Information Sheet # 90

April 28, 1995

SOME QUESTIONS AND SOME ANSWERS

[For several years I have included an exercise in my composition classes, asking students to submit ten questions that they have about writing--on grammar, sentence structure, style, composing strategies, whatever. Although we spend one or two class sessions discussing possible answers, we never come close to answering all their queries. I then take several weeks and in my spare time compose answers to the remaining questions. What follows is a sampling of my responses for two courses I taught last year. Please don't hesitate to let me know if I got something wrong; as usual in my teaching, I find myself learning as I go along. --Bob Marrs]

Question: I still don't understand--can you or can you not begin a sentence with the word 'but'?

Answer: Many of us have surely been warned by English teachers not to begin a sentence with "and" or "but." And the advice has some validity with regard to "and"--frequently the word is not needed. But "but" is a different story. It takes only a brief acquaintance with professional writers to discover their frequent dependence on "but" sentences, an effective rhetorical move for contrasting two ideas, positions, ways of thinking. I have yet to see a convincing argument for the "don't-start-a-sentence-with-but" rule of thumb.

Question: How can I condense my writing?

Answer: Five pieces of advice:

 -- Remove unnecessary, redundant, superfluous, wasteful, excessive, tautological, repetitious passages. But don't worry about taking out unnecessary, redundant language when writing a first draft. The goal of the first draft is to corral the main ideas as quickly and painlessly as possible. For some of us, we need those redundancies in our first-draft prose; they serve as crutches that enable us to keep walking even when we don't know where we are going. Save editing and cutting for later. Writing is like film making. Shoot a lot of shots from a lot of angles. Then cut, trim, edit.

 -- Find writers you admire, writers of clean, efficient prose. Read them and listen to their language, their sentences. Then steal.

 -- Some phrases and sentence structures are often signs of lax, slow writing. For example, many of us depend too much on sentences beginning "There is" and "This is" and "It was." The repeated use of It, There, and This to begin sentences often signifies unnecessary verbiage. Another sign of wordiness is over-reliance on "that" clauses ("the car that was red slid on the ice" can become "the red car slid . . .").

 -- Kill words you don't need. Be ruthless. The flow in one's writing is often hindered by innocent garbage, words that really don't say anything (such as the "really" in this sentence). Good revisers will slay any passage, no matter how well they like it. Samuel Johnson declared that when you come across a sentence in your writing that sounds particularly good, "strike it out"--tough advice but the killer mind is invaluable, perhaps essential.

 -- If the thinking is clean and clear, the words will follow.

Question: Why don't we use the author's whole first name in the APA Documentation system?

Answer: Don't know. It has occurred to me that the absence of first names eliminates some potential gender bias, but whether that was the intention or not, I don't know.

Question: How can I make my writing more interesting?

Answer: I suspect that trying to make something interesting is like trying to make it beautiful. Interest and beauty are in the eyes of the beholder. You can't control a reader's eyes. Most good writers simply pursue the truth, trying to be honest in their writing, searching for the story, trusting that as they practice their art, some readers will find beauty and interest.

Probably the key is to make sure that you are interested in what you are writing. If you become engaged with your topics, that energy will carry readers with you. Most important is the private conscience, the inner ear which demands you write to your fullest potential.

Question: To do it well, is it necessary to die writing?

Answer: No. Writing hundreds of college papers probably won't cause permanent damage though it may feel like it. Writing is like running: when you first start training, it hurts. As you keep training, it still hurts. But there can come, for most of us, a stage when you discover that it doesn't hurt so much anymore, like experiencing a "second wind," tapping into a reserve of energy previously unsuspected. Ray Bradbury has a quote that is probably on target: "The history of literature is the history of prolific people. I always say to students, give me four pages a day, every day. That's 3 or 400 thousand words a year." How would you like a composition class structured in that simple way: for each class you submit two days of work, eight pages of writing, any subject, any style?

Question:  How should we define technical terms in a research paper?

Answer: The issue with definitions is understanding what the audience knows and what gaps need filling. A simple rule of thumb is to define important terms where there is a legitimate possibility the intended reader will not "know" the term. As for how the definition is introduced, a rich array of possibilities: parenthetical definition, explicit statement of definition, use of illustration or example, implied definition by how you use the term, etc.

Two bends in this rule: (1) In many texts, we may be modifying or redefining the term(s) to fit our needs; in that case the definition is probably necessary even though you appear to be using a "common" term. (2) As a student writer, you often have the odd burden of writing for an audience more informed than you are. In these instances you must include definitions to demonstrate your mastery of the terms, not because you suspect the reader is unfamiliar with the language. This ill-defined terrain involves many frustrating situations for writers unsure what is or is not common knowledge. We again encounter further evidence of how evaluations of writing are so context-specific, based not upon textual features but upon how well your text fits into a reader's expectations.

Question:  What should you do if you have no idea where to begin your revision of a paper, and it's obvious that the paper needs to be revised?

Answer: Talk with people. Talk, talk, talk. Talk with roommates, professors, Writing Center staff, food service employees. Use the talk as a way to think through what you are doing. As I am talking, and responding to someone else's comments and questions, I begin hearing myself say things I didn't know I knew. Let the tongue lead the mind. It's hard for students to realize that often their best resource is other students. That's a primary function of the Writing Center: you go to someone and they listen to you mumble and hem and haw and they will mumble and hem and haw and somehow, somewhere in the process, light switches get switched on, connections get connected, you will fumble your way to new insights. It doesn't work all the time, but it works frequently when we let it work.

Keep in mind that revision is playing. Pieces of texts are like building blocks. They can be moved. Learn to see your text as fluid. And then just start revising, even when you don't know where you are going. It's like driving at night. With the headlights on, you can't see very far, you usually can't see where you are going. But you can't wait for daylight. You just put the pedal to the metal and start driving. And as you drive, you will get where you hadn't been before. It may not be the perfect location, but at least it's somewhere new.

Question: What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Answer: Easy. Eggs existed long before chickens. Birds evolved from egg-bearing reptiles, who predated chickens by at least 200 years.

Question: Why is writing so intimidating?

Answer: Because our minds make it so, having internalized readers who always seemed intent on finding errors in our writing. We suspect we are being judged as human beings because of textual inadequacies. Most of us do far more speaking than writing, and the speaking feels much more natural. The intimidations of writing can be diffused if we can enter into a daily habit of writing, treating it like we do brushing our teeth. We don't wait for those times when we feel inspired to brush our teeth. We just do it, regardless of motivation. The same with writing. We can't wait for inspiration.

As we become less intimidated, the process becomes easier. Similar to most physical activities (and writing is a physical exercise), we need to find a personal balance allowing us to work hard and yet stay relaxed. If we can dismiss the inhibitions fostered by intimidation, writing will become a more satisfying activity. But it's hard to turn off that all-knowing "no" voice since we've been listening to that voice for many, many years.


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