Believe in yourself (but not too much)

“Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly. There will be many mistakes, many things to take out and others that need to be added.” Anne Lamott

“I Hide My Poems”

In honor of the new year, I thought I’d share something a bit different in this post. I like to think of this as a “metapoem”: a poem about the experience of writing a poem.

I hide my poems
while they’re still bloody,
wait for my flesh to re-knit itself
into an untroubled whole,
wait until my words no longer throb
like a fingernail jammed backward,
in sync with each beat of my heart.
I leave them shut in the dark
gestating between pages,
then birth the poem again
when I revise.

And now we revise…

Revision is an integral part of the process. I still struggle with this stage, especially when I’ve written a draft that isn’t too terrible but isn’t what I would like. With this kind of writing, it can be difficult to know what to do next. Sometimes I get so accustomed to reading the words the way that I wrote them that I become unwilling to make radical changes, even when they are needed.

Anne Lamott says that much of writing is writing until you get to the idea or phrase or scene that rings true. However, much of the time you have to write several pages of shitty first draft to get to that point. I identify with the idea of writing as a process of discovery. Many times, I start writing not knowing what I want to write, and the process of writing teaches me. Through writing, ideas emerge that I might never have had access to otherwise. The problem then becomes eliminating the sentences, paragraphs, or pages that no longer fit with these new ideas but which I had to write in order to arrive at my final concepts.

Knowing the difference between the parts of your writing that ring true and the parts that you had to write to get to the writing that works is an important part of revising. Anne Lamott uses the image of a game of pick-up sticks. You start by removing the sticks that seem loose and don’t really touch the others. This applies to your writing as well. You start by cutting the parts of writing that you can easily take out.

Lamott says, “I take out the easy stuff, stuff that obviously doesn’t go there, stuff that I needed to write to get to the stuff that I wanted. It’s a matter of finding the shape of it, and taking out the stuff that isn’t part of the vision.” In this view, revising is like pruning out the unneeded material. Not only does pruning involve cutting off dead branches, it also involves trimming off seemingly healthy ones in order to get the plant to grow in the proper shape or to force the plant to grow back thicker and stronger.

Not only do you want to cut out the words, images, and ideas which are dead, you also need to cut out the material that isn’t working because you are trying too hard to be clever. Anne Lamott notes, “All the stuff that you thought was so fascinating, so interesting, so charming that you love it to pieces—it sticks out like a sore thumb.” Taking out words and phrases that you love can be the most difficult part of revising, but you have to be willing to kill your darlings. I’m not sure who first said this often-quoted piece of advice, but Lamott is among the number of writers who will tell it to you.

Sometimes your work needs major, major revision. It’s not just killing your darlings, it’s taking their bodies and cutting them apart and trying to put them back together in a way that brings life. This sounds like a task reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein, but sometimes it needs to be done. In Bird by Bird, Lamott relates her revision process for her second book. After her editor read the complete manuscript, he told her that while the book had wonderful characters, it never got around to really saying anything. It was difficult for Lamott to hear this, but once she was able to look at her manuscript again, she saw the potential in it:

“One morning I took my three-hundred-page manuscript and began to lay it down on the floor, section by section. … There were sections up front that clearly belonged in the middle, there were scenes in the last fifty pages that would be wonderful near the beginning …. Then, when I was sure, I stacked up all the pages in their new order and set about writing a third draft.” (Bird by Bird)

Revision (especially dramatic revision) can’t always be done on a computer screen. Lamott recommends printing everything out. “Send money to the Sierra Club if that makes you feel better,” she says. There is something about seeing your work in front of you in a concrete way that can help you re-conceptualize it. And while the revision process can be painful, it is absolutely necessary to help your writing be the best it can be.

Why don’t you come on out and say it?

Writing with clarity is important in all types of writing, but this is especially true for academic and technical writing. For these types of writing, the concept of clarity seems straightforward enough, but somehow it can be difficult to achieve. I struggled with this a lot in my first few years of college. I thought the connections between my thoughts were obvious because they were obvious to me.

Don’t make this mistake. Remember that your reader doesn’t know what’s going on inside your head, only what you’ve written on the page. When you are writing in an academic setting, you are generally trying to inform your readers or communicate information. You want your audience to have to do as little additional work as possible. They shouldn’t have to read a paragraph and think, “Now why did the writer include this?” They shouldn’t have to do the work of analyzing and synthesizing the information contained in the paper; you’ve already done that in the process of writing it.

The revision process is a good time to think about clarity. When you are revising, you already have your main points on paper in a way that makes sense to you, because you have the internal scaffolding of your writing process to support them. What you want to do is to take this mental scaffolding of connections and incorporate in into your paper.

The thesis statement is a good place to start. Once you’ve formulated a strong thesis statement (more on that here), you want to make sure that every paragraph has a clear relation back to the thesis. Transition statements are also important for clarity, because they tie paragraphs together and show the connections between your ideas.

It’s generally a good idea to have someone else read over your paper for clarity; another pair of eyes will catch possible confusion more easily that you can. Someone who’s completely unfamiliar with your paper will have the necessary distance to pick up on unclear connections or points that are inadequately explained.

Don’t worry about being too obvious in an academic essay: just come out and say it! Of course, that doesn’t mean you should belabor points that are common knowledge or repeat yourself as you strive for clarity.

Creative writers strive for clarity a bit differently than does a writer who is working on a research paper or an academic essay. In a poem or short story, you often don’t want to spell out every emotion that you want the reader to feel. Sometimes, leaving the reader in the dark about a character’s motivations adds drama and depth to the story.

In this case, the oft-quoted dictum “Show, don’t tell” can be helpful to keep in mind. Describe the details of a scene clearly enough, and chose words that have connotations that contribute to your overall effect–the readers will feel what you want them to feel. Approach your characters’ emotions and motivations with subtly and depth, allowing your readers to discover them much as they would discover the motivations and feelings of the people around them.

This can be difficult. Sometimes it seems that there is a fine line in creative writing between telling too much and not telling at all. Again, this is where reader feedback comes in. The writing center at my college allows students to bring in creative writing pieces, so if you have access to a college writing center, you may want to try this. Friends, family members, and classmates may also be willing to act as beta readers.

In all types of writing, the key to achieving the appropriate amount of clarity is to reread your work and revise, revise, revise! As you become more familiar with your readers’ needs, you will learn what you need to say and what you can communicate through allusion and hints.

I’m not ready

The other day, I accidentally published a post on this blog before I had completely finished writing it. I must admit, my first response was to panic a bit. I couldn’t stand the thought of other people seeing what I had written when it was in that state. I wasn’t ready!

This is a common experience for writers, I think. It doesn’t always happen because of a mishap like mine; sometimes we have to turn in an essay before we think it’s good enough because it’s due that day, and sometimes we have to nerve ourselves up to allow someone to read the story we’ve been working on, even though it isn’t perfect yet.

The fact is, our writing will never be perfect. If we try to wait until it is, we will never be ready. Sometimes, we have to be willing to take risks, willing to let go, and willing to allow others to share in our writing process. At times, our feelings of unreadiness are just procrastination in disguise. We say we’re “not ready” to let someone else read our writing, but really we just don’t want to put in the work to make it ready.

There are steps we can take to make sure that we are as ready as we can be to share our writing. Before we take the plunge and let another person read what we’ve written, we can help our writing be the best it can be by writing multiple drafts and being willing to make both large and small changes. Sometimes, letting your piece sit for a few hours (or a few days, if you have that much time) will help you come back with a new perspective and revise with fresh eyes.

In addition, we can ease into sharing our writing, taking it to to someone we trust and allowing him or her to be the first reader. If you are still in college, the tutors at your school’s writing center would be more than happy to look over your writing. Although sometimes it may feel as though your writing is like a first-born child, all parents need to learn to let their children grow up and find their own way in the world.

Just as parents can only attempt to prepare their children for the challenges they will face, writers can only attempt to prepare their pieces for a larger audience. At a certain point, you have to acknowledge that you have done the best you can in the time you had to do it. You have to learn to let your writing go out into the world and say what it has to say. Perhaps it will make friends, perhaps not. Still, you have to let it go.

Speaking of letting it go…. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Writing for academic success

Academic writing is a necessary skill for almost any college student. Some majors write more than others, but even engineering and math majors need to write a paper or two before they graduate. Writing is also a “transferable skill” that employers look for when they interview job applicants, so it’s an important skill to cultivate. In spite of this, many college students feel unsure in their writing, especially if they are attempting to write in an unfamiliar format. Students who are entering college for the first time or returning after several years may feel unprepared for the writing assignments they encounter.

Here are some tips for writing well in an academic setting that I’ve learned during my time in college:

1. Read the syllabus thoroughly, as well as any written instructions your professor may give you. If the professor gives you the assignment verbally, make sure to listen carefully and take notes. I often work with students at the writing center who don’t completely understand their assignments. If you’re in this situation, don’t just write and hope you are fulfilling the requirements. Discuss the assignment with your professor or with a tutor at the writing center if you have questions.

2. Make sure you follow your professor’s guidelines. If he says he doesn’t want you to include a thesis statement, don’t include a thesis statement. If she says she doesn’t want page numbers on the first page, don’t put page numbers on the first page. If your professor wants you to use a specific citation style, use it. Yes, you may be most familiar with MLA, but if your professor told you to use APA, that’s the citation style you should use.

3. If this is a research paper, gather good information. If this is a reflective paper, make sure you’re fully engaging with the prompt and creating strong points. If this is a persuasive paper, do all of these things! You want to make sure you have strong content that you can support, either with experts’ opinions or your own experiences (depending on the parameters of the assignment). If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, you can visit your college’s writing center for a brainstorming session; if you are having difficulty locating reliable sources, try paying a visit to your friendly reference librarian.

4. Once you have your content, make sure that your tone is appropriate for an academic setting. Avoid expressions that are non-standard or colloquial. An essay or reflection paper is not the place for this kind of language: save it for creative non-fiction, poetry, or fiction writing, contexts that allow for a different tone. It’s also important to avoid sounding too artificial or contrived; professors aren’t looking for this type of language either. Strive to create clear and concise sentences rather than wordy or convoluted writing.

5. Allow time for revision, and don’t be afraid to revise dramatically if you need to. Ask yourself questions such as “Is this paper focused? Does the organization make sense?” Check for a strong thesis and overall unity, then move on to look at issues such as variation of sentence structure and word choice, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Always proofread your paper, and if possible find someone else (such as a writing tutor or close friend) to look it over. Try reading it aloud to yourself; this will help you catch awkward phrasing and other errors.

6. Remember to take advantage of the resources available to you. Your professor is there to help you learn, so make sure to ask him or her about anything you don’t understand. If your college has a writing center, visit it! Having another pair of eyes to look over your paper is helpful for writers of all skill levels, and if you have specific concerns about your introduction, conclusion, organization, or thesis, this is the place to go. Librarians are an underutilized resource; if you need help finding information or want to know if a source is considered “scholarly,” ask them!

7. This may seem obvious, but to succeed in academic writing, it helps if you actually care about the class and about the subject that you’re writing about. You may think that you can just fake it (and maybe you can get away with it), but if you don’t put the time and effort into fully engaging in the assignment, you’re not going to learn all that you possibly can. If you’re tempted to slack off, remember that this can backfire on you, and you may end up with a grade you aren’t happy with. If you still need motivation, just think about how much you are paying to take this class!

I hope that you find this information helpful, and I wish you success in all your academic endeavors!

The Puzzle of Paper Structure

Figuring out the organization of a paper really is like a puzzle! You’re looking for the connections between ideas that will make the paper coherent and memorable, but sometimes those are difficult to see the first (or second) time around. Some interesting thoughts here 🙂