Monthly Archives: November 2014

On Gratitude

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Things are not as they should be.  They never are.  The Middle East has been a disaster, we continue to suffer racial injustice, our politics are a nightmare of nastiness and obstreperousness, economic inequality rapidly is reaching a point of real conflict.  To say nothing of the hundreds of millions of world citizens ill housed, ill clothed, ill fed. On top of that, each one of us suffers her own personal unhappiness — her disappointments, her frustrations, her illnesses, her own individual injustices.

And yet.  There is every reason for Americans to be grateful.  For starters, I suspect that nobody ever profited in the long-term by resentment, unhappiness, or jealousy.  Short-term, yes.  I, as perhaps many of you, have witnessed the short-term profits of those motivated by negative emotions.  But in the long-term such people must live with themselves. I cannot imagine that is pleasant.  And sustained negative emotion destroys you.  Your negativity doesn’t hurt others — at least in the long term.  But it is deeply corrosive to you.  So it is not for others that I suggest the posture of gratitude.  It is for your own well-being and health.  Your gratitude will translate soon enough into benefits for others.

And then there is objective reality.  I don’t pretend to know the horrors that others have faced, the circumstances of their lives, the depths of their despair.  And I suspect that there are a few people who have earned ingratitude — or at least a neutral posture toward their circumstances — legitimately enough.  I do not judge those people, nor should anybody else.  Of course I empathize, and recognize that we must do all we can to help our fellow humans who need our help.

But for the mass of us.  Gratitude.  It’s objectively the right posture. No matter how bleak life appears, there is much for which to be grateful. And there is a simple way to access that gratitude that I use pretty much every day.  If you don’t feel especially blessed compared with, say, your neighbor, your coworker, your classmate, even your brother — just broaden the context.

It’s a flight of imagination that is both grounded and useful.  I think it is fair to say that we Americans alive in 2014 are perhaps the luckiest people in the world.  And if the world is too small a metric, let me suggest that we are the luckiest people in the history of mankind.  In wealth, health care, technology, science, the arts, the quality and quantity of our food, our conveniences, our comforts — you name it.  While it is easy to become nostalgic for past great eras — and trust me, I indulge in this — I think the reality is quite clear.

I’m not for one second discounting the very real and seemingly intractable problems that confront our society and our world.  They are pressing, and must be addressed. And all of must help to address them.  What I am suggesting is that our ability to address those problems, indeed our willingness to address them, might be enhanced by spending our waking hours in mindful gratitude.  Start today. It’s not that hard.  You’ll find that it becomes a habit.

Happy Thanksgiving

Lawrence Mitchell

Mindful Writing: A Word about Drafts

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“Let me see a draft.”   “We hang you at dawn.” These are roughly equivalent phrases when they come from a boss or a teacher and you take them at face value. Allow me to clarify.

When a supervisor asks you for a draft, that person is not really asking you for a draft. She is asking you for a finished product. Seriously. So why, you ask, did she ask for a draft? Simple. Because what you think of as a draft and what she thinks of a draft are as different as night and day (or apples and oranges or any other trite metaphor you like). In case you doubt me, by the way, the same general rule holds true among academics. One of the most amusing faculty customs is the “works-in-progress” session. The idea is for a scholar to present her work to peers before it’s finished and ready for publication. Now hear this: No scholar would ever present a work in progress unless she considers it to be substantially complete.[1]

Why not? Is the request a sham? No. But there are two reasons never to submit a draft you don’t believe to be your best work. First, no matter how hard she tries, your supervisor will form an opinion of your work based on the draft. She can’t help it. It’s human nature. You may not receive a grade or a review until the final draft. But anything less than your best effort – even if she knows it’s just a draft — will reveal to her your weaknesses. Remember, writing is a form of self-presentation. Submitting what you consider to be a draft is like showing up for class straight out of bed and in your pajamas.

The second reason is utilitarian. Unless you are taking a writing course, your supervisor does not want to spend valuable time fixing your writing (or, worst case, making it comprehensible enough to be useful). She wants to engage with your ideas. If your “draft” is insufficiently refined, it will be hard for her to identify your ideas, much less help you to improve them. I know I reached a point after a few years as a teacher where, if I had trouble understanding a student’s paper in the first page or so, I simply handed it back and told him to resubmit it when it was finished. Only at that point would I consider it a draft I could work with. And I wasn’t being tendentious. You cannot work with what you cannot understand.

So please – submit only what you consider to be your best work, even if you are asked for a draft.

[1] That said, good scholars will revise their works after these sessions for substantive critiques.

Lawrence Mitchell

Good Writing: A Simple Cover Letter

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Yesterday I extolled the virtues of direction and simplicity.  Today I provide an example:

I’m going to use a simple letter as an example– in this case, an email – sending a contract from one business partner to another to be signed by the latter. I’m making this choice for a few reasons. One is that you likely are going to write simple letters like this more frequently than you are going to write lengthy volumes. Another is that, as you will see, such a seemingly simple task requires more attention than you might think. A third is personal. More than 30 years ago, as a brand new lawyer, I drafted such a letter (we didn’t have email back then) for a partner at the firm. I was a good writer, or so I had been told. My grades in college and law school confirmed it. Heck, even my friends told me I was a good writer. And the letter was only a couple of sentences long. So, imagine how I felt when the draft was returned to me – blood red! Angry ink all over the page. It is a moment I have never forgotten, and a lesson in writerly humility I have internalized.   Remembering that embarrassed awakening so long ago, I present this lesson more gently to you.

Here is the text of an email:

“I have attached the contract. Please sign it and return it.”

Simple enough. But have you communicated with your reader? Here are a few questions your reader might have after reading what you wrote: Which contract is this? Where do I sign it? Does it matter what color pen I use or whether I virtually sign it with a computer program? Would you like me to return it as an email attachment in Word (or some other program), a PDF (or some other form), by express delivery, or by regular mail? If the latter, to what address should I return it? And when do you need it?

That’s enough to show you the inadequacy of the email. It fails as communication because it assumes far too much of the reader, assumptions about the reader’s knowledge which are unreasonable. So let’s revisit this email written properly:

Dear Gomez:

I have attached the contract between Addams Family, Inc. and me to provide my services as a writing instructor for your sales force. Please print the attachment and sign it on behalf of Addams Family, Inc. on the signature line on page 3. You may return it as a signed PDF attachment by email, or send it by Federal Express to our offices at 1313 Mockingbird Lane, Munsterville, NY 13666 no later than October 31, 2014.

Thank you for your attention. I look forward to working with you.

Best regards,

Herman Munster

You see the difference? Not only is it more formal and therefore more businesslike, but it also provides specific instructions to Gomez, leaving no question as to what to do. All of this information might have been in Herman’s head when he wrote the first email, but Gomez had no way of knowing any of this. By empathizing with Gomez – by putting himself in Gomez’s place – Herman has succeeded in communicating fully, simply, with no more words than necessary. Gomez will be grateful, and the deal will be completed.

Now let’s go back to self-revelation. How have you portrayed yourself? In the first, one-sentence email, you have portrayed yourself perhaps as sloppy, offhanded, and even inconsiderate because you have sent an obviously rushed note with no thought to Gomez’s needs.   Gomez will not be impressed with you, might be annoyed, and at worst might reconsider his intention to work with you as a business partner. The second email is entirely different. Here you are thoughtful, professional, considerate, and careful. You also convey confidence. As simple as the subject is, you have demonstrated your mastery of it. Who wouldn’t want to work with somebody like you? And Gomez will be grateful for the care and time you took.

Lawrence Mitchell

Writing in the Present: Writing Past Writer’s Block

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The Power of Now. A really effective way to get past writer’s block is to just sit and write whatever starts coming out. But this is also a way to make yourself a better writer. Think about it.   As I’ve previously noted, many people who fear writing wind up writing rather bizarrely. I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect that some of it has to do with the relative permanence of writing. If you’re going to put your thoughts in a form that stays around, you seem to think that you need to do that in a formal manner. But why? All you’re trying to do is to communicate. And good communication is good communication. So if you write what you say, you will avoid a lot of stilted formality.

You will also achieve far better self-presentation. When you speak, you are expressing who you are. When you engage in rococo formal writing, you conceal who you are. Writing as you speak reveals you far better.

And by writing this way, you are writing in the present. Yes, your words will last as ink or pixels. But you are writing to express thoughts and emotions you have at the time you are writing, not in the future. The words you set down express the present. And they present who you are at the moment you are writing. By speaking your writing, you have a much better chance of presenting that reality than if you labor over words. (In case you were wondering, this is also true of papers you might write for school or memoranda for work. Your personality always creeps into your writing.)

Writing is Thinking. There is something else you will quickly realize if you take my advice and just start writing what you say. Well, first, you’ll stop talking after a little while and the connection will be just between your brain and your fingers. You won’t be suspected of madness should somebody walk into the room. But there’s something far more important that will happen. You will be amazed to see what you know. The reason is simple. Writing is a thought process. As you begin to write, as the words start to flow and ideas with them, the act of writing begins to tap your subconscious and brings out lots of things that are buried there. Some of them may have little to do with what you ultimate present as your final product. But most of them will.

I know this because I have done it and it works. I have written thousands of pages in my lifetime.   But I have never really known what any book or paper of mine was about until I had at least a first draft.   What I have had were ideas, usually based on reading and research, ideas about the kinds of thing I wanted to write about, maybe some ideas about what I might say that I at least thought was novel enough to commit to writing. Most of the time, the ideas I originally had were not even present in the final product. But the ideas that I developed by writing were always far better, and far better formed, because of the process I used to get there.

Do NOT Outline. I told you we were going to break some rules. I’m pretty sure that all of you have been taught, at one time or another, to outline your papers before you write them. Do Not Do This. I mean it. Don’t. Nothing will faster destroy the creative, flowing, thought process that is writing than attempting to restrict and contain your ideas within some ridiculous ordinally-ranked structure.

Now, I am not telling you never to outline. I have no problem with you outlining once you have written a draft. At this stage of your writing process, you will already have enjoyed the benefits of writing as thinking, you will have allowed your ideas to flow and begin to take shape, and you very likely will have a draft that looks like a bit of a mess. So at this stage, outlining what you’ve written might be helpful. It will allow you to rearrange, it will allow you to think about what you’ve said, it might even generate some new ideas, and it will likely help your rewriting.

But do not outline before you write. I only did this once, and have lived to regret it. As a young academic, I had written a couple of scholarly papers that achieved some success. But my work was becoming somewhat more complex, and I thought it might be a good exercise to outline a paper I was thinking about writing. So I did. I have never had more trouble getting a piece of writing finished. And while the end product was published, I consider it the worst thing I’ve ever written, candidate number one for expulsion from my written record were such a thing possible.

I suppose it’s fair to ask whether the fault lay more in the outline or in the ideas. I’ve given this some thought. The ideas were fine. In fact the ideas in this paper were the genesis for an entire book I wrote ten years later. Nope, I’m sure it was the outlining.

This makes perfect sense once you understand your writing itself to be a form of thinking and essentially the creative process itself. Even scientists who must perform replicable experiments, which necessarily follow steps and rules, start out with some sort of hypothesis that likely didn’t come from the structured steps of an experiment. Creativity – and thinking is creativity – cannot be cabined that way. So don’t do it.

I do have to correct one misstatement. A few paragraphs ago I wrote that I outlined only once in my life. Actually, I tried to do it one other time. The second time I tried, I got about three headings into the outline and then just naturally started writing. I didn’t stop until I had a book manuscript. (I told you writing is a thought process.) That’s when I decided to give up for good.

Another fair question might be whether I’m just a rotten outliner, whether I am so completely disordered and disorganized that messiness is just my natural state of affairs. I don’t think so. I keep my apartment very neat and my things in order. My students think I am organized as a teacher. My lectures – even lectures that I give extemporaneously — are well-received. So it appears that I’ve got a pretty organized mind. I think the answer (and my outline- to- book attempt is some evidence of this) is that I give myself rather completely to the idea of writing as thinking. I’ve conditioned myself so that, once I start writing, I trust that the process itself more or less takes over. It does. And I let it. This is writing in the moment. This is the power of now.

I do want to be clear. The writing that emerges from this process always needs a lot of work. No matter how organized your mind, you are going to go down blind alleyways, be taken with nice-sounding phrases that turn up without substance, get sloppy or distracted. And, as you read your draft, you will begin to have ideas and see connections that escaped you as you first were committing your thoughts to paper. Writing is an iterative process. There is a lot of back and forth between first draft and final product. All I ask is that you leave enough room for creativity to flow. And that is my problem with outlines.

Lawrence Mitchell

Good Clean Writing: Get to the Point

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Today’s excerpt lays out some preliminary guidelines for good expository writing.  I will elaborate on these in future posts.

Use the words you mean and only the words you mean. Remember my advice to my students.   Your reader can only understand the words you put on the page. You are not going to be sitting there to explain ambiguities when your readers are reading your work. So you must try to read your work for what it says, not what you think it says, or intended it to say, or wish that it said. Also, avoid using unnecessary words. At best they are distractions. At worst they will confuse or mislead your reader. More on this in Chapter Six.

I and Thou. For some reason I have never figured out, writing teachers usually advise students to avoid personal pronouns. I don’t get it. I’ve never gotten it. “One should not use personal pronouns when one is writing lest one do . . . .” Do what? How stilted is that sentence? Nobody talks that way. Why would you write that way? Perhaps the underlying thought is that your personal involvement in the text detracts from the subject. But since you cannot help but reveal yourself in the writing, if you avoid personal pronouns you actually present yourself as rather a bizarre character. I will spend a lot more time on the power of pronouns in Chapter Seven, but my point here simply is that using personal pronouns humanizes you as a writer, presents you as a human being, and engages your reader in dialog with you. One should use them.

Assume your reader is ignorant. I don’t suggest this to be insulting. In fact Socrates, one of the greatest of philosophers, developed his entire approach by doing what he called “coming from ignorance,” asking questions of people to help him understand his and their ideas. (He was thoroughly obnoxious about it and I don’t recommend you emulate him that way, but you get the point.) So, too, should you assume your reader is ignorant of your subject. When you read your work before sending it to others, try to ask yourself all of the questions your reader might have. Then check your work to see if you have answered them. If you have not, then rewrite until you can think of no more unanswered questions.

Keep it simple.   Recall my colleague from Chapter Two on whose paper I “commented”? Recall that I said that he used lots of big words, jargon, and complex phrases to conceal his own lack of substance? Keep it simple. If you have something to say, you can say it clearly and comprehensibly. Nobody is going to think you are smart because you are hard to understand. At best, they will get annoyed and think less of you for it.

A corollary of keeping it simple is to avoid big or fancy words when more straightforward words will do. There are two reasons for this. First, nobody likes a showoff. Your reader will be annoyed if you use words that most people won’t understand.[1] Second, you risk misusing the word because you don’t understand it. Here’s an example that drives me nuts: Many people use the word “attorney” to describe a lawyer. I don’t know why, but I suspect that it’s because they think “attorney” sounds fancier than the humble “lawyer.” (These are the same people who – more accurately – refer to medical doctors as “physicians.” Pretentious, but harmless.) But guess what? “Attorney” and “lawyer” don’t mean the same thing. An attorney is somebody who represents people. She doesn’t have to be a lawyer, only an agent. A lawyer is somebody knowledgeable about the law. She doesn’t have to be an attorney. There are all sorts of lawyers who aren’t attorneys. Now, maybe this particular example won’t get you in trouble. Maybe you have a lot of attorney-loving friends. All I mean to suggest here is that you should be sure the word you choose means what you think it does. The simpler, the better.[2]

Less is more. You probably know somebody who talks a lot. I mean, a lot. Ask them how their day is, and they will tell you in detail every person they talked with, what they discussed, what they ate at each meal, where they stopped to shop on the way home from work and what they bought there, how polite or annoying the clerk was, etc., etc., and so forth. It makes you want to claw your eyes out. All you wanted to know was whether they had a good day. You would have asked more questions had you wanted more detail.

It’s no different with writing. Nobody wants to read your endless prose. True, some novelists can get away with writing lengthy tomes, usually because they are telling long and complex stories. But chances are you’re not William Faulkner or Thomas Pynchon. Chances are the writing you are doing is for a purpose – to convey information in a business or a personal context. So you want to convey the information in as economical and straightforward a manner as possible.

The phrase “less is more” was adopted by the great modern architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Above is a picture of the pavilion he designed for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition. Compare it to the neo- Gothic cathedral next to it.  You can build the latter building, but you’d better be as good as Gaudi if you hope to avoid a mess.  Mies’ building perhaps is more attainable for most of us.  It is a model of simplicity. Its accessible and easy to take in at the same time that it simply is beautiful without being simplistic. Mies managed to strip away everything nonessential, leaving only the minimally necessary structure. But he constructed that structure with the very finest of materials, gorgeous white and green marble, chrome, and glass. This is your goal. The finest words, in the simplest structure. Your readers will thank you.

[1] I say this although it is sometimes the case that you need a word not frequently heard in order to make precisely the point you are attempting. I will take up the matter of word choice and when to get fancy in Chapter [   ].

[2] Another one that drives me crazy which I insert here, because I can, is the use of the word “alumni” to describe an individual. You don’t need to be a Latin scholar – there is enough Latin in the English language for you to know that a word that ends in “i” is plural. But I hear this mistake all the time. If you are an alumnus, you presumably are educated enough not to make this mistake. If you insist on being careless, please use the word “graduate.”

Lawrence Mitchell

Some Analysis of Good Writing

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I continue today posting short excerpts from my book-in-progress.  Today’s excerpt, though, will be somewhat longer, as will be necessary to analyze three passages of what I consider to be great writing.  Enjoy.

Some Examples. I will have plenty of opportunity later in this book to give you some examples and exercises that you can do to immediately improve your writing. But I’d like to stay on reading for a moment just to analyze a few passages that might help you think about what really makes for good writing. To show the consistency of what makes good writing (at least good non-fiction writing) I am going to present three very different types of writing: philosophy, autobiography, and journalism, separated by more than 200 years – 1759, 1907, and 1994. And I will take examples from the early part of each piece, where the establishment of ideas and tone is so important. I think you will see that, while each example has been written for a different reason, with different goals, and in different styles, they all share elements that distinguish them as good.

Each of these passages is clear, simple, and direct, although each conveys many layers of ideas and emotions. And each taps into the empathy of the reader in order to establish a bond that helps the reader to engage in the work. In the first case, empathy is the subject of the book, and this technique melds form and substance.

A Progress of Sentiments. The first, a work of philosophy, is the opening paragraph of Adam Smith’s great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. While Smith is best known for his groundbreaking explanation of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, The Theory of Moral Sentiments preceded that book by almost 20 years and established the moral foundation upon which Smith believed capitalism to be built. It is a misfortune of modern thought that people forget this when discussing the invisible hand and human selfishness. But I digress. This is a book about writing, not philosophy, so here is the opening paragraph:

No matter how selfish you think man is, it’s obvious that there are some principles in his nature that give him an interest in the welfare of others, and make their happiness necessary to him, even if he gets nothing from it but the pleasure of seeing it. That’s what is involved in pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we see it or are made to think about it in a vivid way. The sorrow of others often makes us sad—that’s an obvious matter of fact that doesn’t need to be argued for by giving examples. This sentiment, like all the other basic passions of human nature, is not confined to virtuous and humane people, though they may feel it more intensely than others do. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened criminal, has something of it.

Perhaps the first striking thing to notice about this paragraph is its modernity. It was written 255 years before I am writing this paragraph, but it reads as if it were written yesterday. The reason for this, for its timelessness, is its clarity and directness. It also avoids any sort of jargon. These characteristics are present in each of the three examples I give. [1]

Part of this –Smith’s directness – is something I am going to stress in Chapter 7. One might even describe him as beginning “in your face.” (‘No matter what you think, I am going to tell you otherwise.’) He makes it hard to ignore him. We are in the middle of a debate from the very beginning, one in which Smith clearly has participated before and one he assumes to be familiar to us.

From a technical perspective, Smith achieves this by using an interesting trope, one that he calls upon throughout the book. He addresses us as if we were in conversation with him. (I will encourage this style in my discussion of pronouns in Chapter [ ].) This invites us into the text, into Smith’s thoughts, right into the middle of the debate. He reinforces this author-reader familiarity with his immediate acknowledgment of an attitude he believes we share (i.e., that humans are selfish), and then by employing our own emotions to his ends. When he writes “the emotion we feel,” he is cleverly hijacking our emotions and calling upon our empathic reactions. At the same time, by uniting himself with us, he steps back from the challenge with which he began. But he does so argumentatively. We’re going to have to think through this with him.

Note, for example, how he twice asserts his observations to be “obvious.” Indeed, our sympathetic identification with sorrow is so obvious that it “doesn’t need to be argued for by giving examples.” This technique puts the contrary burden of proof on the reader; if the assertions are obvious, clearly we will need some pretty good evidence if we are to challenge them. At the same time, Smith slyly challenges us to come up with examples that counter the assertion. In this case, I believe that to be impossible as –obviously – does Smith.

This paragraph is also a very nice example of how the very technique and style of writing itself can reinforce the meaning of the text (a technique which I will show below used to different effect by David Foster Wallace). Smith’s engagement of our emotions from the get-go is essential to the (very long) argument that follows. This is because Smith’s moral theory relies directly – indeed depends — upon our ability sympathetically (empathetically) to identify with the emotions of others. It is precisely this identity, and its resonance, with its echoing of, our own emotions, that allows us to at least in some small part experience the joys and pains of others. It is that experience that ties our own selfish impulses – our desire for pleasure and avoidance of pain – to the feelings and thus well-being of others. Smith manages to convey all of this in a single opening paragraph. Brilliant writing.

From Generation to Generation. My next example is taken from Henry Adams’ autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams.[2]Adams, a Harvard history professor and author of one of the most widely-regarded histories of the United States from Jefferson through Madison, was the great-grandson and grandson of presidents, and the son of a key Civil War–era diplomat, facts which hung heavy over Adams and which give the Education its special poignancy. I first read the book my sophomore year of college, and was immediately enthralled. And this despite the fact that Adams can be whiny, contentious, arrogant, supercilious, nasty, and otherwise obnoxious. The book is so good that I still wound up liking the guy (and, indeed, devoted more than a quarter of my senior honors thesis to him).

Here’s the first paragraph. Note that, in autobiography (or, indeed, biography), this first paragraph is especially critical, because it is either where we first meet the subject or are introduced to his antecedents (the latter of which is used to brilliant effect by Robert Caro in the first volume of his monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power.)

Under the shadow of Boston State House, turning its back on the house of John Hancock, the little passage called Hancock Avenue runs, or ran, from Beacon Street, skirting the State House grounds, to Mount Vernon Street, on the summit of Beacon Hill; and there, in the third house below Mount Vernon Place, February 16, 1838, a child was born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Brooks Adams.

Now, what makes this special? It is every bit as modern as Smith. This, again, is a function of clarity, simplicity, and directness, despite the fact that the paragraph consists of only one sentence. And, just as Smith hijacks our emotions to his ends, so does Adams – albeit more subtly – hijack our memories.

On one level, this paragraph simply is a set of directions to a house, ending in a declarative clause about a simple fact. As directions, we would expect (though not demand) it to be a sentence of multiple clauses. But it is coy – brilliantly, cleverly, coy. Indeed it may be one of the most understated openings to any book written since Genesis. For just as Adams will tell a tale of frustration and failure (despite obvious objective success), the introduction embodies the entirety of the reason why. Of course it helps that we recognize Adams’ name, for even readers who don’t know his ancestry will call up in recollection the significance of Boston Adamses. I doubt the opening would have been effective had Henry’s famous ancestry been on his maternal line. Nonetheless, uniting Boston, John Hancock, the Adams family, Beacon Hill, and Boston Unitarianism (as well as the fact that his uncle was minister) speaks volumes about the legacy the baby was inheriting. The rest of the book unpacks this paragraph, just as Moral Sentiments does with its opening.

And that is the genius of this introduction. I haven’t much more to note about it, other than to stress its simplicity. Adams uses the technique of understatement throughout the book, evincing a modesty that belies rather a large ego. But Adams wants our sympathy. As enormously accomplished as he was, we are unlikely to rank him with his progenitors in national importance. In order for us to appreciate what young Henry did, he has to be understated. His ability to sustain that understatement throughout is a large part of what makes the writing so effective.

 State Fair. Finally, let’s take a look at a paragraph from a piece that, while nominally journalism, can best be categorized as literary non-fiction. The article (which is absolutely hilarious) appeared in Harper’s in 1994 and was written by David Foster Wallace. To my mind, there is no better writer than Wallace (and I list him as one of my three most influential writers at the end of this chapter). Why will become apparent if you read any of his work. This paragraph may suffice:

The heat is too familiar. In August it takes hours for the dawn fog to burn off. The air is like wet wool. Eight A.M. is too early to justify turning on the car’s AC. The sun is a blotch in a sky that isn’t so much cloudy as opaque. The corn starts just past the breakdown lanes and goes right to the sky’s hem. August corn in Illinois is as tall as a tall man. With all the advances in fertilization, it’s now knee-high by June 1. Locusts chirr in every field, a brassy electric sound that Dopplers oddly inside the speeding car. Corn, corn, soy- beans, corn, exit ramp, corn, and every few miles an outpost way off on a reach in the distance- house, tree with tire swing, barn, satellite dish. Grain silos are the only skyline. A fog hangs just over the fields. It is over eighty degrees and climbing with the sun. It’ll be over ninety degrees by 10:00 A.M. There’s that tightening quality to the air, like it’s drawing itself in and down for a siege. The interstate is dull and pale. Occasional other cars look ghostly, their drivers’ faces humidity- stunned.[3]

I think this simply is fantastic. You are there, and you see and feel precisely what Wallace is seeing and feeling. But there is more. You get his mood. Anxious. Edgy. Anticipating but not eagerly. How does he do it?

I’m going to analyze this paragraph with some precision.   In so doing, I am not suggesting that you need to do this with your own reading (or you’d never finish anything). I do not suggest that this is the way Wallace wrote it. (I don’t know, but I very much doubt that he did. I suspect that the precision of the structure is more a matter of instinct and training than architecture.) And I do not suggest that you have to do this with your writing. The reason I am analyzing the paragraph as closely as I am is to give you some insight into what makes great writing.   If you think about even a little of what you read and write this way, you are likely to become a far better writer.

Let me also acknowledge that, like the other examples I give, this is just one piece of great writing. I do not mean to suggest that Wallace’s form, technique, and style are the only ways to write well – only that they are very effective ways to write well. And I do want to get you thinking perhaps a bit more actively about why the good stuff you read is so good. That will help your writing.

Let’s start with mood, which is perhaps the most subtle of the paragraph’s qualities. Two of the principle devices that Wallace uses to establish mood here are syntax and rhythm. May I remind you that writing and speaking are the same activity? For many, if not most, of us, what we read resounds in our head. Try reading this paragraph aloud before proceeding to analysis. How does it feel? Yes, feel. Feeling is the consequence of the mood Wallace establishes. Do you feel the anxiety? Wallace, like Smith, knows precisely how to hijack your emotions.

OK, here goes. There are 17 sentences in this paragraph. Notice the sentence structure. Almost all of the sentences are short and direct. Each one describes precisely one thing. There is one exception – the 10th sentence, just past the middle of the paragraph. That sentence, almost three times the average length of each preceding sentence (and a little more than three times the average length of the sentences following), provides a panoramic vision, a more comprehensive sweep of what Wallace is seeing from the car. The remaining seven sentences – slightly shorter than the first nine, revert back to the single-image form.[4]

So Wallace creates edge and anxiety with short, punchy, precise sentences. We see one thing at a time – imagine sitting in the car with your eyes going from sight to sight. He takes a breath midway, allowing us to relax and put it all together, although he does so only after repeated, separated, monosyllables that highlight the monotony of the view (“corn, corn, soy-beans, corn . . .”). And then, as if remembering where he is and what he is about to do, he breathes a bit more quickly and anxiously to the end. Imagine if the paragraph were music, say a classical sonata. The first nine sentences comprise the first movement, the tenth sentence the second, slow movement, and the remaining sentences the fast and furious conclusion. The comparison to music is not idle. We have a culturally-developed aesthetic sense that crosses art forms.

Look again at the directness of the description. Wallace relies heavily on simile and metaphor. Of the 199 words only 12 – just 6% — are adjectives (about which I will rail in Chapter 7). This directness helps the pace. It makes the images clear. It prevents the reader from bogging down in the description but rather presents it as clear and as still as a Grant Wood painting. (image). And it leaves you waiting for more, anxious to know what happens next.

This, my friends, is good writing. Read well, write well.

[1] Please remember this when you reach my discussion of weasly indirection in Chapter 7.

[2] Henry Adams, The Education (New York; Library of America; 1987).

[3] David Foster Wallace, Ticket to the Fair, Harper’s, July 1994, p. 35, republished as Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All, in David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Boston; Little, Brown 1997).

[4] The average sentence in the paragraph is 11.7 words. The first nine sentences average 11.66, and the last seven sentences average 9.14.

Lawrence Mitchell

Good Reading is Good Writing — Ideas!

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In my last post, I said that reading good writing helps you to become a better writer. There is another important reason to read as much good writing as you can. It helps you to have something to say. I once had a senior colleague – a man whom I liked – who taught the normal law professor’s cushy load of about five hours a week, and who managed to eke out a scholarly paper about once every decade or so. One day he was sitting in my office, an activity on which he spent an inordinate amount of time, causing me to stretch my work days from the pre-dawn hours ‘til after dusk simply so I’d have time to write when he wasn’t around. (Did I mention I was untenured? I hadn’t the nerve just to throw him out.) I, with all of the subtlety I could muster, said something about writing and how important it was to keep a professor’s mind fresh.   Rather unselfconsciously, he responded: “I write when I have something to say.”

Well, ok. I suppose it’s not a good idea to write just for the sake of it. That would be kind of like talking just to hear yourself talk, and we know how boorish that can be. So I’m not encouraging you to be a literary boor. But most of us who want to write (and you are one of us or you wouldn’t be reading this book) enjoy writing because we like the process, we are engaged with words, and somewhere in our heart of hearts we believe we have something to say.

The problem is that something to say doesn’t exist in isolation. It doesn’t hit you in the head in the middle of the night. And if it does – ok, it sometimes does – write it down, but be very suspicious of it. If it survives the cold light of dawn, it might turn into something. But even if it does, chances are almost certain that this thought didn’t come out of the ether. It came from someplace else.

There are only two places from which thoughts can come. Reading and experience. Either can be an adequate source to get you writing. But, like me, you probably didn’t drive an ambulance during the Spanish Civil War, or climb Himalayan peaks, or spy for the British during the Cold War. You might have had informative and inspiring experiences. But it’s also likely that you’ve read a lot. And that is probably your most fertile source of ideas.

Philosophy provides a pretty good example. Western philosophers sometimes admit that pretty much all of western philosophy is a continuation of the debate between Plato and Aristotle. And Aristotle was reacting to Plato, who was reacting to his own teachers. You’re not very likely to succeed as a philosopher unless you’ve managed to read a fair amount in the discipline, no matter what inspiring ideas might hit you in the middle of the night. You won’t know what’s been said before, what the context of your ideas are, why they might matter, what the problems are with them. And you probably won’t have an idea in the first place, at least if you haven’t read anything that might stimulate your thinking.

So it is with pretty much everything else. You don’t know anything until you’ve read a bit, and until you know something it’s not likely you’re going to have much in the way of ideas. I know for myself that some of the times I’ve been most blocked are times when I haven’t been as inquisitive a reader as I might have been. And I know that one of the quickest ways to get unblocked is to start reading.

Lawrence Mitchell

 

 

Writing Part 2: Good Reading is Good Writing

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How You Learn Your Craft. How do you learn to speak? You listen.   And you imitate. How do you learn to play the violin? Or hit a tennis ball? Or sing? Or walk? You watch, you listen, you imitate those who know how to do what you want to learn to do. Writing is no different. What is the fastest way to becoming a good writer? Becoming a good reader. Read good writing.

That’s easy enough to say. But how do you know what writing is good?  You can tell whether the tennis ball stays in bounds and confounds the other player. You can hear whether the violin or voice is in tune. How do you identify good writing?

The simplest answer is that good writing is writing that communicates something that it clearly intends to communicate, no more and no less. The great novelist, Theodore Dreiser, in his novel Sister Carrie, characterizes the imploring of Carrie’s suitor thus: “How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean.” Well, that may be fine for fiction, or for attempts to hook up with somebody, but it’s not so good for communication, the goal of which is precisely to convey the volumes we mean. And it should do so without volumes, or at least any more volumes than are strictly necessary – clear, direct, and to the point.

Good writing should allow the reader to answer the following questions rather simply: Why is the writer writing? What is the writer is trying to say? Does the writer actually say what she is trying to say? These straightforward questions can help you separate good writing from bad writing.

The Medium is the Message. Here’s an example from my own career. When I was a young professor, a colleague asked me to read his draft paper and “comment” on it. (This is a good example of the misuse of language. To “comment” on a paper is, in academic circles, to critique it. I suppose the usage came about because people thought “comment” sounded less aggressive than “critique.” It doesn’t literally mean the same thing. But I digress.)

I understood what he meant. And I was a little scared. I didn’t really know this guy, but I did know he was likely to vote on my tenure in the future. And because I didn’t know him, I didn’t know quite how critical he wanted me to be. (My experience in the academic world is that there are people who want real criticism so they can improve their work and people who just want you to tell them how good they are. This fellow turned out to be of the latter stripe.)

But it didn’t matter in this case. Because I read the paper. — and I had no idea what my colleague was talking about. Yes, the paper was written in the English language, or at least it used English words. And its subject – constitutional law – was one that I had studied in law school, so the concepts should have been reasonably familiar. But I really didn’t know what he was talking about, so I told him I found a few typographical errors but otherwise thought the paper was good. He seemed satisfied. (And by tenure time I had moved to a different school.)

I’m not proud of my cowardice. But this colleague then proceeded to talk to me about his theories. (Well, really to lecture me. That is a common form of academic “conversation.” I didn’t have to say a word.) And I learned something from his lecture. Unlike the paper, which was full of circumlocution, big words, long sentences, jargon drawn without context or definition from Continental social theory, and other literary affronts, my colleague was pretty straightforward in conversation. What I learned was why I hadn’t understood the paper, and that was for one simple reason: My colleague had nothing to say! Once I heard his points from his own mouth, when I could sit and ask him questions, I realized that these points were trivial. The paper said nothing worth saying. Yet he had managed to write at least 80 pages of text and persuade a decent law journal to publish it.

This was not good writing, and I knew it. My initial reaction – understandable for an insecure novice — was that I simply wasn’t smart enough to understand the work. But the real lesson was that I had understood it all too well. So, to return to a theme – writing is communication.  If my colleague had actually communicated in writing what he had orally told me, it is unlikely anybody would have published the paper. By burying his lack of substance in language, he created the aura of having said something worth saying. Needless to say, what he lost was my respect.

Here’s my point: If you have a decent vocabulary and a decent education, you should be able to understand pretty much everything you read. If not, it is not your fault. It’s not good writing.

Lists of “bests” are idiosyncratic.  So I’m not going to list “best” writings.  What I will list are the three books that have most profoundly influenced my thinking and my writing.  I advise you all to read them no matter what.  And I’m at least pretty sure that, if you do, you will experience what great writing truly can be:

Adam Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1975).

David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997).

Lawrence Mitchell

Speak Sloppy, Write Sloppy

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Sloppy speaking means sloppy communication.[1]

Here’s an example, drawing on a misuse that makes me cringe, one that I all-too-often hear in conversation, yet rarely see in writing: “His behavior is concerning.” What does the speaker mean? I know that often in the spoken context (because I’ve asked), the speaker means that she was worried about the subject’s behavior. But that is not what the sentence says. In fact the sentence is incomplete. There is no object. (The proper way to say this, of course, is “his behavior concerns me.”[2] I would argue that, while technically correct, even this is just bad usage, because it allows for two meanings – the speaker is worried about the subject’s behavior, or the speaker is involved with the subject’s behavior. Double entendre is fine for puns and sex comedies, not for real communication.)

This isn’t just being picky. I, the listener, can only understand the words that are used, not some other intention in the speaker’s brain. We communicate with words because we are not telepathic. And so I will have to ask a question to understand precisely what it is that the speaker is trying to say: “What is his behavior concerning?” The speaker, failing to recognize her error, might well answer, “Me.” I, following the obvious meaning of this answer might ask, “What?” (You can see that the only place this will get us is the equivalent of the famous Abbott & Costello  “Who’s on first” dialog.) Or, recognizing her error, she might correct herself: “ I am concerned [worried] about his behavior.” Either way, my need to ask a question and the extra step required for her to answer it means that she has failed at communication. [3]

Now, here’s the problem for your writing. The more you engage in sloppy speech, the more you use the wrong words, bad grammar, or muddle your thoughts, the more adversely this will affect your writing. You will get into the habit of hearing as right what you say as wrong. It is true that in conversation you have the opportunity to correct your listener’s misunderstanding, assuming – unlike the case of Abbott and Costello — that the misunderstanding is revealed. But with the written word – with a reader removed from you in time and space – there is no chance at correction.

[1] It also means poor self-presentation, but I save the topic of speech for another book.

[2] Even this is a secondary meaning. The Latin source of the word means “to be relevant to.” Concern as worry already is a bastardization. A good speaker – and writer – would simply use the word “worry.”

[3] While I’m ranting in the footnotes, I should point out that in its last issue, a prestigious literary and news magazine of which I am a regular reader (and which employed perhaps the two most famous literary style writers in the 20th century) permitted authors to misuse the word “tiresome” (for tiring instead of boring).   Worse, in its current issue it permitted a writer to get away with the phrase “done eating.”   (Ouch.) Also within the last week or so, the major newspaper of record in my hometown permitted a travel writer to misuse the phrase “my husband and me.” I am almost certain that these mistakes creep in as a result of sloppy speaking, with the first sounding “fancier” than the correct word. We can debate at length whether these mistakes show a process of linguistic evolution. They might. But, at this moment, they’re just mistakes.

Lawrence Mitchell

Thoughts on Writing Part 1: Write the Way You Speak. And Vice Versa

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So I’m deep into a project, writing a book on writing.  I thought that, as the manuscript progresses, I would post sections here at Hum(e)an Moments.  I’ll still be blogging about other things, but perhaps some of you will find these thoughts helpful.  So here goes:

One quick way to become a better writer is to become a better speaker.

Let’s begin with some basics. Writing is communicating. Pure and simple. There is no other use for it. It can be pretty, it can be plain, it can be subtle, it can be blunt, it can be elegant, it can be crude, it can be entertaining, it can be dull. But it is always communication.[1]

Speaking is communicating. Same as writing.[2] Neither activity exists for its own sake. If you fail to communicate, you have failed at writing, just as you have failed at speaking. You’ve drawn symbols. You’ve uttered sounds. But you have neither written nor spoken.

Maybe you’ll be quick to object and argue that in some ways they’re different. I’ve heard this argument. I was recently having a conversation with my son, an English major graduate of a highly prestigious college. We were discussing his plans and aspirations. He concluded by saying: “So that’s where I’m at.”

OK, let’s leave aside the pain it caused me to hear the participle dangle. That’s not my point. I did tell him that I was surprised that somebody who wrote as beautifully as he does could speak that way. “Dad,” he responded, “I don’t write the way I speak.”

And therein lies a problem. To get at it, just ask yourself who was the greatest writer in the English language. I’m willing to bet that you immediately thought of William Shakespeare, whether or not he was your ultimate choice. It doesn’t matter whether he was actually our greatest writer, if you can even make that determination. His work and reputation put him at the top of the list.

Now, what is Shakespeare best known for? Right, his plays. And what is it about his plays that makes them great? The stage direction? Nope, it’s the dialog. Shakespeare wrote arguably the greatest work in the English language to be spoken.

Most of us today don’t speak like Hamlet or Lady Macbeth. But language was a bit different in Shakespeare’s day, and while I suspect that the neighbors didn’t speak in iambic pentameter, their manner of speaking – word choice, grammar, etc., — was more in line with his work. So we speak differently today. Does that mean that we should write the way we speak?

Well, yes, if you speak well. Speaking and writing both are ways of communicating. They are in fact the same way of communicating.[3]

[1] I know, I’m ignoring the art of calligraphy. But I would argue that calligraphy turns the written letter or word into an abstracted art. It is not writing in any meaningful sense of the term. That is why we call calligraphy, calligraphy, and writing, writing.

[2] If you think I’m going to be doctrinaire or some kind of grammar Nazi, please notice that I have here presented a sentence fragment as a complete sentence. I will make the case for breaking the rules of grammar for stylistic purposes later on, but only when you have become a good writer in the first place. Picasso learned to paint realistically with good technique before he turned to Cubism.

[3] Even if you want to argue with this statement, don’t. I’m going to show you how understanding speaking and writing as fundamentally the same can help you get over writer’s block probably better than any other technique.

Lawrence Mitchell