How to Write: Lessons From My Writing Class

I just finished teaching an undergraduate class called Academic Writing at Tsinghua. One semester, pass/fail, about 10 students. The last assignment was list six things you’ve learned. Combining the answers, I came up with this:

1. Don’t tell readers what they already know. This came up a lot when I discussed how to write a personal statement. “Your university has an excellent program in X” — no, don’t say that.

2. To make your writing moving, focus on your own thoughts and emotions. Moving = evoking emotion. Evoking emotion was enormously important, I said.

3. Use simple words and sentences (don’t show off). As one student put it, “Received the blames from one class, changed all my GRE words into understandable words.”

4. Give examples.

5. Avoid boasting (say “I like X”, don’t say “I am good at X”).

6. Do not write about things that are “too big”.

7. Have clear connections between sentences. We spent several classes on the various ways adjacent sentences can be related.

8. Say things that are honest and true. In contrast to what you think your reader wants to hear. A friend asked for advice on her personal statement for a graduate school application. She sent me a revised version. I thought the unrevised more honest version was better.

9. Begin with something interesting.

I asked which of these lessons they already knew. The consensus answer was #1 (don’t tell readers what they already know) and #4 (give examples). Their personal statements flagrantly violated #1. One student said they had learned it, yes, but needed to be reminded.

Jon Cousins of Moodscope, in town for a Quantified Self conference, gave a guest lecture. From his talk the students came away with four main things:

1. Copy someone’s writing you admire.

2. Imagine your audience. Are they busy? Curious?

3. Write as you speak.

4. Revise after a period of time. Like a month.

Another of Jon’s lessons was use punctuation sparingly. An editor told him, “Using an exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”


8 Replies to “How to Write: Lessons From My Writing Class”

  1. I used to help organize an annual writing contest for high school students. The judges (myself included) had to grade hundreds of essays on a scale of one to ten. I was often stunned by the other judges’ grades. Essays that I thought were fabulous would receive mediocre scores, and execrable essays would score highly. So, with regard to application essays, you are at the mercy of some drone (or drones) in the admissions office.

    Write as you speak. I think that’s bad advice. In his book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker quotes from a transcript of Nixon’s Watergate tapes:

    PRESIDENT: The grand jury thing has its, uh, uh, uh view of this they might, uh. Suppose we have a grand jury proceeding. Would that, would that, what would that do to the Ervin thing? Would it go right ahead any way?

    DEAN: Probably.

    HALDEMAN: If you do it in executive…

    PRESIDENT: But then on that score, though, we have…let me Just, uh, run by that, that…you do that on a grand jury, we could then have a much better cause in terms of saying “Look this is a grand jury, in which, uh, the prosecutor…” How about a special prosecutor? We could use Peterson, or use another one. You see he is probably suspect. Would you call…

  2. Begin with something interesting . . . I never read the first paragraph, usually most articles begin with the second paragraph. Like starting a speech with a joke, I think the audience is a little sick of this approach. You might want to save the interesting open for later.

    Seth: As I told my students, one New Yorker (magazine) editor would routinely cross out the first paragraph of stuff given to him to edit. I often do that. I also agree about jokes. Bad idea to begin with a joke. It is as if you have nothing actually interesting to say.

  3. Like Alex, I don’t understand the “write as you speak” advice. Perhaps it would be good advice for the minority of people who become overly formal in their writing. But most people don’t speak well at all.

    I find that experience in writing has changed my speech, because I spend a lot of my writing time thinking about how to say things clearly. For example, I use the passive voice when speaking much less than I used to.

  4. Write as you speak. I think that’s bad advice.

    Writing literally like you speak is bad advice, of course. What works (for me) is trying to write a sort of idealized version of the way I speak, if that makes sense.

  5. As I told my students, one New Yorker (magazine) editor would routinely cross out the first paragraph of stuff given to him to edit. I often do that.

    Another editor’s trick is to replace the introduction with a summarising passage from the conclusion. The idea is that by the end of the piece, the writer finally knows what they are trying to say and are so sick of writing that that they are finally writing succinctly.

  6. Great reminders! Although it may seem like common sense, I always forget these tips. Especially when I’m so eager to just be done with my writing and I don’t wait 24 hours to edit.

    Thanks for the tips!


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