Academic Skills - Writing Effectively


by Georgia Irwin Academic Support Program Co-ordinator

First of all, it is important to understand that learning to write effectively is a lifelong task. There are no rules and no magic that will turn you into a wonderful writer—only time, experience, and hard work can do that. However, here are some principles or tips that might help you as you struggle. The best way to learn to write effectively is to read great books and copy the style of writing you read. If you have never been a reader, it is not too late to begin… even if you have to start with good children’s books or the comics. Find something pleasurable to read and don’t stop. Make reading a habit. Before you know it, the new words you learn, the sentence structures you see, will become your own. Very few people can write easily, without struggle and some chaos. To learn to write well you need to be patient with yourself. Oscar Wilde once said that he had spent “the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon taking it out.” He was only half joking. You have to care about what you write, although you might not initially do so. Try to connect with something about your topic that is personal to you and make the link between your own experiences and universal ones (ie. experiences we all share!) The planning stage (or pre-writing stage), whether you are writing everything out that just comes to your head, or just debating about it in your head, is hugely important. If you have no ideas, you will be writing nonsense, no matter how impressively sophisticated the words are! There must be a focus for your writing, a thesis, a main point. This thesis must permeate your paper. You should always be rereading your thesis and asking yourself if that is what you are really saying and if the points you are using really support it. Think of how often you must check in your rear-view mirror when you are driving..about every 5 seconds, right? Well, that’s about how often that thesis should run through your mind! Be true to yourself. A student recently said to me, “My instructor has an interest in feminism, so I’m going to write my paper from that perspective.” You might have gotten away with that kind of thinking before, but you certainly shouldn’t here at university. If you are only writing to please the instructor, you are cheating yourself intellectually. Be honest in your writing; if nothing else, it is

less stressful. Trying to guess what the reader wants to hear rather than concentrating on what you want to say is a one-way ticket to vacuous writing. George Orwell, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, said, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”

Don’t confuse this with the advice to “consider your audience.” Being sensitive regarding audience does not mean that you write what they want to hear. It means that you write in a way that they can understand. For example, a newspaper reporter may not write with the shrouded words of the poet, but he will still mean what he says! Likewise, you may need to use discipline-specific jargon in your paper, but only because the audience you have shares that jargon with you. Or think about it this way: the letter you send to your grandma doesn’t look at all like the letter you send to your boyfriend/girlfriend, but hopefully it is just as sincere. The vast majority of people who have spilt their mess of ideas (yes, they are messy) on the page (brainstorming) do not spend the time they need to organize those ideas. It takes courage to throw out ideas that seemed brilliant at the time you thought of them but now don’t add to the piece of writing that is growing in front of you. Have a file for temporarily-rejected ideas; the chances are great that you will use those ideas in another place, another time. A lot of writing books list the several rhetorical patterns: description, narration, example, definition, comparison/contrast, process, classificiation, and cause/effect. These patterns, or methods of development, can be used to create paragraphs or essays, but should not be thought of in isolation. There is no such creature as a comparison essay or a definition paragraph. In fact, it is almost impossible to write a paragraph or an essay without employing a combination of these methods. The very best writing is clear, concise and direct. Read Mark Twain! Avoid wordiness; choose the best words, not the biggest. About wordiness! Some people think that a long sentence is a wordy sentence. This may or may not be true. Wordiness means that repetition has taken place, that words have been used that don’t add to the value of the sentence. In other words, meaningless words and phrases have been tacked on as “filler.” In spite of your computer program’s squiggly green lines, there is no such thing as a sentence that is too long. There are long sentences that are bad because they have been put together in a grammatically incorrect way. There are long sentences that are bad because you’ve used too many of them and put your reader to sleep. There are long sentences that are bad because they are not saying anything meaningful. But sentences are not wrong simply because they are long. Henry James, a famous American writer from the beginning of the century, typically wrote sentences that would run for an entire page or more. We may find him difficult to read today because we are not used to reading such sentences,

but he was not wrong to write like that. In fact, he is still considered one of the greatest writers of English!

There is also no such thing as a paragraph that is too short or too long. If paragraph after paragraph is too short, the reader may feel that you have nothing of substance to say; they also may be given a sense that you are rushing them through in a rough and jerky way. If paragraph after paragraph is too long, the reader may fall asleep! However, the length in and of itself does not make the paragraph poor or “wrong.” In fact, our taste for the length of paragraphs, as for the length of sentences, has changed with the times. The key today seems to be variety in your sentence and paragraph structure and consideration of the effect you want to create. There is no such thing as a correct size or shape of an essay. If you don’t believe me, go to the library and start reading the many thousands of essays that readers over the years have considered moving, interesting, exciting, stimulating and just plain GREAT! You will soon recognize that good essays come in all shapes and sizes…just like people! Check out essays like “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words,” by Paul Roberts; “The Case Against Man,” by Isaac Asimov; and“Deficits,” by Michael Ignatieff. These are but a few of a myriad of varied essay types which can be found on reserve in the library in books such as Patterns of Exposition, From Idea to Essay and Canadian Content. These books and other essay books just like them are also on the main library shelves and can be found by checking the computer catalog for ESSAYS and ESSAY WRITING. The introduction of an essay must begin with generalities, leading gradually to the thesis statement. The falseness of this statement can also be confirmed by a quick look at the essays you just discovered above. There are dozens if not hundreds of ways we can begin our essays. When we write, we must write correctly. Yes, but what is this correctness and where does it come from? Correct, standard English does not come from the writers of grammar books but from our best writers and from geographical and political accidents (ie. who happens to have the power). Standard English, in fact, is not “better” than non-standard English…it’s just more accepted. Therefore, we have REAL RULES which are those rules whose violation stigmatizes a writer as illiterate. Some of these rules are listed below: o double negatives (The girl had hardly no good words to say about him) o nonstandard verbs (They knowed what would happen) o double comparatives (This way is more quicker) o some adjective for adverbs (They worked real good) o some incorrect pronouns (Him and me will study it) o some subject-verb disagreements (We was ready to begin)

“These and others are so egregious that literate writers never knowingly violate them, unless they are trying to be funny.” (Williams, Style)

Rules that can be classified as FOLKLORE are “rules” that are enforced by many schoolteachers, but ignored by most educated and careful writers. This folklore includes the notion that one can never begin a sentence with and or but. The truth is that the vast majority of highly regarded writers, even the most conservative writers, begin sentences with and or but. The same is true for sentences beginning with the word because. Some schoolteachers tell children this instead of taking the time to make sure the children really understand clauses and fragments (example: Because it’s a cold, dreary night.) This because clause would be perfectly correct if joined with an independent clause. (Because it’s a cold, dreary night, I plan on staying home.) Some FOLKLORE is created by individuals to suit their own personal taste. Henry and Francis Fowler, authors of The King’s English in 1906, decided that the random use of that and which to begin clauses was messy, so they invented the “rule” that which should be used to begin non-essential clauses and that should begin essential ones. In fact, few careful writers paid any attention to their “rule,” and still fewer do today, yet many schoolteachers still teach it! OPTIONAL RULES are rules that are not noticed when violated, but when followed, seem especially formal. An example of such a rule is “Do not end a sentence with a preposition.” The sentences, “The man with whom I had spoken was the man to whom I had written.” and “The man I spoke with was the man I had written to.” are both correct, but the first sentence is more formal. If you want to feel comfortable with the “rules” of English, study a good grammar handbook (see list below)…but also follow the first advice I gave you…READ, READ, READ. You will soon understand what is good “correct” writing and what is not!

The Importance of Theme Writing speeches consists of a lot more than finding a few inspirational quotes and possibly a funny story or two. The key to writing good speeches lies in using a theme. If you always refer back to this theme, the audience will respond positively and remember your words. This does not mean that inspirational quotes are not important. However, they should be integrated into your speech in a way that makes sense.

Choosing a Theme

The first task that a public speaker needs to focus on before they do any actual writing is the message they are trying to convey. My inspiration for this idea came from the speeches of John F. Kennedy. In his Inaugural Speech, he chose to focus on freedom. He addressed many different topics, but always came back to this idea of liberty. When asked to be the guest speaker at a National Honor Society induction recently, I decided to focus on how an individual's daily decisions add up to reveal that person's true character. We can not cheat in the small things and expect these blemishes to never surface. When the real tests in life occur, our character will not be able to withstand the pressure because we have not chosen the harder path all along. Why did I choose this as my theme? My audience consisted of Juniors and Seniors at the top of their respective classes. They had to meet stringent requirements in the areas of scholarship, community service, leadership, and character in order to be accepted into the organization. I wanted to leave them with one idea that might make them think twice. If you would like to see the actual speech, click here. How does this relate to you? First, you must decide who will make up your audience. In a graduation speech, you are addressing your fellow classmates. However, parents, grandparents, teachers and administrators will also be present. While you will be focussing on people your age, what you say must be in line with the dignity of the ceremony itself. Remembering that, think of the ONE thought with which you want to leave your audience. Why only one idea? Mainly because if you reinforce a single point instead of focusing on entirely different ideas, your audience will have a greater tendency to remember it. A speech does not lend itself to having many themes. Stick with one really good theme, and use each point you make, your theme reinforcers, to bring that idea home. If you would like some ideas for possible themes, look at the world around you. What are people concerned about? If you are speaking about the state of education, find one central idea like personal responsibility that you feel strongly about. Then return to that idea with each point you make. Write your individual points to reinforce your idea. To return to the graduation speech, check out these top ten themes to use when writing your speech.

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