“Any project that’s been held up in general fear-based polishing is the victim of a crime because you’re stealing that perfect work from a customer who will benefit from it. You’re holding back the good stuff from the people who need it, afraid of what the people who don’t will say.” Seth Godin
Great writers are also great readers. They read anything and everything they can get their hands on, voraciously gobbling up the ideas of philosophers, scientists, historians, and more. And why? Because of the ideas that eventually drive their own writing.
It’s been acknowledged by contemporary society that books take readers to new places to meet new people. They give us dreams and new ways of thought. And so do non-fiction pieces, academic articles, anthologies of myth and folklore, etc. This, in turn, influences how and what we write. For example, Rick Riordan’s New Olympian books are unique in how he incorporates his study of Greco-Roman mythology, life, etc. And before Riordan, there was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which became a classic because of what he drew from Virgil’s Aeneid in myth, content and structure. And, indeed, Virgil’s Aeneid would not be the same had not Virgil read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Great writing, then, is a continuous cycle of reading and writing and more reading, one generation influencing the thought of the next.
Additionally, as discussed previously, reading also makes us better writers. Seeing how other novelists handle a plot (or fail to handle a plot) or how a group of scientists discuss their stunning new theory (or fail to illuminate any new information) teaches us how to handle these and other techniques in our own writing. So, the more we read, the more we learn about how to write, implementing these new skills into our own writing.
Do note, however, that there is a difference between what can be classified as “good” and “bad” reading. Everyone practices both types, so we do need to be slightly conscious of how we’re reading when we open a book or turn on our Kindles.
“Bad” reading is analogous to junk food—it momentarily tastes good, but does nothing for our writing, in fact, it can be detrimental at times. This is reading only for the sake of passing time and only in a few subject matters or genres. There’s little variation, and almost everything sounds, or “tastes,” the same.
Now, none of these traits are necessarily bad—after all “good” reading often includes a fair amount of reading to pass the time and for fun (if it wasn’t for these two points, we would never read at all!). We cannot, however, stop there, for “good” reading is not mindless. “Good” reading is when we subconsciously, or consciously, allow our minds to chew over what is good or bad, useful or useless in a work during the act of reading.
So, as Garth Nix’ hand suggests, read widely, and read often. And keep writing.
“Let grammar, punctuation, and spelling into your life! Even the most energetic and wonderful mess has to be turned into sentences.”—Sir Terry Pratchett
Today, we often do not receive as much formal instruction in the mechanics of writing, grammar, punctuation, and spelling as we ought. Not to mention, our brains refuse to wrap themselves around strange, foreign terms like independent clauses or dangling modifiers. These complicated terms seem to properly belong in the domain of English teachers, Grammar Nazis, and linguists—and nowhere else. At the same time, our writing is often judged or graded by these seemingly abstract standards.
So grammar is important, but how do we get better without breaking out an incomprehensible grammar handbook?
Read good writing. Carefully examine masters of the craft—in all disciplines and genres. The easiest way to learn about the use of dashes, when to use “you and I” or “you and me,” and how to avoid naked pronouns is to pay attention to what good writers do and don’t do in the structure of their work. This is not to say that we learn by osmosis. Instead, we learn about grammar, punctuation, and spelling by critically examining these mechanics in essays, histories, novels, or academic/literary papers. This critical reading allows us to start noticing patterns in sentence structures and the uses of punctuation. We, in turn, begin to instinctively mimic the good writing we are exposed to. Eventually, we develop our own style and voice, and have discovered grammar, punctuation, and spelling in the process.
Additionally, it’s important to ask experts—like our English teachers or tutors—to read and comment on the structure of our writing. When they offer advice—such as review all comma rules—we need to listen, searching out the answers from reputable websites, such as Owl at Purdue, or in a grammar handbook. Then, after finding the answers, we studiously begin to correct our mistakes as we write. This technique is rather like “on the job” training. After a while, these corrections develop into habits and we don’t have to fret about the mechanics as much as we once did.
Overall, the best practice is to refuse to let grammar, punctuation, or spelling defeat you. Continue to write, seeking out the answers to problems as they arise. With practice and much writing, we’ll eventually get rid of sentence fragments and stop misusing semicolons. And then we get to play with the mechanics. Which is when the real fun starts. 🙂
Next Week: The Connection between Reading and Writing
It is a truth universally acknowledged that writers need writing and critique partners. However, the true crux of the matter is not simply finding reliable partners, but those who will offer useful feedback and advice.
Everyone who reads our writing has something potentially valuable to offer, but there are some whose comments help to build up our writing and writing abilities. These people can be rare gems! But there are certain signs to look for in someone that we plan on asking his or her opinion about our writing.
First, and foremost, a writing and critique partner should be someone who respects us and whom we respect. What does this mean?
Respecting our writing and critique partners means that we value what insights he or she may provide. Further, when we respect someone, it should mean that they are trustworthy and honest, two important factors in a partner. When we approach them, it is with the sense that their comments will be to the benefit of our writing. Even if they offer uncomfortable criticism, we will take their suggestions into account.
Since the majority of writing, from college essays to comic book scripts (but not grocery lists), is deeply personal, trustworthiness in a writing and critique partner is key. Just as allowing a drug addict to babysit our child would fill us with dread, handing over our writing to people we do not trust—whether it’s not to steal or ridicule our ideas—is nerve-wracking. And rightly so, for not only do we have to worry about theft or mockery, but we cannot be sure that someone we do not trust will offer valid, honest feedback.
Honest feedback is a key component to any writing and critique partnership. While it’s nice to hear praise, it is just as important to hear constructive criticism. Without well-rounded feedback, we fail to see the areas where our writing needs to grow or the areas where we really were brilliant writers. Indeed, at any stage in our development as writers—whether as seasoned authors or as grad students—honest criticism is needed.
For example, acclaimed young adult fantasy author Tamora Pierce wrote a short story for one of the Firebirds anthologies about a young girl who falls in with a gang of sociopaths. In her discussion of the story that followed, she reveals that in its first incarnation, the main character was a schizophrenic homeless woman. After her husband read that draft, he told her it was incomprehensible. Trusting that if he did not understand it there was something wrong with the story, she rewrote it and it was accepted and published.
Finally, the last two characteristics of a writing and critique partner are that they should be responsible and reliable. When trusting someone with our writing, we need to be sure that they will, in fact, read our writing (not just click “like!”). Further, that they will read it in a timely manner. Without these assurances, we may be waiting for feedback that will never come or will come too late.
Our writing and critique partners do not need to be other writers. They should be readers—you wouldn’t want to ask someone who never picks up a book to proofread your writing. Besides that, they simply need to be people who will offer trustworthy, honest feedback in a responsible, timely manner. And we should be the same sort of readers when called on by our writing and critique partners.
“Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.” Jane Yolen (author and editor)
There are two schools of thought on how to progress with a piece of writing. The first is to write everyday either for a set amount of time (the minimum being 15 minutes) or for a set length (say 500 words or to the end of a computer screen). The second is to wait for inspiration and then write for hours on end.
Both are, in point of fact, good techniques. Additionally, the two are interrelated. We tend to have more shocks of inspiration when we write everyday and the inspiration makes us want to write more often. It can be hard, admittedly, to keep up the writing momentum between flashes of insight, but writing everyday offers several benefits that tide us over from one moment of inspiration to the next.
The first benefit is the most obvious: we produce a lot. Undeniably, it’s not all brilliant, but we come closer to writing a dissertation or a novel or a collection of poems if we’re constantly moving forward in our writing than waiting to write something perfect. Indeed, very few authors are like C.S. Lewis, who was able to write material that needed little to no editing. At the same time, many writers can be like Lewis, who wrote every single day, generating a large body of letters, works of fiction, literary criticisms, and apologetics.
Incidentally, in writing everyday we form a habit that insures constant practice in the craft, which transforms us into better writers who need to spend less time editing. This point can be evidenced if one reads the first drafts of professional authors’ writing, like Diana Wynne Jones’ Islands of Chaldea. She spent two years on every novel she wrote, but this particular work was unfinished at the time of her death—and it shows. However, it doesn’t show very much. Jones had been writing for fun since childhood and professionally since the late sixties, so her first draft is actually quite polished. There are definite flaws, and the novel isn’t as fascinating as her previous novels, but it’s still a well-constructed story.
Additionally, writing everyday means it takes less time to get started. Instead of fidgeting or re-reading everything we wrote before because it’s been a week or more since we last wrote, we can instead jump right into the writing. This, in turn, becomes a type of reward that keeps us wanting to write while also bolstering our confidence in our writing abilities.
The best way to begin writing everyday is to set realistic writing goals that fit our schedules. Say, I always have 30 minutes before dinner where I don’t quite know what to do with myself. During this time, I can schedule in 15-20 minutes of writing, leaving room for completing other pre-dinner tasks as needed.
The schedule, however, should be flexible enough that it can morph with the different demands on our lives. There will be days where we just can’t get to our writing, and these moments of falling off the bandwagon tempt us to give up on our schedules. For instance, maybe I have to cook dinner one night, watch a sick baby the next, and then decide to go to dinner with friends the night after. Then, due to the busyness of my work schedule, I can’t write for another two days. That’s fine. It doesn’t mean I’m a failure, just that my schedule changed suddenly and I need to adjust accordingly. We shouldn’t let guilt shame us out of picking up where we left off.
Actually, instead of my punishing myself when I slip up, I need to reward myself for following through with my writing goals. Instead of saying I can’t watch that TV episode on Netflix or go out with my friends for two weeks, I actually can—as soon as I’ve finished my 15 minutes of writing. In fact, these things are my reward for sticking to my writing goal. So write for a set amount of time or a set length, and then go and celebrate by eating a banana split or a cupcake (not that I recommend doing that every single day… no matter how tasty that would be).
It’s also important to write with accountability partners. This technique is preached more often than not in grad school, but it really helps with all types of writing. An accountability partner is someone, or someones, with whom you share writing goals. They tell you theirs and you tell them yours, and then you agree to check-in on each other or meet as frequently as you deem necessary to discuss triumphs, cry over failures, and sometimes to exchange what you’ve written.
Lastly, we need to define what we mean by writing everyday. Is it writing another two paragraphs, reading or synthesizing research, or editing/rewriting? When we open up the idea of what writing means, we don’t feel a sense of dread upon realizing that we not only need to find time to write, but to find time for these other activities. This, in turn, makes our writing times more productive and less dull.
So, in between bursts of inspiration, write everyday and enjoy the rewards.
Next Week: Cutting Out Distractions
Note: If you chose to read Jones’ Islands of Chaldea, I encourage you to pick up one of her other books as well, like Dogsbody or Year of the Griffin. This way you’ll have something to compare Islands to, and she was one of the greatest, most imaginative writers of the contemporary period. Which Neil Gaiman agrees with, so you don’t just have to take my word for it.
No matter what the form or purpose of writing—whether academic, novel, blog, etc.—research is not only practical but also necessary. In fact, solid research grounds any form of writing. Since you aren’t simply stating an opinion off the top of your head, your words will hold truth. And truth is powerful. Even in the various fiction genres, including sci-fi and fantasy, it’s the true bits that add color to the story and make it compelling.
Moreover, research fills in knowledge gaps, rids your writing of unhealthy absolutes, and strengthens your critical thinking processes, which in turn affects how and what you write. Learning how to perform research, then, is crucial to developing as a writer.
Research is not something we instinctively know how to perform, and, like most things worth knowing, it takes time to develop the necessary discernment between what’s good information and what’s not. Thanks to the pervasive nature of the internet, all of us have a basic grasp of how to perform an online search, but there’s a vast difference between googling “travel tips for safaris” and researching to learn something well enough to write on it convincingly. It’s the difference between wanting to know more about Roswell UFO sightings because I’m a little interested in aliens and deciding to write a novel set in Roswell during 1947 or writing a scholarly piece on the sociological role Roswell has played in the belief of the existence of UFOs in the United States.
While the first definitely encourages the latter two, it will not offer enough credible or reliable information to write anything that is not based on rumor and speculation. The difference between a reliable source and an unreliable source is the difference between truth and make-believe. Unreliable sources are filled with skewed data, unchecked “facts,” and leaps of reality. Alternately, reliable sources generally maintain high standards of scholarship and factuality.
Once you begin to research your topic—be it Batman or Einstein—you’ll soon be able to compare and contrast the differences in the nature and quality of information. However, the best way to begin judging facts versus opinion is to (1) examine the author’s background in the field, (2) note whether the author is making unsupported assertions or wild leaps in logic (ex. “So-and-so spoke fondly of this person, so they obviously had an affair,” or, “Since we can’t see gravity, it doesn’t exist”), and (3) question the source: does it come from a reliable publisher, scholarly journal, or site? Has it been peer reviewed?
To begin researching, then, you’ll first need to narrow down your search terms. Let’s go back to Roswell for a moment and say I’m going to go ahead and write that novel. “Roswell” alone is too broad a search term. I will need to outline specifics of what I want and need to know (which, of course, depends on what I want to write). For example, I might need to know about life in 1947, the Air Force, the investigation, etc. I’d also need to decide who my main character will be, and fill in background information on him or her. Will he or she be a journalist, police officer, or a bobbysoxer? What were each of these people like, what were their mindsets, how did they speak, what would their daily activities be?
If I chose to write the scholarly piece, however, I’d not only need to know the history of supposed UFO crashes and sightings but also how Roswell became known as a UFO crash site. What projected the incident in Roswell from a small-town event at the back of the public consciousness to a full-blown “government conspiracy,” and so on? Since my study would be from a sociological standpoint, I’d need to find confirmed reports and interviews of persons affected by the phenomenon, including well-documented case studies and research.
Once you’ve narrowed down your key terms, it’s time to perform multiple searches in research databases, library catalogs, and on the Internet (particularly Google Scholar). Sift through the search results by titles, abstracts, and summaries. Since right now you’re only compiling data, it helps to create a desktop folder to save whatever you want to further investigate. Also, don’t stop looking after the second page of results. What may be most useful to you may not be in the top ten or twenty search results.
Once that’s done, it’s time to start sorting through the articles. Glance through the first few paragraphs to categorize them according to their merit, such as “Useless” (which you trash), “Possibilities” (which may contribute to your research), and “Important” (self-explanatory).
Once sorted, begin to read and highlight/underline and take notes. Note-taking helps you to process all that data and to assimilate ideas so as to generate your own perspective on the topic.
On the whole, research is necessary and can be a very rewarding learning experience.
Next week: Why We Write Everyday
- Read everything with a grain of salt. People are imperfect—which is wonderful—but that means we make mistakes, draw wrong conclusions, and sometimes decide our opinions are gospel truth.
- Visit your local university or college libraries to access their research databases and locate peer-reviewed, reliable sources.
- When researching, be wary of getting lost “down the rabbit hole.” Gathering a lot of sources is good, but there’s such a thing as too much. Know when to stop—generally when you know what an author will say before he or she says it—and don’t let researching stop you from writing. Begin drafting what you can with the intent of returning later to flesh out what you don’t currently know.
My 7th grade language arts teacher had a red poster of a lion hugging a piece of paper as little pink hearts floated around his mane. Below the lion were the words NEVER FALL IN LOVE WITH YOUR FIRST DRAFT. I (obviously) never forgot that image but at the time I thought it meant reading a draft over once—or twice if I was being really good—before hitting print or send. In actuality, it means making time for the work of rewriting. When I figured this out, my first thoughts were: Psh! That’s too much work and my stuff’s great first time ‘round!
No, it wasn’t, and it still isn’t.
So, instead of falling victim to one of the classic blunders, don’t fall in love with your first draft and learn to rewrite. Like me, the first thing you’ll have to figure out is: what is rewriting?
Rewriting is an integral and intensive part of the writing process that deals with the adding, deleting, and rearranging of words, phrases, sentences, entire paragraphs, and (in some very distressing cases) the entire paper or manuscript. This is called revising when it’s minor and rewriting when it’s a major overhaul. So how do we rewrite?
Take a break. After that first draft has been written, put it aside for at least a day. The more time you have between the first draft and rewriting, however, the better, and I recommend at least a week.
Now that an acceptable amount of time has passed, you can come to your piece with fresh, objective eyes. Read it over, noting any point where you are confused, where information is missing, or something just doesn’t work. Say, a character’s behavior is inconsistent or you pulled in evidence that hurts your argument. These need to be fixed. Do this several times with short breaks in between each reading session.
Once you can read the piece over without stopping a million times to make corrections, take it to someone else to read. Preferably, read it aloud to that person, because then you’ll hear the nonsense coming out your own mouth, be quite surprised at how erudite you sound, or, more likely, flip-flop between the two.
Rewrite again, having caught all of the pieces that don’t make sense, need to be expanded, or are superfluous. Once you get to the point where you’re no longer making major changes but minor ones, you’ve hit revising. If you have time, have someone else look it over again, but if not, read it once or twice more and then send it off.
- “Kill Off the Little Darlings”: These are the pieces of writing that we perceive as (or know to be) little strokes of brilliance that just don’t fit no matter how hard we try. Delete them mercilessly. They will never fit. Trust me, I’ve tried.
- Print a hardcopy: Reading something on a computer screen generally leads to two things: distraction (chess! Wikipedia! Netflix!) and a focus on the small picture. A hardcopy, however, keeps our focus longer while also emphasizing the big picture that rewriting is all about.
- Time:The more important the project is to you, the more time you want to put between drafts and the more work you’ll want to put into rewriting. For instance, I never worked on a grad paper longer than a week (sans research), but I worked on my Master’s thesis for a year because I put at least a month in between finishing a chapter and picking it back up again and this had to happen several times.
- Accept Criticism: We all want to cry, scream, and/or sink into a hole when we hear criticism on our writing. However, nine times out of ten, the critic is right. But we only see this when we’ve gone back to the draft after time. Then you think, “Yup, that jerk was right. Well damn.” After accepting this disappointment, make the recommended changes and rewrite some more.
- Don’t over think it: You CAN overwork a piece of writing. This is another reason why you need time in between rewriting sessions. It will keep you from overworking something and having to dig out an old copy of the draft, because once it’s overworked, there’s little hope.
Many students balk at the idea of writing a literature review for the first time. After all, it’s a completely new form of writing, which in turn makes it look like a daunting monster of epic proportions. However, they’re surprisingly easy once you have:
- A thesis, or some formulation of an argument
- Read (or skimmed, much preferable) pertinent research
- Done more research
- Organized your research by topic/subject
So, lit reviews require lots of legwork, but once all that wondrous fun stuff is (mostly) done, you can move on to the easy part: writing (yes, I’m serious).
Anyway, on to the all-important question: how to write a lit review.
Since nobody ever wants to dive into the actual writing, make things easy on yourself by starting with section headings. For instance, if I am writing a paper on the necessity of introducing sharks to my local lake because sharks are dynamic parts of aquatic ecosystems, then I have probably done research on sharks, their habitats, theories/methods for introducing animals to new ecosystems, ecosystems in general, etc. To start writing, I then bold out each section on my paper (Methods for Introducing New Species, How Awesome Sharks Are, Sharks and Lakes), list the sources or authors that I think belong under each section, and roughly how many pages I plan to write for each.
Now that I’ve wasted as much time as possible creating the layout for my lit review, it’s actually time to start writing. So I glance over my sections and decide that the one I know the most about or have the most information on is “How Awesome Sharks Are.” This isn’t the beginning of my review in the least, but that’s okay. It’s the one I’ve read all the research on—after all, I could still be looking into methods for introducing species to new ecosystems—so I can write on it with the most authority. I’ll go back to the beginning later (and still write a surprisingly coherent research paper).
Now that I have decided that I’m going to talk about how awesome sharks are, I have two choices, I can either start discussing the author who agrees with me that sharks are awesome, or the one who points out that sharks are carnivorous and will most likely destroy an ecosystem that they don’t actually belong in. It really depends on whether I want to disqualify the research of one, or formulate a new theory altogether. So, under my chosen heading, I would begin with the author I disagree with, slowly working my way to the author I agree with through connecting links of research that strengthen the position of my argument. However, if I wanted to formulate a new method for introducing species, as I do under another section, I would begin with my strongest source and create interlinking arguments from each research point that then builds into my new method/theory for introducing sharks to lakes.
Now that I have decided which author/source I’m going to start with, I rely on my amazing skills of summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting to explain the argument/methodology/theory/etc. of my source, describe what the author brings to the table, and just generally point out whether or not said scholar is right or wrong (usually by pointing to another scholar or an integral flaw in his or her reasoning). Once I’ve done all this for one source/scholar, I simply repeat. And repeat. And repeat until done.
- If you completed an annotated bibliography prior to starting your research paper, use that as your jumping off point. I’ve had many friends for whom this method has worked. They simply took the information from their annotated bibs and expanded it in the lit review.
- Remember, in a literature review, you’re just presenting the research that has come before, not trying to argue your thesis. This means that you’re just laying the groundwork for the rest of your essay, not actively trying to prove your point just yet.
- To best construct connections between sources, pretend that they’re in conversation with one another—after all, they are in a way. For example, so-and-so made this point, yet blank makes this point. This helps your lit review to flow logically and allows your sources to begin arguing your thesis for you.
- Most writers tend make the exact same argument. This means that in your lit review you can list them together to save space and time (and meet any professor quotas on how many sources you need). Ex. John Smith in TITLE and Harry Jones in his work TITLE argue that sharks are integral members of any ecosystem, therefore supporting the relevance of introducing sharks to lakes.
- You don’t have to list all of your sources—not even all the ones plan to use—just the important ones that really inform your argument. Or as many as you’ve been told to provide. Always listen to what your professors want.