Friday, January 07, 2005

Learning to Write


Writing is the method by which philosophy is primarily expressed, though of course it is not the only one. Because of the longevity of a written document, it is our best insight into the thoughts and experiences of those who have gone before. Not everyone seeks to leave a lasting legacy, but everyone seeking to share opinions should know how to express themselves.

Learning good writing skills can be a difficult task, and is still an area I regard myself as being deficient in. Most texts on writing cover what I call sentence skills - how to write a grammatical sentence, tips for ensuring your writing is readable, hints for how to break a piece of writing into three sections (more are seldom explained), and so forth. However, there are many intricacies which are not often taught, which we must pick up for ourselves. Here are some tips that come after learning basic skills, but that are not often taught explicitly :

1) Writing in the first, second or third person can be appropriate in the right circumstances, regardless of what you have been taught; sometimes it is possible to provide either examples or passages in a different writing style to highlight a particular point.

2) An essay is a story - the myth of "logical progression" is insufficient to understand how to write well. Sometimes not all ideas come from a simple base, and it is not always possible to explain yourself from first principles. What is key is that your ideas are introduced, and that if you choose to break from a linear sequence, that you explain what the different principles involved are, and how they are related.

3) When in doubt : thesis, antithesis, synthesis. A synthesis need not always be the middle ground - but neither should it simply be a re-assertion of either thesis or antithesis.

4) Humor is under-rated, and also under-marked. In academic writing, one should not attempt comedy, however one still needs to find ways to break up a monotonous text. Finding ways in which to make your reader think and periodically to give them a rest will help them understand what you are saying.

5) Keep your eye on the goal. Edit for brevity, but never use single-word sentences. Long sentences should be well punctuated, and you should never use hyperbole to make a point. Word limits are a challenge to the writer.

6) If you cannot ground a point, do not make it. In academic writing, you are assessed on your ability to justify what you say - it is better to suspend your opinion if a better essay can be written without it.

7) An essay's structure is not beginning, middle and end. An essay's structure is thought reflected in writing - therefore the physical structure should always reflect the logical structure. Use sentence construction as an aid to making your point, for example by clarifying the purposes of ideas, and by grouping related concepts in writing. Not merely down to the paragraph, but down to the sentence segment, two thoughts should never be confused.

8) Spellcheck.

9) Reading your own work aloud will help you pick up grammatical and logical errors that you will miss if you only look at what you have written. Your mind knows what you meant to say, and sees only the intention. Reading aloud forced the mind to consider what is actually there.



Blogger alex said...

I might also suggest - though we all know it can be impossible given the time constraints endemic to the academic lifestyle - giving yourself a time-period of "seperation" from your piece before stamping it Complete. A good night's sleep will do wonders for your ability to step back from the piece, and notice incongruencies or grammatical errors (personally, I have a tendency to completely leave out words) that simply escape attention if you are still thinking within the "paradigm" of the paper. A paper that seems sound and succinct after hours of slaving might exhibit some rough spots in need of polish after you let your mind think in other terms for a while.


1/12/2005 01:44:00 PM  

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