FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS OF CRITICAL WRITING:
FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS OF CRITICAL WRITING:
1. WRITING IS DIFFICULT:
As the highest-paid literary critic in the land, Stanley Fish, has put it, “if it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right!” Writing well is demanding, frustrating, and exhausting, and improvement often seems to move with a glacial slowness. What’s more, writers who want to get better have to constantly give up tried and true formulas in a search for lively, original formulations. The good news, such as it exists, is that a mastery of writing brings with it a mastery of new and increasingly sophisticated kinds of thinking.
2. WRITING AND READING ARE TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN
Pull a random book off the shelf of the sharpest writer you know. Take a look inside the covers. A dime to a dollar says you’ll find it cut to pieces with marginalia, underlining, vehement arguments, diagrams, sketches, and mysterious folded-up pieces of paper crammed throughout its pages. Likewise, this person’s writings doubtless reflect his or her mental deposit box of stuff he or she has read: from direct quotation to paraphrase to likenesses of style and phrasing, one writer’s prose contains within it links to the whole body of work he of she has digested and continues to digest. So, in your own writing, get in the habit of engaging your reading as a writer. Literally.
3. THE ROAD TO REVISION MAY SEEM STRAIGHT, BUT IT’S A ROTARY
The Latin roots of “revise” mean “to see again.” This implies, to me at least, that revision is not simply touching up flaws and smoothing out surfaces; on the contrary, it’s a process that requires a thorough reexamination of both form and content. What’s more, this process can never be completed. Even writers of the highest stature return to old works to correct mistakes, amplify points, or refit sections to apply to newly emerging aspects of the wider world. So what does this mean for the humble initiate who really just needs a good grade in English 6, you might ask? Various implications might be drawn, but for now let’s consider two: a) on the downside, writing papers is like Sisyphus’s rock-rolling; it never gets where it wants to go; and b) on the plus side, focusing on writing as a means rather than as an end frees us to take risks, to attempt to work out ideas without getting paralyzed by the thought that they won’t come out quite right.
4. STRAYING FROM THE TEXT CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH
Each academic discipline has organized itself around a basic set of techniques aimed at a particular object of study. Thus doctors use all manner of technological gadgetry and observational expertise to examine their “object”—physiological problems as exhibited through bodily symptoms. To use an example somewhat closer to home, historians use techniques ranging from econometric analysis to examination of oral traditions in order to draw conclusions about their chosen “object”—the past. For students of literature, the object of study is the text. The chief technique we bring to bear in studying our objects is so-called “close reading”—the careful consideration of the way particular deployments of language create meaning for their readers. This is not to say that literary study has to be contained within narrow discussions of exclusively technical issues, like a dog chasing its own tail. Indeed, good criticism can and does seek out ways to address issues in the “real world” that surrounds the text. Our inquiry, however, can never afford to take its eyes off the ball—in this case, our “object” as literary critics. In other words, we address the world by means of addressing issues in the text or texts at hand.
1. A writer can never be too rich or too thin; cut the fat and keep the lean.
2. Let noun-verb pairs drive your sentences.
3. Schizophrenia can be a writer’s friend: good essays argue with themselves.
4. “Since the dawn of time” may sound good at midnight; in the light of day, it just looks cheap.
5. RHETORICAL QUESTION: READER :: SIGNPOST : NAVIGATOR
6. (S)he who neglects to number, name, and staple will never find the true path.
7. A clever title works like a deft foot in the door.
8. Advice to writers goes only as far as you throw it; learning to write is a comedy of errors.