1 – Sit Down and Write
This chapter attempts to demystify the subject of writing for the student. Writing is a process that draws on a person’s mental, emotional, and physical resources. A person does not have to be greatly talented or inherently gifted to write well. More importantly, a person must have the willingness to try to write. Once this willingness is there, the writer can use a number of techniques to improve the writing. The two keys to good writing are:
Practice — Writing is hard work. It’s also a lonely business. But the only way that any of us can improve our writing is to do it and do it consistently. A person must be willing to “sit down and write” (thus, the name of this chapter). This book attempts to give students and instructors many opportunities to practice writing.
Editing — Writing is a process, and a key part of that process is editing. None of us — particularly students who are learning the process — should fall in love with what we write. Students should learn that our first drafts are not always our best attempts, and they should expect to edit and change their work as a part of the writing process. They should always ask questions about what they have written, such as, “Does this make sense?”, “Have I said this the best way I could?”, “Have I used too many words?”, “Are my sentences too long?”, “If I were telling my best friend this information, would this be the way I would say it?”
The second part of the chapter discusses briefly some of the rules and circumstances that are imposed on a writer when he or she is writing for the mass media. Writers for the mass media must learn the appropriate forms in which their writing must appear, and most of the rest of this book is devoted to examining and teaching the proper forms of writing for the mass media. Students should also understand that writing for the mass media often involves writing under deadline pressure. Many students in writing classes will say, “If I just had more time, I could complete this assignment and do a much better job on it.” The thing a writer for the mass media often does not have is time, however. Students need to learn that writing under pressure is part of the process of writing for the mass media.
Finally, the chapter discusses the emergence of new media, particularly the World Wide Web, and some of the skills necessary in writing for it. Writers must present information efficiently and must organize it in a way that will be suitable for the readers. Writers must also develop a sense of graphics and when they should be used effectively in presenting that information.
Students should leave this chapter with an understanding of writing as a process, with a confidence that they can become good writers, and with the knowledge that this book will give them plenty of opportunities to improve their writing.
Key terms and concepts
The following are key terms or concepts that the student should understand.
Good writing — Good writing is defined with a number of descriptions at the beginning of the chapter. Students should be encouraged to add to these descriptions of their own ideas about what good writing is and how it is achieved. The instructor should present a number of examples of his or her favorite writing to demonstrate some of the concepts in this chapter.
Rewriting — As we have already mentioned, rewriting or editing is one of the key techniques in improving writing. Catching mistakes is not the only purpose of editing; real editing should be a conscious attempt to improve the copy.
Simplicity — The best technique for clarity in writing is to try to write as simply as possible. This means using simple words and avoiding long complicated sentences. A good first step for the student to try is to limit a sentence to one major idea.
Verbs as engines of the language — Verbs are the strongest words in the language. They are also the best descriptors in the language. A well-selected verb can do more to enliven and enhance writing than any other part of speech. In editing and rewriting, students should first pay attention to the verbs that they have used. Too many linking verbs, passive verbs, and abstract constructions (“there is,” “it is”) will deaden a piece of writing.
Unity — A piece of writing should “hang together.” It shouldn’t be a series of short bursts of ideas or information aimed at the reader. One of the chief ways of achieving unity is by having a clear idea of what the piece of writing is about and to whom it is directed. Another is through the use of transitions, which will be discussed in later chapters.
Hypertext — Text designed so that a read may move to different points at his or her own discretion.
Linking — Linking is a technical term in which a reader can move to different points on the World Wide Web to obtain information.
Suggestions for lecture and discussion
I often begin a discussion of good writing with an overhead that has the following quotation:
At this point in time, the current levels of societal tension are enough to create a high degree of anxiety among citizens of every persuasion and every economic and cultural class.
I then ask the students to tell me what this says. I give them a hint by saying it’s a famous quotation — one that they have all heard — and that it’s written in modern language. Finally, I cover up the overhead and ask them to repeat it. Then I show them the original quotation.
These are the times that try men’s souls.
Thomas Paine wrote those words in 1776 when he was trying to keep a revolution going. They are the first words of An American Crisis, a pamphlet that so impressed George Washington that he had it read out loud to his discouraged troops at Valley Forge. The power of Paine’s language comes not only with his ideas but with the simplicity he used to express them — expressions so simple that we remember them more than 200 years later.
This technique of putting famous quotes into modern-day jargon and bureaucratese can be used with other writing that most of your students will instantly recognize. You may want to try it with your favorite historical quotation.
Examples of student writing for analysis in class or lab
The examples below come from assignments that students have written. They can be photocopied or put on transparencies for class discussion.
The wooden boat, propelled by a motor, much larger than was necessary, bounded over wakes, created by passing boats. The two passengers bounced, on the cushion-less seats, toward the swaying wood platform, hundreds of yards, from shore.
The gates would all be locked rather tightly.
Whenever we finished a beer we had a contest to see who could throw it the farthest over the side of the hill.
There were many days spent sitting on the white sandy beach in which we took toll of our lives.
It was par for the course.
It really is a small world.
There were no fights and only one complaint on the amount of beer, and to be honest, he didn’t really need anymore.
We decided to buy two kegs for the very simple reason it cost $95.97 with the new federal tax.
She rode that Big Wheel down Montgomery Lane as fast as her little legs would carry her.
On the scorching, hot June day, she was playing with four two week old, Siamese kittens under a large bush which was next to the dog on a leach.
The choices I have are numerous to an extent.
There is no such things as Knight’s-in-shining-armor, and specially at our school!
I have always considered myself one of risk and I take my risk when it comes to skiing because, It is the excitement and exhileration that pushes me beyond my limits. A mogel is a term used to describe or experience an eight foot boulder that is covered with snow.
Upon entering the cathedral ceilinged work of art, her mouth dropped and was filled with the spirit as she charged through the crowds searching for a force that was unmistakably pulling her into the ring of spenders. (Author’s note: This student was attempting to describe a trip to a shopping mall.)
Pledging allowed her to meet and get to know girls she otherwise never would have even said hello to.
This came as shocking news to the family who had led relatively normal lives up until this point.
Becoming an active brought some added responsibility to her life, but it was nothing she couldn’t handle. For example, there are meetings that she as to attend once a week.
Links and resources
The writerly life. Blair Hurley is not a journalist. She writes fiction, but she is interested in the disciplines and techniques of good writing, and her website, WriterlyLife.com, is a good one for your students to check in with occasionally. In particular, direct them to her essay on the 5 Things Your High School English Teacher Didn’t Tell You. One of them is: Bigger words don’t mean better writing.
Associated Press Sports Editors. The main site of the APSE organization provides links to previous award winners dating back to 1998. Visitors, in many cases, may view the winning story. Aspiring journalists, not necessarily sports writers, ought to emulate effective and powerful writing.
Clichés. Avoid them like the plague. A list, from aces in the hole to yuppie, of clichés, all of which you should seek to eliminate from your writing.
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