Tag Archives: writing advice

We are in Thought

When minds close, democracy begins to close. Fear creeps in; silence overtakes speech”

-Terry Tempest Williams, “The Open Space of Democracy”

One of the things that happened to me today when I was moved to include an epigraph for what I am writing here was that there were too many options to choose from. I took this to be a good sign.

I spent some time this morning reading through your blog posts. Each of you is thinking through, and with, the readings that have preoccupied us these past Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. I appreciate our efforts as we struggle to find words to express what is most often glimpsed and rarely expressed. We are demonstrating, at least to my mind, that thinking is something that we do together—that thought is not so much in our heads but that we are quite literally in thought. Might this be Emerson’s intimation in his riffs on “the mind of the Past”?

Let me begin this survey of your blogging by calling out Miles and Savannah for their exemplary use of tags. In “Fulfilling the Ideal,” Miles writes his way into Williams’ commencement speech “The Open Space of Democracy.” He calls attention to qualities of democratic life, including insecurity and vulnerability, mentioned by Williams, the messy and chaotic space of democratic life. But the post is really driving at the relationship of the terms Miles uses as tags: democracy, knowledge, empathy. Might this be a beginning, perhaps a new start? Miles quotes Williams: “Empathy is vital to a properly functioning democracy.” This is, indeed, the core of what Williams is asking her audience to consider. “I came to understand through an education in the humanities that knowledge is another form of democracy, the freedom of expression that leads to empathy,” she says.

Or consider Savannah’s post “The Man Thinking” and the tags “Commencement,” “democracy,” “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” and “Scholars.” This piece of writing begins with two paragraphs about the occasion and genre of the commencement or convocation (as we talked about in class). The essay then shifts to Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” I’m left wondering, though, what is it at stake here? One place to begin may be the quotation from Emerson about books. “Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.” This might offer a way into talking about claiming (not receiving) an education and/or the interesting relationship between open minds and open hearts.

Another place to begin is with confusion. We are grateful to Ben for saying precisely this in his “Commencement Speech Response” (a title that might be on its way to another). He quotes Williams, “I have always believed democracy is best practiced through its construction, not its completion.” He then offers a reading that clarifies the conclusion. Perhaps a closer and more extended reading of this idea—construction, building, making as opposed to a fixed structure, completion, made? What does it mean to define democracy as a process and not something achieved? Did not Emerson and Whitman say much the same thing. . . ? And Patrick, in “Emerson Again: Beware the Emotional Response in Politics,” artfully selects a sentence vibrating with implications both past and present: “In the degenerate state, when (a man is) the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of another men’s thinking.” And Stephanie, in a delightfully titled post “Make us uncomfortable. Make us think. Make us feel” explores the meaning and implications of what Williams calls “Responsive citizenship.” There is a thread that might be an organizing feature of this blog post: the continuity between Whitman and Emerson’s call for thinking and feeling and response.

These are some of the examples we can learn from and build on as you continue reading, thinking, and writing.

 

 

 

Thinking and Making

Here are a few general notes of advice for writers that may prove useful to you as we move into individual conferences and in-class writing workshops:

Context
Write in a recognizable intellectual context (disciplinary, critical, historical, theoretical)

Write for a real person, someone who is engaged in the subject and interested in what you have to say (be honest, be genuine)

Purpose
Write beyond the assignment: challenge yourself, use the essay to improve as a writer

Be motivated (you should have a reason why you are doing one thing and not another)

Articulate your main idea, purpose, argument, claim (the main idea should be clear and distinct)

Be confident. Write with courage, conviction, originality (say “it is” rather “it seems”)

Embrace complexity (go beyond first thoughts, commonplaces and clichés, don’t reduce complexity)

Writing with Sources
Make connections: embed your discussion in other intellectual contexts and make use of intertextual thinking. Follow writers to their sources, read those sources, and use those sources to think with the writer

Build Credibility/Authority (primary and secondary, quoted in vs. quoted from)

Use appropriate/Relevant Evidence (evidence chosen that makes you more persuasive)

Set up (lead in to suggest how to read) and follow up (discuss/analyze fully each quotation)

Design
Use organization and structure thoughtfully (sections, paragraphs)

Be logical (your sequence of thoughts, what Steven Pinker calls “arcs of coherence”)

Build sentences and work on your repertoire of sentence structures (use of phrases, apposition, semi-colons and dashes, etc.)

Precision and Presentation
Focus (idea), not generalizing, be specific, choose words, clarity (cut irrelevant words/sentences)

Be professional (if your writing is careless you will not be taken seriously)

Document (consistently and accurately, if you have a question ask the professor)

Control grammar, spelling, punctuation (learn your problems and solve them, never make the same mistake twice)

Write with fluency, grace, style (read aloud, leave time in process to work on sentences)