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Thursday, February 23, 2012

from bill stifler

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Learning to Write Well

©Bill Stifler, 1998
Writing is hard work.
Writing is hard work. One of the mistakes beginning students make is in thinking that writing is only hard for them, that somewhere out there are people who find writing easy.
That's not true. I'll grant you there are people who can spin off words with little thought or effort, and sometimes their writing may even be good--but not often. And when the writing is good, it frequently comes out of long experience or deep pleasure in the subject.
Writing is hard work for all of us. The blank page threatens us. Don Murray says the writer's main resource is himself, and there lies our fear, that we can't write because we haven't anything worth saying.
Students sometimes feel that they not only have nothing to say, but couldn't say it if they did. Students are plagued by problems in spelling or grammar, difficulties in organizing their thoughts on paper or explaining themselves clearly. Anger, defensiveness, and embarrassment are typical reactions to these fears.
One reason for students' fear is that they feel uncertain about their use of grammar and spelling. Their concerns for creating a "perfect" essay get in the way of their ideas. Grammar and spelling are like the directions to baking a cake or making a pizza--necessary, but hardly satisfying. The only way to learn how to write is by writing. After all, no one learns how to ride a bicycle by studying Pinkerton's Manual of Bicycle Maintenance and Repair.
Too often, students focus on grammar and spelling early because they view writing as a chore to finish as quickly as possible. The poet William Stafford once wrote that "A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them" (Stafford 17). The real pleasure in writing doesn't come from knowing what to say but from the joy of discovering what we don't know, didn't guess, until we discovered it on the page before us. Once we know what we want to say, then we can concentrate on how to say it--clearly, concisely, convincingly, and correctly.
Standard English must always strike an American as a bit stilted.
H. L. Mencken, late American journalist (Pinckert 7)
There was a long pause after I gave my answer to the question just asked by my eleventh grade British Literature teacher. Then she said, "Why do you do that?"
I had no idea what she was talking about.
"Why do you talk like that? I know you know good English. I've seen you use it in your assignments. So why don't you use it when you speak?"
I was being perfectly serious when I answered her, "because no one talks that way."
While I hadn't read Mencken, I certainly understood what he was saying. A student originally from Pakistan once asked me why some American students had so much trouble writing. "I know why I'm in this class, but I don't understand why my fellow students are here. After all, they've grown up speaking English."
And there's the rub. You have grown up speaking English. And spoken English (or conversational English) is very different from written English (or edited English, sometimes referred to as standard or correct English). When we speak, we take shortcuts, use half-phrases; we gesture; we stress certain sounds or slur others, and everyone who belongs to the same social group or who comes from the same part of the country understands what we mean. This difference betwen spoken English and edited English is one of the reasons we struggle as writers.
When I first came to Chattanooga, people told me I was rude and anti-social. When I passed people on the sidewalk or in the hall, I routinely heard the same lament, "Aren't you going to say, hi?"
But I had. I grew up in a rural county in southern Pennsylvania. When we passed people working in the fields or driving along the road, it was customary to nod slightly or lift a finger. If we were walking by each other, we might only raise an eyebrow (without the quizzical expression that accompanies Spock's well-known gesture). I had been nodding, lifting fingers, and raising eyebrows to everyone I met. I had been saying hello. They simply hadn't understood, and it was some time before I understood. Now I've learned to talk to people (although I still find myself slipping, unthinkingly, into my old ways when I'm preoccupied with my own thoughts).
In a very real way, learning to write in edited English is like learning a second language. You have to break away from some of the habits of spoken English and learn to write according to the rules of edited English rather than by what feels comfortable.
Even though I am now an English teacher myself, I still stand by the answer I gave my eleventh grade teacher some twenty years ago. It is not my purpose to change the way you speak. Part of the pleasure of language lies in the idiosyncracies peculiar to the various cultures that make up our country. What would the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn be like if some "correct" English teacher had removed from it all of the slang, contractions, idiosyncracies, fragments, verb disagreements, weak pronoun references, and assorted other grammatical abuses speckled across its pages? And yet, this grammatical and syntactical atrocity is considered by many to be America's greatest work of literature.
On the other hand, Mark Twain (known to family and friends as Sam Clemens) knew good grammar, and he used it, when the occasion called for it. As an editor and newspaperman, he often corrected the grammatical abuses of those who wrote for his paper.
Nearly all of the writing you will do in school and much of the writing that you will do in your chosen professions (whether a memo to your fellow workers or a poster to be hung in the church vestibule) must be written in edited English. Edited English is the language of education, and if you intend to be a part of that world--as you must or you wouldn't be reading this syllabus--you must learn to speak its language.
Every writer I know has trouble writing.
Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22 (Winokur 104)
Ever hear a child tell a joke? The story rambles, drags in a hundred different unrelated ideas and sputters to an end, the point of the joke lost in the shuffle. We nod politely, try to sort out the muddle only to have the child look us in the eye and tell us we were supposed to laugh. In other words, quit trying to make sense out of this. It's a joke. If we press the issue, the child either learns how to tell a joke or learns to quit telling them to us.
The struggle to write is something like that. We know what we want to say, may even be fascinated by some of the sparkling ideas that occur to us, and we rush pell-mell to scratch them out on paper, filled with the satisfaction of discovery. Later we turn the paper in or, worse, read it over ourselves and find that what we've written is not brilliant or even smart but a confused mess of half-ideas and rabbit trails.
The problem doesn't lie with our ideas. The problem is we lack the skill to present them clearly and convincingly for a reader.
We could give up, never risk looking foolish or stupid. Only our teachers won't let us. They keep insisting we write--essay exams, term papers, research projects, book reports--the list is endless. We can't drop out; most students in a community college are there because they need the degree to find a better job. We could find someone to write our papers for us, but sooner or later we're going to have to write things for ourselves--if not in class, then in the workplace.
Writing is the easiest thing in the world to do. Writing is the hardest thing in the world to do.
Richard Jackson, an English professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, says that the purpose of writing is "to find out something about your life" (2). In order for writers to be successful they must care about what they write. The best writing comes from the heart.
My goal is to help you keep (or regain, or perhaps, even discover) the enthusiasm for seeing your ideas unfold on paper. And I want to help you learn to refine those ideas for your readers to make them clear, concise, correct, and convincing. We'll review grammar, not because good grammar makes good writing but because good writing generally uses good grammar. Our focus will always be on learning how to write. Ideally, good grammar should be instinctive, automatic. The problem is that our instincts have been trained in conversational English flavored by our local dialects or, in some cases, by growing up with another language altogether. We will look at the major errors people make in writing edited (or academic) English and work on ways of weeding these errors out of our writing. And don't be embarrassed by your own grammatical mistakes. All of us make them, even English teachers.
Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power.
Joan Didion, modern essayist (Winokur 91)
While Joan Didion seems to be contradicting what I have been saying about writing according to rules rather than according to what is comfortable, I believe what she is saying is that good writing sounds good, the best writers combine the comfortable ebb and flow of conversational English with the strength and simplicity of conventional grammar. Good writers develop a feeling for when to bend the rules. For a few semesters in college, I was a music minor, and part of my training included a course in Elementary Harmony. I remember Mr. Henley telling us the first day of class that we must learn the rules and conventions of good harmonics (like seventh chords resolving to octaves or second chords resolving in the root). Then he smiled and said, "All of the masters broke these rules. The only rule is that what sounds good is good." Then he paused, "But before you can break the rules, you must first learn the rules."
Learning the rules requires practicing them in writing. But that puts us back where we started, caught between ideas and rules. What we need to be successful as writers is a plan.
The Writing Process
Prewriting (Exploring)
How do I know what I think, until I see what I say?
E. M. Forster (Plimpton 101)
The last thing one knows when writing a book is what to put first.
Blaise Pascal (Plimpton 167)
Frequently on the first day of class, I require students to write a diagnostic essay in thirty minutes. With so little time, students feel certain that there is only one thing to do, tighten the cinch and send the pen racing across the page. Uncertain how to begin, students stumble out of the starting gate, their first few lines faltering. Eventually they catch their stride and manage to finish, wheezing, uncertain, windblown and walleyed.
About the middle of the paper, some students will begin to get an idea of what they could write and hesitate. Should they start over? But there isn't time. Most straggle on. Some few, turn around and begin afresh. In either case, the writing suffers.
To finish well, the writer must start well. And the only way to have a good beginning is to jot down ideas before beginning to write.
One of my college teachers often interrupted his lectures to say, "If you remember nothing else this semester, remember this . . ." and then some homey advice followed. One of the most valuable things students learn from writing process is the necessity of prewriting.
Prewriting can be as simple as thinking about a topic before writing or can include various writing strategies like brainstorming, branching, free writing, or outlining. The important thing is taking time to explore ideas, to develop a sense of topic and theme, to warm up.
Writing (Drafting)
The idea is to get the pencil moving quickly.
Bernard Malamud (Plimpton 101)
It's like improvising in jazz. You don't ask a jazz musician, "But what are you going to play?" He'll laugh at you. He has a theme, a series of chords he has to respect, and then he takes up his trumpet or his saxophone, and he begins. . . . Sometimes it comes out well, sometimes it doesn't.
Julio Cortázar (Plimpton 104)
Once we have an idea of what we want to say, the temptation comes to proceed slowly and carefully, teasing each word from the page. But hesitating over spelling, grammar, typos or the right word can be deadly. While some writers (substitute chronic or paranoid perfectionists) write this way (Physician, heal thyself), most writers, and especially beginning writers, need the freedom to finish their thoughts before taking time for spit and polish. In fact, worrying about grammar and spelling is often the largest stumblingblock in the way of student writing because it can focus attention away from meaning.
Sometimes we have no choice. Timed essays, like the diagnostic, leave little or no room for second drafts. We have to do our best first time out. Most teachers take this into consideration when grading.
But when we have the time, we should indulge ourselves. Knowing that this is only a first draft, that time can be set aside for changes and corrections, frees us from the fear of making mistakes. We know we are making mistakes. It's okay. This is just the first draft.
Rewriting (Revising)
A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
Thomas Mann (Plimpton vii)
The hardest thing in the world is simplicity.
James Baldwin (Plimpton 126)
Most students assume that revision is a question of removing grammar mistakes or correcting spelling errors. A few adventurous students may recast a sentence, reversing the order of words to add variety to their writing like advertisers designing a new corn flakes box.
While variety, like a fresh coat of paint, can dress up an old house, revision goes deeper. Writers revise to discover meaning not pretty it. And as they discover what they are trying to say, they learn how to say it.
This, of course, means that the first draft is only that, a beginning in the search for meaning. Peter F. Drucker refers to it as "the zero draft" (Murray 68). That's not to lessen its importance. Until we commit ourselves to paper and ink, all we have are ideas. There are several million Great American Novels bursting in the minds of aspiring young writers. And they will be buried with them.
The worst part about revision is that it hurts. After finally managing to pour out our feelings on paper, some cold-hearted English teacher (in your case, me) takes his Almighty pen to our papers leaving livid scars of red, green, or orange (disguising his cruelty behind protective coloring). The last thing we want is to identify the corpse or claim the body. Let the dead bury the dead, and let's move on to the next assignment.
When I was a sophomore in college, I turned in a composition about the long walks I took as a teen reading and memorizing. My teacher, sensitive to my feelings, suggested I write another composition. He didn't want to spoil my memories in the struggle of writing about them. While I like and respect him, he did me a disservice. Writing must come from the heart, and revision is our willingness to suffer, to admit our inabilities and faults so we can move on. In fact, our writing sometimes falters the most just at the point where it has the most to say (Murray 90).
Each writer must find his or her own path to revision. Some find it best to rough out an entire draft without stopping and then go back and tear it apart for the best parts to use in the next draft. Others move sentence by sentence, teasing the words, fussing over them, working to make each line perfect before moving on. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, and sometimes students may find themselves shifting back and forth between the two from assignment to assignment (Reed 28-37).
Donald Murray suggests three kinds of reading as we struggle toward meaning: reading for focus, form and voice.
Reading for focus means reading for the one meaning that is struggling to express itself in our text. Murray suggests we quickly read a draft, trying to see it the way a reader will. The aim at this stage is to make the words as clear as possible, to avoid rabbit trails and stick to the point, to say enough but not too much (91).
Next he suggests reading the draft more slowly, a bite at a time, looking for "chunks of meaning." As we read for form, we ask ourselves if the introduction, illustrations, examples, arguments and conclusion do the job or are simply ornamentation, included because we think we ought to include them, and not because we need them to make the writing clear (91).
Finally we should read paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, line by line, word by word. At this stage it often helps to read a draft aloud to see if it sounds like one person speaking. Reading aloud also helps us find the places where our writing starts to slip away. If we stumble over a word or phrase, if we find ourselves out of breath, or lose our place, then our writing still needs work. This is also the time to focus on grammar and spelling, recognizing that grammar and spelling errors confuse our meaning and weaken our expression. In writing for voice, we put the finishing touches to our work, striving to make it "simple, clear, graceful, accurate and fair" (93, 94).

          On Writing
I've tried to think what I could tell you,
about the way words feel, the sound
they make when they touch, the way
words fight you, fall flat, clattering
like pans to a kitchen floor or the slap
of a tire limping, only you know all
this, and I wonder if there is anything
I could tell you, or tell myself,
because words make their own way,
play by their own rules, and all we do,
if we're lucky, is find them.

          Bill Stifler (Stifler)
Writing is never easy. Writing this, I found myself struggling to find just the right image to make my point, worrying not only about getting my meaning across, but also about your reaction to me as a writer and teacher. Have I caught your interest? Is the tone right? Have I buried students under a list of requirements or encouraged them to see the assignments as just one more part of the writing process, focusing on learning rather than grading?
Writing is never a one-side affair. It is always an interaction between author, reader, text, and topic. My purpose in teaching writing is to help you in your struggles with writing. Often I assign specific topics, and I will be your most ardent reader. Besides, I like working with student texts. H.G. Wells once said, "No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft" (Plimpton 134). Don Murray says

It's wonderful to invade a piece of student writing. The better the writing is the more I am tempted to get inside it, to manipulate it, to make it mine. And sometimes in conference I will tell a student, "This is a really good piece of writing. Do you mind if I mess with it?"
She looks apprehensive but she is a student. She nods okay.
Gleefully, I mess around for a few lines or for a few paragraphs. I sharpen, I cut, I develop; I add my words for hers, my rhythm, my meaning.
"That isn't right at all. That doesn't sound like me," she says. "That isn't the way it was. Give me back my writing."
She grabs it from my desk and charges out of the office.
Good. She has the feel of writing. (49)

Works Cited
Jackson, Richard. "Under Constant and Careful Revision: Creative Writing in the University." Unpublished essay. SAMLA Conference. Atlanta, 1 Nov. 1985.
Murray, Donald M. Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1982.
Pinckert, Robert C. Pinckert's Practical Grammar. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1986.
Plimpton, George, ed. The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century's Preeminent Writers. New York: Viking, 1989.
Reed, Kit. Revision. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1989.
Stafford, William. Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1986.
Stifler, Bill. "On Writing." Bridging English. Joseph O'Beirne Milner and Lucy Floyd Morcock Milner. MacMillan, 1993.
Winokur, Jon, ed. Writer's On Writing. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1986.

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