his envy for his best friend Jim. Jim responds in way I think we all have felt at sometime. The following is an exerpt from their conversation translated into English courtesy of
Jules: Maybe one day...I'll write a love story...

where the characters will be insects

Jules: I have a bad tendency to overspecialise

Jules: I envy you your broad scope, Jim

Jim: Me? I'm a failure

Jim: Prof Albert Sorel taught me the little I know. He said "You want to be what?"
A diplomat. "Are you rich?" No. "Can you legitimately add a famous name to your own surname?"No.
"Then forget diplomacy". But what'll I become? "Curious". That's not a profession, not yet.
"Travel, write, translate. Learn to live everywhere. Begin at once.The future belongs to the curious.
The French have stayed behind their borders too long. Newspapers'll pay for your escapades".

The following link will send you to a wonderful article by Phil Philcox on Travel Writing for Fun and Profit.
If Jim's attitude in some way reflects your own, this article will be of interest to you.