We take it for granted that the great books are worth being understood. That’s why were here. Thus, we take it upon ourselves as readers to put our prejudices aside in order to study what each author has to say. We’re willing to put in the hard work necessary to understand the books as best we can.
However, are we similarly sensitive, deliberate, and hardworking when we switch roles, from reader to writer? When we write, do we take as much care to ensure that we may be understood by our readers? Too often we avoid the task of writing and communicating by focusing instead on rereading and (more) thinking. We forget, perhaps, that the task is not only to learn but to communicate something. When our writing is suspended until the final moment, regarded as an ephemeral product of thought, then we do a disservice to ourselves and those who must read our writing. To ourselves we are deceptive, allowing ourselves to imagine that, having read and thought carefully, we have thus also communicated clearly. We forget that the words and ideas in our heads are not necessarily transmitted directly to the page. The disservice to the reader, then, is that of requiring too much of them. We require that they discover the logic of our thought when we fail to provide it for them, and we require them to read unorganized, unedited writing that fails to have a real thesis, argument, or question – a disheveled assembly of words unsure of its own purpose.
I am by no means a great writer. Only recently have I learned how poor my communication usually is. I do, however, have a taste for self-discipline and improvement. Perhaps you’re like me in one of these respects. This article is an attempt to outline an approach to improving one’s writing that I wish I had come across years ago. What I want to show you here is a focused, production-oriented approach to improving your ability to use writing as an expressive tool. I’m not going to recommend any books or tell you to visit the assistants. Those are tools you should make use of, without a doubt, but their value is something you’ll have to discover for yourself. Here I’m going to present an approach to improving your writing consistently and self-sufficiently.
Let me suggest an attitude and two principles for writing that I discovered while learning about skill development.
The attitude is simple, but not easy: practice. We’ve all heard before that “practice makes perfect,” but how many of us take it seriously? Since there are several ways to practice, let me draw a distinction between effective and ineffective practice. Ordinary, ineffective practice involves repeating actions and skills that we are already good at; this practice feels good because we focus on our strengths while glossing over our weaknesses. If we think we’re already good at it, we might ‘practice’ by simply repeating the skill over and over again. When we are faced with a difficult or tedious task, we feign effort; we ‘go through the motions’ as if we knew what we were doing. Instead of reading texts closely, for example, we might only skim. Or, to provide another example, how many of us ever or always reread and edit our papers? What does this convey except an assumption that we’re already good enough, and that there’s no need to reflect on and improve ourselves?
Effective practice, on the other hand, though difficult, leads to more improvement in less time. ‘Deep practice’, as it is called by psychologists, consists of slow, deliberate attention to and repetition of one’s weaknesses until they are no longer obstacles, whether it be the logic of an argument or the use of grammatical and rhetorical sentence structures. In deep practice we accept the difficulty or the tedium without letting ourselves be deterred by it. Just as in exercise, there is a point when the exertion becomes painful. It is just past this threshold that the exercise or practice becomes worthwhile. Whether you are running, weightlifting, or doing burpees, wall-pushups, and bear-crawls, the burning sensation indicates that your body has begun producing the energy necessary to keep working. The more frequently you push through the ‘burn’, the better your body becomes at producing energy and thus, at contracting your muscles and doing the work. Essentially, you’ll get better if you push yourself, and doing what you’re already good at isn’t pushing.
This type of practice is just as effective for developing intellectual skills. However, writing being a such a broad skill with so many styles and functions, it’s difficult to know what and how to practice. How can you actually practice writing in this way?First, I’ll show you what to avoid.
There are many books that are potentially useful, but which should you use?
Here’s what I’ve realized: unless they provide interesting exercises or clearly articulated approaches to the writing process, most books will only burden your attempts to write. Stay away from grammar books unless you are genuinely interested in studying that kind of information. People often refer to books like Strunk & White’s Elements of Style when they need help with writing. I advise you not to. Books of that sort will make writing more difficult and more intimidating. Knowing parts of speech and grammar rules, though important, will multiply your perceived potential for error. Worrying whether one is writing ‘correctly’ sucks all the fun out of putting your thoughts on paper. Mr. Bybee, in his Advanced Composition manual, says “I don’t know what I’m going to write until I’ve written it.” Its only upon reflection that you realize what you were trying to communicate. If you use books for assistance, then, make sure to do the exercises. It’s the only way they’ll have any real effect on your writing. Learning greek worked in the same way. We didn’t learn to analyze and translate simply by reading Luschnig; we needed to work through her exercises as well. Remember, we’re not studying or researching composition, we’re trying to actually write. Don’t overload yourself with information.
The first principle: imitate the best writers.
We want to approach writing as if we were learning a new language through immersion, or like a baby just learning to speak. Thus, imitation is required. Copy – as in, transcribe – writing that you find compelling or effective, paying close attention to how sentences and paragraphs are structured. Mimic these structures: write new sentences and paragraphs using the same structures. You’ll become comfortable with these quickly, and soon enough you’ll be able to use these structures to express your own thoughts. James Gray, a rhetoric and composition professor at UC Berkeley, uses a technique called exact sentence imitation. He believes that students learn best “by examining how real writers write.” The technique works in this way: find a sentence or paragraph you think is effective in its purpose and copy it. Analyze and explain to yourself the structure of the sentence or logic of the paragraph, then write an original sentence or paragraph using the same structure but different content. You can do this any time you read, any time you come across a compelling passage or argument. It’s especially effective when you run into seemingly unintelligible rhetoric – Aristotle, Kant, or Hegel to name a few – because it forces you to slow down and figure out what’s being said and how.
Exercises are an unimposing opportunity to gain comfort recognizing particular rules and forms. Copying writers and doing exercises in composition books will allow you to become comfortable expressing yourself intelligibly without the imposing stress of having to write an entire paper. By doing these the creativity and variety in your writing will grow because by imitation you’ll learn to use unfamiliar syntactic structures and punctuation. As with learning a language, you learn best by listening to and imitating the words and phrases people actually use to communicate. By building up a vocabulary of these words and phrases – in our case structures – you won’t need to spend extra time formulating your thoughts every time you need or want to communicate. Below is a passage, from one of the papers that inspired this article, describing the essential benefit of imitation.
“One of the primary functions of imitation is its problem-solving capacity. It makes use of experience – one’s own and that of others – to find solutions. Applied to writing, imitation means that we do not need to invent a new form every time we want to express an idea. Trial-and-error writing depends too much on reinventing the wheel. Much more efficient is to ask: How has this problem been solved before.”
The second principle is common advice at St. John’s: narrow your question first; your outline and argument will follow. I’ll leave you to ask your tutors and writing assistants about this. Not only do they know much more about the variety of ways to approach each text, their conversation will also help you begin to verbalize the thoughts and questions that have been brewing inside your head.
Read widely, but read deeply.
We are lucky at St. John’s to read so much and so widely. Even without thinking about it we absorb the rhetoric of the great writers and mimic it in our own work. Surely you’ve caught yourself unintentionally sounding too much like the author whose text you’ve been writing about. We develop an unconscious understanding not only of the ideas but also the way in which ideas are expressed. Our writing improves by osmosis because our reading provides us structures with which to express our own ideas. We could improve exponentially, however, if were to approach this imitation deliberately. Try imitating your favorite authors, or take some time to write out and mimic a difficult passage from your seminar reading in order to understand it better. I like to approach writing the same way as I approach going to the gym: think in the long term; remember that growth doesn’t come all at once, but is dependent on the effort I put in every day. As when I workout, every time I write I ‘warm-up’, only in this case by copying a few paragraphs from a writer whose style corresponds to the type of assignment I’m working on. Sometimes that means fiction, most of the time it means finding a clearly presented proof or argument. I’ll transcribe these, then examine how the writer presents his thesis and evidence. Now ‘warmed-up’, I’ll write a paragraph of my own assignment, seeing if I can present my argument using the same structure as in what I just copied. An extra benefit is this: I’m never terrorized by a blank page.
By focusing on these two principles – micro and macro – you’ll effectively approach writing from two opposite ends: technical and conceptual. By focusing on concept and question, you’ll clarify what you want to say, why you want to say it, and in what order it should be said. By copying and practicing basic structures you’ll facilitate the process of turning your thoughts into complete sentences and paragraphs.