Saturday, November 5, 2011

Show, Don't Tell - Even in Academic Writing!

Every creative writer has heard the mantra: "show, don't tell."  And in that venue, we can glean some meaning from the phrase.  (This ignores that no one has ever called a writer a "great story shower," but I will leave coining words for another day.)  A reader should see a story unfolding, if only to compete with the latest television offerings, however generally meager.  Even so, the phrase fails to access fully what great writing does.  A great story shows vivid images, colors, and movements, but keeps going.  Engaging a reader's inner eye matters, but the ear, the nose, the tongue, and the skin matter as well.  Great writing engages all five senses.  Eliciting emotion, empathy, and the like stems from that full engagement.  Consider J.K. Rowling.  I arrived late to reading and admiring Harry Potter, but when I finally picked up the series, I found books with light, sound, smell, touch, and taste, creating an entire world for me as reader.  Given that world, Rowling freed my mind to feel metaphorically, to enter emotionally into the characters' "lives" and engage on that emotional level.

So what does this have to do with academic writing, the realm of rigorous intellect and antiseptic logic?  Simply put, writing is writing.  The ivory tower of academia, a construct whose foundations have been, in various ways, crumbling for decades, does not create an inherently different kind of writing.  Readers' minds do not operate differently simply because their location changes.  We may condition ourselves to read differently, to expect different elements to what we read in different venues.  The more we engage the senses, though, the more fully we can engage a broader readership.

As anyone steeped in poststructural theory knows (to the extent a poststructuralist can admit to the capability of "knowing" anything), different experiences and perspectives create different reading experiences.  Writing creates problems, then, because each reader experiences the words they read differently.  This gap, as Derrida might have said, always already exists.  Nonetheless, we can begin to build a bridge across that gap by connecting to the senses.  This will not fully create a common reading for all; different readers will envision the bridge of the previous sentence in different ways: a Golden Gate, a Mackinac, or a covered bridge traversed by a horse and buggy.  If we describe the gap as a chasm, wind whipping below and shifting the bridge under us, a rainstorm washing sheets of rain roaring like white noise to obscure our vision through the windshield, we come closer to a common experience, having eliminated the footbridge and built in a vehicle, a particular set of sounds, and some tangible feeling of the bridge moving below.  From that set of sensory details, we can immerse ourselves further into the reading, guiding the reader's mind to join in the experience we have created.

Engaging the senses improves any style of writing: poetry or prose, academic writing or creative fiction.  After all, writing begins at a point of detachment.  The writer experiences something, whether intellectual or visceral, and puts that experience--already individual rather than communal--into words, and hopes readers can take the words and travel through them to reach a common point with the writer, which may already be a different point than that of the writer's original experience.  By grounding those words in the senses, the writer can enhance the reading experience, building more common ground for reader and writer to engage together.  And as an added bonus, the lexicological route they travel together becomes much more interesting for both.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Verbs Make Good Writing

Often people who want their language to sound intellectual or highbrow succeed only in detaching themselves from their prose.  They employ passive voice and excessive auxiliary verbs, resulting in writing that floats around the topic without ever effectively engaging and driving through it.  Such writing wilts on the page, so that readers have to force themselves to slog through sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph of writing that comes off almost exactly as interesting as limp leaves of lettuce.

Teachers of writing of course excoriate this practice; they rail against passive voice almost by habit, and implore aspiring writers to make their prose active.  But I seldom see anything that approaches the reasons for the problem.  They blast passive voice and "weak" verbs as simply bad writing.

That accusation carries some truth, of course.  I would argue, though, that some writers use these techniques intentionally, or at least use them because they are modeling their writing after others who did so.  By exploring and undermining some of the reasons for which people write so antiseptically, we can perhaps do more to help writers move past the resulting blandness.

The Ivory Tower

Much academic writing plays in passive voice and auxiliary verbs.  While academia at present is working to move past this, one can certainly see reasons it has traditionally wallowed in it.  One can be attributed to the metaphorical Ivory Tower.  The most prestigious academic institutions, for many years, prided themselves in approaching the world as bastions of intellectual glory that, while existing in the world, thrived separately from it.  Thus, prose that came alive from within a topic would seem to undermine that role.  Thus, one might write, "Although racism as public policy has disappeared, millions have been, and continue to be, affected by racism every day," rather than "Federal and state governments eliminated Jim Crow laws over time, but individuals and groups continue to punish minorities every day simply for the color of their skin."  The former seeks to remain above the fray, explaining without engaging, while the latter slips into the moment itself, reading as though it comes from within rather than without.

This approach, however, ignores something important about how language works: writing already exists separately from that to which it refers.  Semiotics and deconstruction teach (or in the minds of some, taught) that words refer to things or ideas, rather than being those things or people.  The word "chair" is not a chair; rather, it refers to an object--and without clarification, it may refer to, for example, a stool, a recliner, a rocking chair, or the wheeled, swiveling, leather-covered object on which I am sitting now.  We can write with more precision to try to make the referent more specific, and thus leave the same idea in most readers.  But if we think of the levels of separation between writer and reader, we have (1) the thing or concept in the writer's experience, (2) experienced in a unique way by that writer, (3) put into words in which the writer hopes to convey that experience, (4) the reader's interpretation of those words, (5) affected by things, ideas, or experiences that the reader holds.  A writer needs no help separating him/herself from the topic or the reader; if anything, trying to move closer to the experience with verbs (not to mention nouns and modifiers).  We need not use language to create barriers beyond those built into the structure of language.


Similarly, some use passive voice to avoid claiming positions, and auxiliary verbs to intentionally weaken the stance one assumes in positioning oneself.  The racism example above does this: racism is, and its victims are affected, rather than anyone having established it or acted to perpetuate it.  One can acknowledge a problem without pointing fingers, or make a suggestion without putting oneself in a position for retaliatory comment.

We now live in a sociohistorical moment in which this fails utterly.  Any fool can post his or her thoughts for the world to see; many might argue I am doing so with the words you are now reading.  Moreover, weaseling out of a direct stance does nothing to dissuade those who agree with the stance you can be interpreted to be taking from lending vocal support, nor those who disagree from lambasting in rebuttal.  Better to dive in and build clear thoughts, and clarify positions with stronger language.  Amateur pundits will attack what you write and what you don't.  In such a world, most writers will feel better facing real disagreement than personal attacks having nothing to do with what you've written or even thought.


Writing that attempts to remain above the fray ultimately fails to engage not only the topic, but the reader as well.  The best prose burrows into a topic, lives in it, drives through it.  Language already exists separate from its subject.  Trying to hold it away, to speak through a disembodied voice that dances around a topic, only pushes the writing further away.  Strong verbs push language and concept together, forcing the writer to engage.  And if the writer fails to engage, s/he can never expect the reader to do otherwise.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Revising Your Writing

Your best writing does not come in your first draft.  While students have for years cranked out last-minute assignments, with many even managing to get away with decent grades when doing so, any writing can be improved from that initial effort.  Indeed, I now look back at some of my "A" papers from my undergraduate years and cringe.  Adequate?  Yes--but my best work involved, and all of my work now involves, a careful revision process.

Revision is not a one-pass work over.  The best, most in-depth revision process involves layers of work.  Think of the process as a funnel, beginning broadly and ending with a careful, focused fine-tuning.  In other words, get the basic, structural and developmental elements right.  I call this the S.P.S. approach: Structure, Paragraph, Sentence.  While it might better read Structure, Stanza, Line for a poem, the main thrust remains the same: start with the big picture, and then narrow your focus as you refine your work.


In an essay, this relates primarily to the order in which you present your argument.  Have you created a coherent, cohesive argument?  Do your thoughts build on each other, moving inexorably to your conclusion?  Have you set it up in a way that makes sense?  In a novel or short story, this will relate to the sequence of events, to the relation of them to each other in a way that works.  And in a poem, you should build a structure that complements the theme of your poem.

One way to test for this is to outline your work.  We typically think of outlines as laying out our thought processes before we draft--and this can prove valuable in organizing thoughts before we write.  Afterward, though, outlining what you have written, as opposed to what you plan or expect to write beforehand, can reveal structural gaps that may be difficult to identify just by re-reading what you've written.  Particularly if the text is dense or nuanced, this bare-bones structural map can clarify problems your writing has obfuscated.

Once you identify potential gaps in your thought process or story, fill them in.  Find the argument that answers a currently unanswered objection, or add in the detail that helps your story make sense.  Complete the architecture of your writing.


Once you have a cohesive structure in place, begin fleshing out the writing that carries that structure.  In an essay, this usually means answering questions: How?  Why?  So what?  Paragraph by paragraph, ensure that your point carries the writer back to your thesis.  How does your point apply?  Why is what you wrote true, valid, or important?  Why should anyone reading your essay care?

In a story's paragraphs, the focus will be on packing the paragraph densely.  This may not mean fully-developed thoughts in each paragraph, as you need in an essay.  It does, however, require you to decide whether everything your paragraph must show is on display.  Have you engaged the reader's senses?  Is your character true to his/her personality, socioeconomic or historical situation, etc.?  Or, in a poem, has your stanza meant something, something that deserves an encapsulated stanza unto itself, connected to your poem's theme but distinct in some way?  Build your writing, flesh it out, engorge it.


Finally, your structure is strong and the ideas and thoughts are developed.  Now, play with the language.  Go sentence by sentence, or line by line in a poem.  Does your sentence structure strengthen or diminish your writing?  Does every word matter?  Does your punctuation achieve the proper pacing for your writing?  Every phrase, every word, every comma should accomplish something for you.  Excise extraneous adverbs and adjectives.  Tighten phrases.  Eliminate passive voice (unless you have a good reason to use it).  Give your reader moments to pause when needed, and force that reader to hold on and fly with you when it helps you.  And make sure the sentences transition well from one to the next.

A Final Word

I have laid out an onerous process, but one that will give power to your writing.  The important takeaway: do this in order.  If you begin at the sentence level, your work may not matter when you re-create your structure.  Answering the middle questions follows from what you are trying to build in the first phase.  Take the time to make your writing the best it can be.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Focusing Your Poetry

A previous entry in this blog discussed using a thesis to focus an academic essay.   This entry concerns focusing poetry: keeping a poem on track, tied to an idea or image and making it accessible to a reader.

I had the good fortune of watching a poetry slam in New York City a couple of months ago, and I saw tremendous examples of the importance of focusing poetry as well.  These examples included poets who did so very well--most notably Will Evans, who is somehow a Columbus, Ohio poet whom I had to travel to New York to see.  Strange world.  It also included the other sort of examples: strange poems meandering through random images and themes to arrive someplace, a place generally indefinable but inevitably loud--or, more precisely, arriving at some penultimate, loud place followed by a whispered denouement that may or may not bear any relation to the bombastic climax.

Importantly, good poetry often concerns good thoughts, ideas, feelings, or experiences.  This does not mean, though, that poetry IS that good thought, idea, feeling, or experience.  Rather, it provides a verbal expression of the thought, idea, feeling, or experience, in a way that connects a reader to what it is expressing.  It provides a linguistic bridge that begins with the experience, and passes through the writer to the reader.  This matters; the poet's first words tend not to be his or her best, and by recognizing that the words are separate from the "heart," the "soul," or even the mind, the poet can focus on what counts: getting the expression clear, precise, and meaningful for the reader.

To build and strengthen this expression, the poem needs an anchor.  This may be an image built over the course of the poem, a central concept strengthened by metaphor(s), a place, or really anything, so long as the entire poem relates and ties into that idea.  Think of it as an unspoken thesis statement.  If one statement can't be tied to every line, every word in the poem, then the poem lacks cohesion.

Importantly, this does not mean a poem cannot hold a wide range within itself.  An example is "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman, which covers pretty much the entire universe--but ties that entire universe to the poet's sense of self.  It remains cohesive despite its length and reach.

To ensure your poem does this, then, write down the central concept of the poem, and then try to connect every discrete image, every thought or nuance, to that central concept.  If you can do so, chances are your poem is cohesive.  While this does not in itself mean a poem is "good," it takes an important step toward allowing the poem to be so.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Few Words on Writer's Block

Writers in all genres have complained of writer's block, that nefarious condition in which one finds oneself entirely unable to create.  We sit down, and distractions overwhelm, inspiration fails us, or we simply can't bring ourselves to care enough to write--or, can't bring ourselves to write what we sat down feeling we needed to write.

One school of thought deems this condition bunk.  The problem, following this school, is not a mysterious condition that renders us unable to write, but rather a symptom of a writer's lack of focus.  This certainly holds some truth.  Even so, writers should understand as well as anyone that perception of a problem means the existence of that problem.  Whether the problem existed before the writer perceived it is irrelevant.

Thus, whether writer's block is all in the writer's head or a problem with the writer's head, steps to work through it become important.  What works best will depend on the situation and the writer.  So, find what works best for you and go with it.

One solution that often works with creative writing is, when unable to write about what you want, write about what you can.  In other words, if you are stuck on a story idea, or a next step, look around you.  Write a description of your coffee mug, or the sensation of the coffee (or water, wine, iced tea, arsenic, or whatever you are drinking) passing over your lips, splashing on your tongue, trickling down your esophagus.  Write about the way the light moves through the slants in your blinds, the way shadows persist in one corner.  Describe your headache, or your backache.  Find something, in other words, and write.  You will soon find a way to draw what you're doing into your story, or perhaps to create a poem from it.  Fix on concrete details, and build from there.

A second solution, perhaps the most popular for essay writers but certainly viable for all writing, is the "brainstorm": begin writing ideas as they pop into your head, ideally without filtering.  From there, trace the connections between ideas, making a path you can use as a rough guide to follow.  Usually the starting point is a topic, or perhaps a thesis sentence if you've developed that already.  Generally speaking, though, you should free yourself from trying to think of "good" ideas, or even overtly salient points.  Once you have the ideas on paper, you can then sort through them.  Decide what is usable, or what you can rebuild or connect to something more powerful.  But once again, you are putting ideas into words--which is what writing is really all about.

Finally, a more radical notion, but one that works best for some writers: walk away.  I find my ideas often arrive during exercise, during cleaning, or even in the shower.  If you are like this, get away from the keyboard, legal pad, or whatever it is against which you find yourself beating your head during your vain effort to create.  But if you choose this route, do so with purpose.  Make an appointment to return once your head has cleared, and stick to it.  By doing so, you are clearing your head to allow you to write, rather than escaping to something else and avoiding your work.

Any or all of these can work.  Writer's block exists, whether it is real or not.  Find a way through it or around it, and keep writing!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tee-Ball and Writing

My firstborn's inaugural tee-ball season wound down Friday, and after a well-earned beer (I consumed it, rather than giving it to my seven-year-old), I found myself drawing parallels between coaching tee-ball and writing.  While my coaching experience consists only of the two-month stint I just completed as assistant coach for Ben's Tigers team, the perceptions I expressed to the team's manager seemed to ring true for him as well.

One Spot

My primary coaching contribution went through me to my players, but I must confess that I adapted the advice from Mr. Miyagi.  As I saw child after child flail wildly in the general direction of the ball, the tee, or perhaps a fly buzzing above a child's head, I channeled Mr. Miyagi's "one inch" advice to Daniel-San.  Rather than merely looking at the ball, I taught the kids to look to one spot on the ball: a letter on the label, or sometimes a particular smudge or scuff I positioned in front of them.  Not surprisingly, the hitting improved dramatically as the children learned to swing through that one spot on the ball.

For writers, this parallels the need to focus on one idea in writing.  The single image or scene on which a poem focuses, or the thesis statement of an essay, or the character or concept around which a novelist constructs a novel.  Writers find distraction easily, and an idea can branch into another easily.  When the writer swings through one spot, though, the ideas remain connected to that focal point, and the final product improves for it.

Organize Ahead

Children learning a new game, as it turns out, do not arrive fully organized.  In fact, they tend to run in all directions.  Three are ready to bat at the same time; four are ready to play catcher; one runs out to apparently cover the outfield by herself; and eight are ready and willing to be on the bench when the team has exactly enough players for everyone to play a position.  Two of the bench-ready may be fighting, throwing gloves, or wandering toward the road.  One in the field may randomly explode into a full-fledged tantrum over being in left field rather than at catcher.  (Catcher is a surprisingly popular position considering that no one is pitching to that catcher.)

While some elements of this can never come fully under control, a defined organizational structure can help.  When the kids know ahead of time where to go, or what order to sit in, for the most part they do.  On the other hand, when they go into an inning trying to pick where they want to play or sit, chaos reigns.

Writing works in much the same way.  When a writer begins without a sense of where a story or essay or poem, ideas run free.  This is not inherently bad; letting ideas run loose sometimes serves as the only way to discover them.  But trusting the scurrying thoughts to fall into place for something resembling a finished product does not merely border on the absurd; it shoots past it, leaving the absurd shaking its head at you from back by sanity's edge.

Structuring your ideas may seem stifling.  But with rare exceptions (Jack Kerouac being a particularly annoying one), writers cannot make ideas flow directly into usable text.  We writers have to sculpt and shape our ideas into something that says what we want it to say.  Working out an outline or structure ahead of time helps the writing do that much more quickly than winging it.

Take Time to Let Go

At some point, on the other hand, the time comes to let go.  In tee-ball, during the last game, the kids mostly do what they've been taught.  But the time to teach inevitably yields to the time to enjoy and relax.  Dropped balls and missed throws happen, but that's okay.

For some writers, temptation to forever revise afflicts many.  I once spent two months on the first two pages of a chapter in a novel--a novel far from completion.  At some point, or even at multiple points along the way, writers need to let go, to move on, to let the words on which they have spent so much time and effort simply play.  That isn't to say revision needn't happen, or even that it can't occur later on, after the rest of the essay or story comes out in a full draft or manuscript.  But the trees must eventually collect to form a forest; the kids must eventually be freed to just be what they are: free, joyful, and alive.  The best writing is all of these things--but only when we let it become so.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Focusing Your Academic Essay: Writing a Strong Thesis Statement

Whether you are writing an essay, a poem, a story, or a novel, you need to retain a clear conception of your point of focus.  While you may meander into examples, counterpoints, metaphors, or expository flurries, disciplined attachment to a single focal point keeps the writer honest and the reader anchored.  In an academic essay, the thesis statement comprises that point.  The writer will make many points in an essay, but all of them should serve to strengthen the main argument or position of the essay, as laid out in the thesis statement.  The thesis should never be compound, a cop-out that attempts to make two primary arguments.  It is the equivalent to a football team having two starting quarterbacks; it suggests to readers that the writer does not have a single idea strong enough to emerge.  It may well be complex, though, so long as any qualifying phrases further define the idea, rather than merely limiting it.

Simple enough--but how do you write it?  The thesis is one sentence that, in as clear a direct manner as possible, delivers the point the writer is trying to make.  By the time I was in graduate school, this was the first sentence I would write in any essay.  I might go back and revise it after working through the rest of an essay, but the core point was always in place before I began so much as outlining the rest of the paper.

Many paths allow one to reach a well-honed thesis statement.  One is to take time to think about a text or group of texts, and focus on the single idea that, to you as writer, just matters most.  This works well if you are able to think clearly along a single path in the midst of a chaotic flurry of ideas.  Find the idea that attracts your attention, and craft a sentence providing the thrust of the argument you will make.

For others, the cacophony of ideas can cloud that line of vision.  If you find this to be the case, an outline or diagram of the ideas that occur to you may help build clarity from the chaos.  As you write down ideas, connect them to each other as appropriate, creating conceptual clusters that you can use to build a cohesive essay.  The overarching theme that connects the clusters becomes the thesis in this case.

Neither of these approaches is inherently "good" or "bad."  Indeed, a writer should banish those words--and indeed, the concepts themselves--from his or her vocabulary.  The best writers live in nuance, dabble in degrees.  And when it comes to writing techniques, the best is simply whatever allows a writer to deliver the clearest, most enjoyable result for his or her readers.


This is a blog about writing, for writers of all levels.  It will include content useful for everyone, from the high school student writing his or her first essay to the Ph.D student banging his or her head against a wall trying to wrap up a dissertation; from the lawyer seeking to be more persuasive to the business manager seeking to be more succinct; from the creative writing novist to the experienced author or poet.

Writing differs from mathematics in that a finite set of paths to a solution does not exist.  Any writer can improve his or her writing, regardless of level or style.  Only imagination and skill limit what writing can be--or how it can be.  This blog, then, aims to expand writers' skill and unlock writers' imaginations.  It will include tips on writing, from the nuances of punctuation to the structure of an essay or novel, to ways to release a poem from its shackles.  It will include exploration of excellent writing and poor writing alike.  It will delve into this writer's experiences and lessons as a student and as a professor in academia; as a practicing lawyer; as a creative writer; and as a perpetual student in the craft of writing.

As my goal is primarily to teach, I will always welcome suggested topics.  Ultimately, I hope to learn more about writing even as I teach--and, as with any writing endeavor, I hope to explore and learn a little more about the world as I write.