Key principles of writing well on literature and the arts

Key principles of writing well on literature and the arts
-Look very closely at the language/image.  "God is in the details."
-Make it precise.  Make precise the thought in your expression of it in words.  (Thought and expression are essentially the same).

Writing well in general
-Use an outline if it helps you.  If so, each point should be a sentence (the minimal unit of a thought).  The outline has a tree structure; at the top is a single statement that gives the claim the paper will argue for (the "thesis statement").  The Americans like the English have a business society, and we tend to want to know what someone wants from us right up front.  
Do not confuse the thesis statement with a phrase that says what you are writing about.  You must not only write about something, you must say something specific about it; this must be a claim that is controversial (not obviously true), that would make a difference if it were true (if you succeed in showing it to be), and this will be what the paper as a whole tries to prove.
-Do not write only to demonstrate or persuade.  Good writing is good thinking; write first of all to make your ideas clear (in themselves, or to yourself).  
-To any statement or body of statements, a skeptical reader (and all readers are skeptical) can ask three kinds of questions: 1) What does this (really) mean? 2) What reason does the writer give me to believe that this is true?  and 3) Why should I care?  Question 3 most often does not get asked, and you want it not to be, but it can be unless you are writing for a specialized audience that already is interested in your problem; this usually means technical problems in one of the sciences.  If the reader can doubt whether it's important, he will, and you've lost him.  Most energy is spent on (2), which calls for making a persuasive argument.  (On this, see Wayne Booth's The Craft of Research, which covers this in detail).  Question (1) comes into play often in humanities essays and anytime that part of your work is describing something in some particular way.  Anytime you say what something is, you say that it is this or is like this, and that means your choice of terms and so the question of what they really mean (and if they describe the thing well or rightly) is pertinent.  This question is not posed and answered often enough.  Nor is the question of why the reader should care (that is, if it is relevant to anything she cares about).  If you write a paper that seems to raise that question precisely because, paradoxically, it doesn't, then it is probably because you have not asked it yourself.  Maybe you have an assignment and little choice except to find the approach to it that you feel most enthused about, but if you chose the topic, you really have no excuse, because that is an invitation to choose something you care about.  If you don't, the reader won't.  And of course, the professor or instructor may be the only person reading it, but that just means that he is stand-in for "real" readers in writing that is for now an exercise.  
-Revise.  Reread your paper asking yourself if it is clear, if you prove your point, and if you said precisely what you want to say.  Do this as many times as needed and as you have time for.  (This is not a substitute for having an editor, who will notice problems in these areas and others if they are there).
-Never write a paper for a course that lists and describes the elements or aspects of a thing or the stages of a process.  There is a place for such writing: business.  (And usually not business school scholarship, though that is a practical discipline in part and something of a grey area).
In a business presentation (and this is why PowerPoint is used so often for them), you can do exactly that.  For example, it's understood that the company or work team has a certain project, to do, build, make, or even say (as in public relations and advertising) this or that.  Nothing is at stake except the how of doing the thing or the what of the thing involved.   There is no argument because the presentations are not being made in a field of disputes and controversy, the thinking is mostly practical and not theoretical, and the authority of decision-makers and the success on the market determine value.  The scholarly world and the business world are largely quite different in their approaches to thinking and writing.   
-Revise.  Reread your paper asking yourself if it is clear, if you prove your point, and if you said precisely what you want to say.  Do this as many times as needed and as you have time for.  (This is not a substitute for having an editor, who will notice problems in these areas and others if they are there).

 

 

 

William HeidbrederComment