The Study Dude – How to Write Like a Top Student

Study Tips from a Semi-Anonymous Friend

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to know how to find inspiration for your next paper.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s article peers into the mindset of the journalistic expert, Roy Peter Clark, in his groundbreaking book Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces.

How to Master Language
My math scores flew off the ceiling at university, but my vocabulary needed work. In junior high school an instructor advised us to not look up words but try to glean their meaning from the text; thus, my dictionary grew cobwebs. Now, I constantly consult my partner, a walking dictionary, on new words and look up words on a frequent basis just to better my vocabulary. Also, I started a new process to build vocabulary, which consists of reading two pages of the dictionary nightly. I also write down words I don’t know in the back of the book I’m reading and later look them up. Sometimes, if I feel ambitious, I will make dictionary term cue cards on, which takes about a half hour to an hour, depending on the day.

However, Roy Peter Clark’s tactics for honing language skills blew me away:
– Read dictionaries and read lots of books for the sheer enjoyment of it. Such a habit will augment your vocabulary.
– Whenever you entertain a specialist, such as a mechanic, ask him or her about what they do with the aim of gleaning snippets of a specialized vocabulary.
– By stepping out of your comfort zone and using a metaphor, the words in the metaphor can lead to other similar and novel words. For instance, if you use the metaphor of a pyramid, that can lead to other words to sprinkle in your paper, such as pharaoh and tomb. By following a metaphorical path in parts of your writing, you enable a new, energized vocabulary to enliven your writing.
– When you try to capture a specialized vocabulary, consider it jargon if it’s from a professional and consider it slang if it’s from an outcast.
– When writing an anecdote or story, pay close attention to visual and other sensory details in the environment you wish to capture in writing.
– Pay close attention to the origin of words by buying a dictionary that outlines word origins. Look up words you don’t know, and ponder the origins to great length. Your vocabulary will spike in the long run if you keep this practice up.
– When you refer to products, try to use a brand name. Brand names enrich your writing with a unique characteristic. Ed note: There are some concerns about using brand names, see The Writer’s Toolbox: A Company Affair, Parts III and IV.

What to Do about Clichés
I can’t tell you exactly what a cliché is. Some clichés are obvious; others rest on a borderline. I took an IQ test, and I think that somewhere in life, I misinterpreted major clichés. For instance, it took me an eternity to figure out that the expression is “toot your horn” rather than “tout your horn,” and I always perplexed over the saying “hit the nail on the head,” often inserting a hammer in the wrong place. If ever I try to use a cliché, I tend to get it wrong.

Not knowing the actual meaning of clichés might not burden me in life, but in literature, if you know the rules, you can break them effectively, and breaking them is something that Roy Peter Clark recommends you do.

At university, one professor makes his living off of clichés. He prides himself for his ability to draw almost any cliché out of his arsenal and string together an academic essay that chains cliché after cliché. Somehow he gets published.

Roy Peter Clark sets us straight on how and when to use clichés in our academic writing:
– Try to use only picturesque and sensory-evoking clichés. Avoid the rest.
– Try to present only one cliché per essay.
– Twist the cliché by changing it up or reframing it in the opposite meaning. For instance, the early bird gets the worm can become the early grump gets the worms.
– Another strategy for changing up a cliché is to take a cliché and write down similar phrases until you find something that stands out.
– Know what the cliché means. Be sure to look up cliché origins
– Google the cliché. If 118,000 search results or less return, then use the cliché. If significantly more search results arise, the cliché staggers with overuse: avoid at all cost.

What to Do If You Hate Your Assignment
When planning assignments, I often chose the most difficult option just to differentiate myself. I once took on an assignment to compare similarities of two different political frames of thought. Our professor stated straightaway that comparing the two would deem a most difficult task and advised us to avoid it and opt instead to contrast the two. I didn’t listen, though.

Without ever having written a political science essay, I took on the most challenging option and spent the next month tied to my computer chair making a table of two columns, one column per political point-of-view. With painstaking care, I managed to isolate about nineteen similarities between the two frames of thought. I ended up with the second highest mark in the class, pleased as Obama after a long-winded speech that tenacity pulled me through.

Challenging yourself is one way to make a dull assignment interesting. Another way, I discovered, involves adding a creative component to the assignment. I took speeches, turned them into part art demonstrations and part voice over, and made short films out of them. One professor allowed me to write a script instead of an essay. Beware such assignments, however. I took the smart route with the assignment and made sure almost every sentence cited research. My grade reflected the effort I made in ensuring the creative component cited as much, if not more, than a regular essay.

Our friend, Roy Peter Clark, has some jewel ideas for making your dreaded assignment enjoyable:
– Narrow the lame assignment topic to something that interests you. For instance, if you have to write about mother’s day, you might write about “a frat house mother who had no children of her own” (p. 29). Yes, you can narrow the story topic into something compelling.
– Ask your professor if you can transform your assignment into a creative project, whether it manifests into a poem, a song, a play, an artistic piece, a multimedia performance, or live performance, and so forth.
– Brainstorm with friends about ways you can make an assignment fascinating. For instance, if you need to write about war, consider writing about military dogs. (Yes, I just saw the film called Max about a military dog. Neat dog and the premise of a good story.)
– Look up the general subject topic on Google to assess what the first twenty lines or so reveal. These twenty lines will not only help you narrow the topic but also help you find resources and people to interview.
– Keep a portfolio of potential story topics. Anything that piques your interest can be developed into a fascinating story.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Clark, Roy Peter. (2011). Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.