“The effective use of words to engage the human mind.”
-Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014)
Steven Pinker’s succinct definition of what constitutes style in writing is useful. A cognitive scientist, linguist, and writer, Pinker knows well that the effective use of words is among the most challenging activities the human animal has contrived—and for students, more’s the pity: for whether you are writing a lab report, an abstract, a research proposal or paper, a review article, or a journal entry, writing will challenge you.
Much like an athlete building muscle-memory, writers need to practice and be persistent to become proficient at writing. For this reason learning to write—like learning to ski, surf, or dance—takes time. Writing teaches writing, for sure; but so does reading. “Many times the reading of a book has made the fortune of the reader—has decided his way of life,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, who happens to be one of the most helpful literary mentors for readers, thinkers, and writers.
There is, in fact, a broad consensus that effective writing is among the most important outcome of a college education. Working scientists need to be effective writers to contribute to peers in their field of study and to communicate and translate complex ideas for a general audience. Educators must communicate effectively with their students and other stakeholders to assure the integrity of educational institutions and methods. In any professional field of work, effective writing matters. No matter your major or academic interest, you should be faced with (and seek out!) writing in as many different situations as possible. Humanities students need to be writing papers in the biological sciences and science students need to be writing research papers.
But there we are, again, back at that word effective.
In our writing workshops during the first half of the course we have focused most of our attention on becoming a bit more clear about what we are actually doing when we we are writing. Questions of purpose and audience are primary. And, as we have discovered, it is often difficult for a reader (and, as we have also found) and for a writer to really understand what one is doing. This problem is particularly acute for people writing in school.
Guiding Principles Let me offer a set of guiding principles that will help you as you work on your essays in the next few weeks:
- Principle 1: Effective writing requires thinking well. It demands the labor of getting thoughts into words
- Principle 2: Effective writing earns trust. A reader know when a writer cares and has used that care to write something that engages an informed reader
- Principle 3: Effective writing is writing that is not (merely) specialized. In this course, as in most courses, whether you are a declared major in one field or another matters very little. Purpose, evidence, and reasoning—these are precisely the expectations in the sciences as well as the humanities. Context and discipline specific conventions will come into play–but in this course, they are secondary. For whether you are describing the steps in a mathematical proof, articulating the relationship among constituent parts of a complex natural and cultural system, or analyzing a cultural narrative or symbol, the standards are much more alike than different
- Principle 4: Effective writing—in this course and in other courses that involve reading—requires working (or thinking) with a text. Every paragraph you write will more likely than not have at least one quotation from the book. You need to explain clearly and precisely why the language you are citing is relevant to what you are writing about. Once you quote (your evidence) you need to explain with precision why that evidence is in your writing (your reasoning) and then connect the language you take to be important to other passages in the book (or in other books or texts) that you find important.
- Principle 5: Effective writing is thinking in context In a chapter you read in this course, “The Agricultural Crisis as a Crisis of Culture” Wendell Berry concludes that “moral ignorance” is the etiquette of agricultural ‘process’” (48). Berry is echoing what he calls earlier the cultural dis-ease of specialization, a point that Rachel Carson also makes in Silent Spring when she is arguing for what we might call thinking ecologically or, to use Tim Morton’s formulation, the ecological thought. Both writers are arguing that if we are not asking moral questions our thinking is incomplete.
Entering the Conversation: a Checklist for Writers In addition to the principles above I have pulled together a checklist for writers based on words about effective writing students have generated in some of my classes. These words for effective writing include flow/fluency, authentic/honest, authority, concise (no matter the length of the writing), using the text, thinking and writing in context. Here is the checklist
- Be interesting: Your idea(s) matter. Make sure there is a reason that an informed reader would want to read your writing. Take a reader somewhere: begin but do not end with the commonplace. Move from the commonplace to the surprising, the simple to the complex, the familiar to the unfamiliar, the obvious to the less obvious
- Be thoughtful Think. Then think again. To make sentences that are smart, engaging, exiting to read you will need to move from first to second and third thoughts. The work of writing is to use words effectively to engage other minds
- Be Concise Say what you have to say. Blog posts are relatively short. But effective blog posts do more with less. Every word and phrase and sentence matters. Many engaging blog posts have a three-part structure: a subject (a subject, usually familiar, indicating what the post is about), a turn (can be a “yet” or a “however” or a “but,” and an angle (your stance, what you have to say, the move you make in your thinking that makes what you have to say matter
- Be Authentic and Honest. Cultivate a Point of View Who are you? Where are you? What are you doing/ What are you thinking or feeling? What makes you interesting, worth talking with, or listening to? Your tone matters, too: conversational, strong, sharp, inviting—these are terms we use to describe effective writing
- Be professional You are publishing your writing. For this reason alone, your prose should be revised, revised, revised. Then (and only then) do you edit. It takes a lot of effort to get things exactly right.
- Format: Your essays will be more or less 1000 words. Each essay will include reflection / analysis / interpretation. For example, note key points or passages that you noticed in your reading and spend more time with it, dig in, probe it, try to understand it better, raise questions, suggest answers
- Make Connections Experiment with embedding your thinking in thought: in most of your writing you will be quoting from the writing of the books we are reading; but also, make use of the affordances of the Word Press blog. Learn how to make use of hyperlinks; organize blocks of text using paragraphs or bullet lists; use italics (or parenthetical comments) and bold face type, when appropriate
- Titles are a lesson in microstyle. Titles will be first and foremost informative, suggestive, substantive; but don’t miss opportunities to write clever, catchy, eye drawing titles. Most good titles are suggestions of better titles. Most often titles are the last thing you revise before you post
- Beginnings First sentences matter. Make them count. In most case state your purpose and your angle or point of view or argument. You might also try personal anecdotes, a sentence or a quotation, a reference to another college class, an intellectual context, or a field of study. Pay attention to how other writers begin
- Details, Details, Details Is the writing error free? If you have issues with spelling (one of my issues as a writer, as it happens) you need to build into your writing process a run through focused just on spelling. Are you using a consistent and unobtrusive system for citation: Are titles of books in italics and chapters, articles (and poems) in quotation marks? Are poems cited by line breaks or are dashes used to indicate line breaks? (“I went into the Maverick Bar / In Farmington, New Mexico.”)
The notes of the editorial assistants on the Workshops page is really instructive. Thank you. I hope that you will talk with one another, too, as some of you have been doing, about what constitutes effective writing.