Sunday, July 15, 2012

How to Write: Jump In!

            After years of teaching freshman college English and writing books, I know a thing or two about the writing process.  I consider myself rather an authority on the subject, but I’m not too full of myself to think that differing opinions from mine are incorrect.  I do, however, know what works for most students when it comes to composing coherently-written thoughts.  And I certainly know what works for me. 

Here’s a bit of my own take on the writing process:

1.  No right or wrong way exists to the approach of and during the process of writing.
            Many scholars of writing composition believe that students must begin by slogging through pre-writing activities: brain-storming, outlining, jogging the thought process by word associations, word association trees, and journaling, to name just a few.    They insist writers start with pre-writing, as though they need to warm-up--stretch their pens and computers—before beginning the actual creation.  For some students, however, this could be a larger barrier than the writing itself.  I, myself, envision these exercises as more taxing, even annoying, than the writing because, to me, pre-writing is a waste of time and thinking. 
            Other instructors of writing will insist that each essay or story be outlined in detail, and only after an outline is accomplished should the student begin to write the meat of the story.  Some instructors will encourage students to write by long-hand first and correct sentences for structure, detail, and punctuation right on the spot.  For some students this advice will be helpful; for others it is dead wrong advice.
            No one way of creating is the end-all and the be-all of written creation.  Why?  Because each person has his own way of writing, and no one way is the correct way, and no one way is the wrong way.  Writing is as individual as are preferences for ice cream flavors,

2.  “Git ‘er done!”
            Perhaps I’m making my advice here too simplistic, but I can’t help it because of observing my own writing process.  My motto is, simply, like that of Larry the Cable Guy: “Git ‘er done!”  That’s the easiest way for me to get words on paper: by just starting—jumping in the lake cold and warming up to it.  I encourage my writing students to do the same.   I don’t want to agonize over pre-writing activities, though if writers need to engage in these activities for a jump start on a paper or article, they surely should if they feel it’s helpful.    
            So, in order to “Git ‘er done!” I recommend writers face their raw, vacant computer screen, piece of paper, or typewriter paper (yes, some writers prefer to write on a manual typewriter), grit their teeth at that blankness, hunker down, begin thinking of the most shocking, interesting way to get at their topic and JUST JUMP IN. 

And now I’m going to change to second person in order to get more personal:

BEGIN WRITING.  Let the consciousness take care of itself; allow the movie screen in one’s mind to dictate the words describing the scenes on that screen; see it, and write down what is happening.  Just “Git ‘er done!”  Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, types of sentences, or any of that little technical stuff. 
            Get the big picture down on paper first.  Go with the flow; create; let it roll out of your mind.  If one must, just use what some very famous authors have used: the stream-of-consciousness technique—few sentences, just all thoughts that blend and blur together.  As long as you get the idea, the thought, the gist, down, despite how awkwardly put, you can go back later and clean, tighten, and brighten it up so that the reader can better understand and see the “movie” from your perspective.

3.  “Clean ‘er up”:
            Delete unnecessaries and edit for detail and correctness.
            All writing is meant to be read, or it wouldn’t be written, right?  So, you must keep your reader in mind during editing, as well.  You should, once you’ve “got ‘er done,” attend to coherence and unity of effect so that your audience easily gets the perfect picture and tone—never ask a reader to struggle over your writing, neither in trying to understand your ideas nor your sentences.  If he has a hard time understanding or feels he  could be misunderstanding your intent, he will become frustrated and abandon you. 
            To insure this doesn’t happen, you should go back over the “mind-flow” with a correcting and deleting pen.  Delete anything that does not contribute to the unified effect you’re trying to accomplish.  Choose fewer words to say the same thing.  Edit out unnecessary words, details that don’t contribute to the overall effect.  And, then, after deleting the extraneous, think smaller, more technical, and attack and fix sentence structure, punctuation and grammar errors.

4.  Edit for the musical effect.
             See that your writing has a musical effect, much like ocean waves.  Writing-- even prose--has rhythm.  Punctuation and qualifiers, such as “by the way,” ”on the other hand,” ‘rather,” etc. (find them in an old grammar book) create suspense in writing just by creating a pause.  For that microsecond of a pause that a semicolon makes, for example, (“for example” is also a qualifier) the reader subconsciously awaits the final thought of that sentence with some kind of micro-anticipation.  And that is fun for the reader.

5.  Edit for grammar and punctuation.
            I have the ability, honed from much self-discipline during my college days when professors failed compositions for incorrect punctuation, to work the punctuation into my larger thoughts.  You may or may not be as adept; however, (another qualifier) if you are  not proficient in using all the marks of punctuation, you need to make yourself an expert.  You need to find an old-fashioned grammar book with the rules of punctuation and sit down and learn the rules and grammatical structures that command punctuation.  And—yes—you need to memorize them and then be able to use them.  Nothing is more distracting to a reader than having to plow through writing that is poorly punctuated.  Incidentally, you should not be placing commas wherever you feel you need to pause or take a breath.  Attacking punctuation in this way is by hit-or-miss, and for a reader, reading such slush is a thrill-killer.

**** The above is my advice, not the final word, on how go about the writing process.  Other instructors may take exception; however, I know what works for me and what has worked for my students of writing.  Think large first; “git ‘er done,” and, then,  clean ‘er up.

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