The Study Dude – Help! For Writers, Part II

Study-Tips from a Semi-Anonymous Friend
How to Write like a Top Student

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to make your first sentences punchy.

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. Roy appeared on Oprah and many other media channels as his writing parallels the heights of the iconic language experts, Strunk and White.

How to Begin Your Masterpieces
As a student, I often heard the rule that you should start your essays with an interesting quote, an anecdote, a compelling statistic, and so forth, but I never implemented the strategy. One professor proved stingy with giving grades, although she towered over all others in terms of the positive impact she left. My essays received meagre A-minuses from her, and I was often perplexed at what I could have done better. Now, with all of my reading on writing strategies from the pros like Roy Peter Clark, I have better insight into what could have elevated my writing grade to an A-plus.

The first sentence of an essay should be monumental, and Roy Peter Clark presents some strategies for capturing that A-plus at the start of your essay or story:
– Read as many intro sentences and paragraphs as you can get your hands on?particularly the kinds that keep you reading.
– Determine what stands out as most interesting in the story. What strikes a chord as relevant to you personally?
– Pay attention to conflict. Conflict drives good writing.
– Start with the most urgent piece or pieces you need as the foundation for your argument development.
– Put those tidbits that instil an urgency to read your essay at the beginning.
– Determine the top three most important pieces in your writing, and foreshadow at least one at the beginning.

What to Do When You Have Too Much Material to Wade Through
Have you ever had too much research to wade through? Or have you highlighted a million and one points in all the materials you perused with the desire to implement them all? All graduate students have, and many undergraduates do so as well. Yet, we need to narrow our materials for focus.

As an undergraduate, I signed out every book available on the topic I aimed to research. With no regard to who else might need the books, I signed out as much material as my hands could carry. This strategy ensured that I had ample resources for my studies. Plus, zeroing in on the index of the book to get the content of my narrowed topic aided the process of getting the most out of the books in as little time as possible. I also printed off at least fifteen articles, more if I could find relevant ones, and I would rush skim them, highlighting everything that sparked my interest pertaining to the topic I aimed to study. At the same time, I would write a one- or two-word heading beside each highlighted point, categorizing them for later on.

In short, I had so much material that building the outline or creating cue cards proved to be a highly involved task. At some point, I needed to consider a better strategy for dealing with too much information.

Roy Peter Clark overflows with ideas for managing too much material for your essay:
– Start by writing what you know.
– Put three stars beside the very best material, two stars by the next best, and one star by the least best.
– Get three boxes out, and label them as “stuff you want to implement in your paper”, “backup”, and “stuff you don’t intend on using”. Categorize your material in these boxes.
– Randomly draft the ten most important things you want to cover in your story, and then reduce this list to five. Make a file for each of the five items. Put notes in the files (cue cards even).
– Make a table of contents or an index to help you think about the major topics in your story or essay
– Maybe start writing on a subtopic that appeals to you rather than from beginning to end. Write what inspires you most at the time you wish to write.
– Use index cards and order them.
– Try drafting your introduction without looking at your notes or index cards or research materials.
– Try to envision a mission statement that takes three things you hope the reader will take from your writing.

How to Cut and Edit to Capture Just Your Very Best Material
I wrote a play once. I wrote half of it using some basic instruction, but it wasn’t until the point where the instructor took my scene and cut out the majority of my writing that I came to a turning point. Almost every sentence was snipped by him. What remained consisted of a few telling lines of plot. With that in mind, I scrapped the script, restarted from page one, and wrote only the bare minimum to convey the action. The script thinned, so I added more scenes with increasing tension.

Now, I preach the value of cutting the extraneous from scripts, but I have yet to learn to do so with articles and essays. Murdering your darlings, or cutting your prized sentences, can pain you to do, but the end pay-off is worth it.

With that said, and to avoid a pang of guilt for hypocritically writing anything redundant on this topic, here’s what Roy Peter Clark says about editing your material to capture the very best:
– When you finish your draft, surround the material that works well with brackets. Cut the rest.
– Try to imagine how your reader would respond to your writing. Keep what you think the reader would most appreciate.
– With your bracketed best material, rate each item from one to ten (worst to best) and consider cutting the lower numbers.
– Remember that writing that is embellished with flowery words may not be worthy of inclusion. Consider cutting your darlings.
– The elements that you cut might work in another essay, so consider keeping them in storage.
– When you find a piece of information in your paper that doesn’t quite fit, cut it out–even if the info seems intriguing.

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.