Thoughts on Writing


What is good writing? 


Compare the following definitions of good writing:


An effective book, letter, play, poem, short story, or novel is one in which the reader feels what the author wants him or her to feel, thinks what the author wants him or her to think, and does what the author wants him or her to do. 


Good writing displays a mastery of diction, a variety of sentence structures, and a clarity of purpose.


Although learners are often taught according to the second definition, most writing is judged by the first definition.  Writers must always consider carefully who will be judging the finished work.


Why talk about writing? 


All of us are going to read and write.  If we are influenced by what we read, and we persuade others by writing, then a community, a college, a country, should invest in competent readers and writers. 


Writing was once no ordinary skill. In ancient times, most people in most areas of the world were illiterate.  Rulers made no investment in public education.  Those few private individuals who got an education mastered rhetoric, the skill of persuading hearers by logic, emotion and ethics. The best educated writers were generally an elite group of landowners or the slaves who taught the elite and managed their businesses.  The rest depended upon scribes. Scribes, specialists trained in reading and writing, held an essential role of society from at least 3000 BC to about 1450 AD. After 1450, when the newly invented printing press made a flood of pamphlets, tracts broadsides and books available, many ordinary people in Europe learned to read and write. An international public forum on religious, scientific and political issues began to grow.  Rhetorical skills were applied to writing as well as speaking.  Nonetheless, educated people were still a minority.  By the mid-1830s, some 400 years after the printing press changed Europe, the newly invented steam-driven rotary press brought the price of many American newspapers down to one penny. After this second printing innovation, the majority of people in Western countries had access to daily news.  People could and did read to get information about the world at large.  Skill in writing persuasively and the ability to read a text critically were the hallmarks of an educated and politically responsible person.


Writing is now the most ordinary of skills, and most governments believe (at least nominally) in basic public education as a foundation for economic prosperity. At the same time, the public forums available have expanded beyond print, and the skills required to negotiate them have changed.  The first half of the 20th century saw the advent of film, radio and TV.  Now the three major media of information and persuasion are visual stories, the spoken word, and reading.  While many of us still read, consuming newspapers, magazines, books and possibly internet blogs, most of us also get our news and beliefs from the radio, the TV, and the internet. Contemporary citizens in all parts of the world need mastery of multiple media:  the techniques of speaking, the vocabulary and techniques of formal writing, and the vocabulary and techniques of visual representation in film. 


This class focuses on the skill of writing. As long as reading and writing are a part of our lives, understanding the techniques of reading and writing will help us to be intelligently critical and informed members of our community.


How do we talk about writing? 


Writing is words, in sentences, in paragraphs, in order.  And that's all.  To talk about words, sentences, paragraphs and order, writers learn about style (diction and grammar) and structure (order and logic).  They become experts analyzing and describing good and bad style and structure.


How do writers improve? 


First and foremost, pay attention to powerful words and arguments.  What moves you?  Second, consider the audience outside yourself.  What might persuade others?  With the above-mentioned definitions of good writing in mind, here are four additional recommendations:


1. Expand your vocabulary. Get a dictionary, and get in the habit of looking up unfamiliar words.
   The more words you have at your disposal, the more powerful and precise you can be.

2. Add variety to your writing. Imitate sentence styles that are new to you.   

3. Eliminate common grammatical mistakes. Use the comma, semicolon and colon correctly.

4. Think clearly before you write. Know your purpose and audience. Let your purpose determine your structure.