I just read “Ph.D.s Are Still Writing Poorly” in the January 22, 2018, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. The author is Rachel Toor , an Eastern Washington University professor of creative writing, whose blog is full of great articles about writing. One of her statements is, “Writing well does not require brilliance or innate talent. Like most things, prose style improves with attention, practice, and discipline.” That struck me as good advice for IWOC members, regardless of their areas of writing concentration.
How long has it been since IWOC had a presentation centered on improving our writing skills—the art and craft and process of writing? Sure, we’ve frequently heard speakers talk about breaking into new markets, independent writing as a small business, self-promotion and networking, and other practice builders. But it seems ages since we addressed improving what it is that we all do and how we do it.
I recall a couple of programs from several years ago that focused on writing as a discipline. At one a journalism professor from Northwestern University brought along a bag of oranges and tossed one out to everybody in the room. Gimmick? Sure, but instantly engaging and effective. He then told us to write about the item he had just given us. We could not use the word orange. Nor could we say anything about its taste because we had no way of knowing what that might be without altering the item. There were a few other constraints that I no longer remember. We had five minutes and only paper and pencil.
It’s what we do, and we’re good at it.
The speaker critiqued the work of two or three volunteers. Then he spent the rest of our time together discussing clarity, brevity, structure, vocabulary, and other elements of spare but descriptive writing. We had to stand back and look closely at what we had produced. Many commented that if they had heard what he had to say up front, they would have approached our “assignment” differently. Sometimes we need reminding.
Another time we were joined by a creative writing instructor from Columbia College who demonstrated the utility of mind mapping, fish boning, arranging sticky notes, and asking the five whys when structuring and evaluating the effectiveness of our writing. Deconstructing was hard for some of us, certainly for me, but the result was that we discovered ways that we never knew or had forgotten about efficiency, direction, and economy of expression. Again, the speaker shared useful feedback.
We all know how to write, and we know that good (and profitable) writing involves more than a piece of paper and a crayon—or a computer and a printer. Note the examples above have nothing to do with anything electronic. They’re about thinking, staring into space for a few moments, gathering and culling ideas, judgments, assumptions, introspection, content, and the process of putting words onto a page. It’s what we do, and we’re good at it. But maybe we could do it better.
- Jim Kepler, Member since 1982
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