“All successful academics work hard at the craft of writing,” says stylish writing evangelist, Helen Sword (p. 86). Many find that hard work thrilling (Sword).
My thesis barely passed. I wrote longwinded sentences in passive voice. But most students write, well, poorly. Why? Universities rarely teach writing outside of the English department, says Sword. Plus, professors whip us with F’s if we use the word “I.” Not using the word “I” forces the passive. My supervisor unfairly barked, “Passive voiceagain?”
Surprisingly, during undergrad, I won steady A’s despite the passive voice. My heavy research and nitpicked outlines made up for writing woes. Yet, when I entered the graduate program, my supervisor scorned my system: “That,” she said, pointing to my box of cue cards, “Has to go.” Stupidly, I stopped outlining.
In the end, two B’s kept me from the PhD. With low spirits, I sought to learn the craft of writing.
First, I learned the value of editing. First drafts wow no-one. Writing expert Steven Pinker edited his work until he could say, “Wow, did I write that?” (as cited in Sword, p. 87). Another expert, Joshua Schimel, wrote a five-star book called Writing Science: How to Write Papers that Get Cited and Proposals that Get Funded. Joshua once said Steven’s same words, “Wow, did I write that?” Editing reaps power.
When I edit my work, I read it aloud. The more I edit, the better the words soundsand the more playful I feel. I try to add humor. I try to follow Helen Sword’s tips (from her book The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose). I try to justify my increasing demolition of English grammar.
Second, I learned the importance of writing from the soul. One print magazine editor rejected my article. She said, “You didn’t share.” So, I added a splash of soul and published elsewhere. Like star actors, great writers share, slightly red-faced.
Third, I learned to strive for clarity. Whenever the reader stumbles, the writer failed. Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style shares tips to write clearlytips such as keeping the subject and verb tucked close together. “Why write,” says the smart editor, “If few understand?”
Lastly, I aim to learn how to reverse-engineer others’ writings. Steven Pinker (as cited in Sword) analyzes the writings of Roger Brown and George Miller. Pinker stares and studies, figuring out the writers’ patterns and techniques. Personally, I’d like to master the style of Pinkerplus the rhythm of Edgar Allen Poe.
Helen Sword shares ways successful academics learn the craft of writing. She reveals advice from the best in her book Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Writes:
First drafts never delight. Keep editing.
Not many successful writers find writing effortless. They work hard at the craft.
Many hours go into writing a fantastic five-hundred-word essay.
“Experienced writers understand that messiness and frustration come with the territory” (p. 79).
Great writers work at concision, structure, voice, clarity, vocabulary, accessibility, and syntax.
To spark your love for writing, write down a list of writing joys.
Take on different styles and voices of writing. By doing so, you’ll grow.
Locate writing appsand use them.
Don’t hack aimlessly to edit essays. First, read grammar books and writing booksthen reverse engineer Doctor Seuss. After all, the doc gets cited richly on dictionary.com. A paradox? I call it a creative spark!