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.