Thursday, September 30, 2010

On Writing and Editing

Randall Stephens

I took some time out of my large lecture course this week to talk to students about writing. Fresh on my mind was Rachel Toor's essay.

I always enjoy reading Toor "on writing" in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. This week's piece was especially interesting. Toor muses on the question: "So how do you learn to edit yourself?" True enough, seeing faults in your own work is sometimes harder than seeing them in the work of others. It's the splinter in his/her eye vs. the plank in yours.

Rachel Toor, "How Do You Learn to Edit Yourself?" Chronicle of Higher Education, September 27, 2010.

"Where do you go for help? The obvious first step is, of course, to acknowledge that you need help. Then go buy one of the zillions of books on writing well. They all say basically the same things. Find one that speaks to you in a way that you can hear.

Call me fusty and old-fashioned, but I heart Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, now in its 956th edition. My students receive it like a gift and tend to have two reactions: "How come no one ever told me to read this book?" And "OMG, I'm so embarrassed—I'm a terrible writer and make tons of mistakes." As Dorothy Parker said, "If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they're happy.">>>

See also,

Lewis Thomas, "Notes on Punctuation."

William Zinsser, "Writing English as a Second Language," American Scholar (Winter 2010).

Michael C. Munger, "10 Tips on How to Write Less Badly," Chronicle of Higher Education, September 6, 2010.

Heather Cox Richardson, "Richardson's Rules of Order, Part VId: Tips for Writing Research Papers for a College History Course," THS Blog, July 27, 2009.


hcr said...

This is a really useful post, Randall. It's astonishing how much of this stuff I forget, even though I teach writing. It seems like writing should get easier with time, but, you know, it never really does.

I also heart Strunk and White, not only for the rules, but for the extraordinary humor, including the encouragement to break the rules once you've learned them. I also heart Steven King's On Writing, which was the book that first gave me permission to love what I do.

Other Strunk and White fans might enjoy Mark Garvey's Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. I've actually taught it in my writing class to show students that, if conceived well, even sort of weird topics can become good books.

Randall said...

Heather: I'll have to check out the Garvey book. I haven't seen that one.

I found some great YouTube videos on the writing process: King, Vonnegut, Nell Painter . . . The short clips worked nicely in class.