HELLO THERE SPORTS FANS
It’s been a while! Once again the vagueries of misfortune prevent me from explaining why I don’t update my blog more frequently, but suffice it to say that there were dragons involved. And time-travelling lesbians. And a magic sword.
ANYWAY, welcome to another post in the “Cheat Sheet” series, which contains posts designed to make YOUR life easier as you navigate scholastic settings! Today’s post is inspired by several conversations I’ve had with professors, and by many, many interactions I have had with students. These interactions center around writing, something which I, unusually, know more than zero things about! I’m actually not a novice when it comes to writing (although I would definitely put myself in the “proficient to intermediate” category); I have been working on writing since before I understood what it meant to be an adult. I also demonstrate my proficiency with writing quite a lot, whether in academic work, in my blog (which you are reading), or my Tumblr (which is significantly more informal and contains a great many intentional grammatical errors).
The upshot of all this is that occasionally, people remember that I am a writer, and ask me to edit things for them. And sometimes, I remember this, and talk to professors about it. In the course of both of these activities, I have come to recognize something–or, rather, several somethings. And it is precisely these somethings which dictate the course of this latest “Cheat Sheet”; things which I almost always tell anyone whose work I edit. In short, these are the three things which I will tell you to do with whatever it is you’re writing, probably before I even look at the title.
THE THREE ARE AS FOLLOWS: Number, Speech, and Force.
So what the heck does that mean?
Number is the easiest to begin with, because it’s the easiest of the things to become muddled upon. What I mean by number is, quite simply, subject/verb number agreement. And by that I mean: are you making sure that you’re referring to the right number of things in every part of the sentence? If you’re talking about “either light or dark”, you’re talking about one thing. Because you’re talking about light. Or dark. Get it? So you’d have to build the sentence as if there was one subject. This is something everyone screws up (even me!), because language is imperfect and words are hard. Luckily, there are two ways of fixing this: One, you can look it up, and remember the rules for five minutes after you’re done writing, or two, you can use the second of our trio: Speech.
When I say Speech I am not referring to Diane Duane’s ancient language of magic and wizardry. Sad for us all. No, I mean something far simpler, and something that can really quite genuinely revolutionize the way your writing sounds and looks.
You see, the secret here is that writing is language. Written words are a representation of actual speech words, which we speak. In speech. So, in a sense, the “true” form of language is…spoken.
Take it back to its true shape. Read your writing aloud. And I mean read it. Print it if you can, squint at the screen if you can’t. Perform it. Imagine you’re speaking to an audience if you’re a poet. To a classroom if you’re an academic. Act out your lines if you’re a novelist. But bring the words to life. Speak them. When you speak a sentence aloud, you’ll more often than not realize that the numbers were out of order, or you typed a common turn of phrase backwards, or you were thinking of something else and accidentally put HAIL SATAN something in the middle of your sentence.
That is the power of speech, which I now give to you. You can even take it further and have someone else read it aloud for you! But then you might as well just have them edit it.
Finally, the most important of our trio is Force.
In some situations, people don’t really express themselves as clearly as they probably should. When this happens in your writing, it can really make the point a little difficult to uncover, and take a lot of the “punch” out of your rhetoric.
For example: the two sentences above can be rewritten as follows:
People don’t express themselves as clearly as they should. In your writing, this makes the point difficult to uncover, and takes the “punch” out of your rhetoric.
THIS is the advice I end up giving most of all in academic work. And by that I don’t just mean schoolwork; I mean theses, papers, editorials–anything meant for the academic eye. And I get it–it’s hard to take a stand. It’s tough to make yourself into a target, even if you are reasonably sure you’re doing so in good faith. I struggle with this every day myself: especially on a website as continually ideologically charged as Tumblr, taking up a firm position seems like a good way to be assaulted from every side.
But then one day I realized: What do I stand for, if I don’t stand for anything? What am I saying, if I’m not saying it confidently? What good am I doing, if I’m not certain in doing it? As Chesterton says; “The only intelligible sense that progress or advance can have…is that we have a definite vision, and that we wish to make the whole world like that vision.”
This, by the way, is one of many things I love about Chesterton. He is loud and pompous and full of sass and bombast. He is an unapologetic apologist, and therein lies the crux of his every argument: for Chesterton is always fighting for our right to fight.
From the same chapter of the same text; “…We may say a permanent ideal is as necessary to the innovator as to the conservative; it is necessary whether we wish the king’s orders to be promptly executed or whether we only wish the king to be promptly executed. […] For the orthodox there can always be a revolution, for a revolution is a restoration. At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam. No unchanging custom, no changing evolution can make the original good anything but good.”
So go back to your text and strip out the unnecessary words. They hide in groups of one to three, in words like “probably,” “mostly,” or “really.” They gather in little insidious cells, in cliches like “for the most part,” “to a certain degree,” or “a level of.” Find them. Destroy them. Look at each sentence and ask yourself: ‘What am I saying here?’ As you expurgate these venal little vermin, you will find that not only does your writing become clearer, colder, and more powerful, your speech becomes so as well! Turns out, when you assert yourself in writing, you practice asserting yourself in the world.
So take a stand! Pick your idea! What does it mean? What is its purpose? What are you SAYING? If you think it important enough to say, it had damn well better be worth saying–and if you’ve decided to say it, it’s worth saying well and fearlessly.
That is all for now, dear reader. I hope these little tips prove helpful, or, at the very least, you found them entertaining. And like every other book or blog or note ever written about writing: This will only help you if you are already able to learn this on your own. And if you’re able to learn this on your own…you won’t need my help to do so.
Until next time!