Tag Archives: writing

Fiction Writing and Me (Synthesis vs. Description)

4 Apr

School stretches on forever. At least that’s how I imagine the next few weeks will feel.

The first half of the semester flew by, through part adrenaline and part movement – I think I went home every other weekend for a good six or seven weeks. But now, during April, I face probably the longest uninterrupted stretch of school I’ve had in a while. No breaks, days off or going home until Easter.

I’m fine with that, though. After a much-needed spring break, I was ready to get on with it.

Over break I had the chance to work regularly on a fiction project I’ve been tackling since the fall. No, I’m not going to divulge details, I’m not there yet. And while it’s a bit of a truism that most journalists four or five “first chapters” lying around unfinished and neglected, I’ve gotten much farther in this project than any other previous long form attempt I’ve made.

That being said, I’m still plagued by an inability to add to it consistently. The drive to work on it comes in spurts, usually for a couple weeks and then recedes for maybe a month or so before coming back.

I’ve been reflecting on why this is and I have a couple observations about the difference between writers (or any artist or creative) who deals in creativity of synthesis and those who deal in the creativity of description.

1) The creativity of synthesis. These are the fiction writers. When I write fiction, I’m engaging in synthesis to create something new. I’m taking elements of truth, sometimes miniscule things I see – a personality trait, a physical detail – to big things – whole people, situations, events – and combining this with the power of imagination to synthesize something new.

As I’ve looked back at when I’ve found the constitution and drive to write fiction with any regularity, it’s been those times when quite frankly I’m almost bored. It’s also been those times when I’ve noticed I haven’t had as much social interaction. Not that I’ve been a hermit, just a little less than usual.

Why is this? I think it’s because while conjuring the real-life elements needed to make for good writing is somewhat easy (you need a good memory and a life full of experiences, something many people have) the synthesis part is incredibly taxing. The part where you have to invent and imagine storylines and plot and dialogue in convincing ways, that’s difficult.

Doing this well requires going into yourself, immersing yourself in your own imagination and your own created world. The reflection and immersion required doesn’t translate well into my everyday life, which is probably why it’s usually during breaks and the rare times when school is boring that it’s easier to sit down and write fiction.

2) The creativity of description. This is how I would classify my journalism and any of my non-fiction writing, such as this blog post. The creativity is not in invention, but in how best to use the tool of language to communicate the world you see around you. That’s where the creativity is. The creativity is in the technique, not the content. The content is the world as I’ve observed it, recorded it, talked to other people about it.

In contrast with fiction writing, my journalism is often best when I’m most immersed in the world around me, the time when I’m least aware of myself. So these are the times when I’m generally happy (but not estatic), and am not overly-stressed by school but am not completely bored either. In short, it is those rare moments when everything seems to be in equilibrium.

The whole enterprise is outwardly focused.

So is one mode of creating better than the other? No. I think there’s value in practicing both types from time to time, even if one has a clear strength and favorite.

I would have to lock myself in a room by myself for weeks on end if I was ever going to be a novelist. I wouldn’t want to do that. As refreshing as the introspection that fiction requires can be, I am too curious about the world around me to focus my curiosity inward for too long.

But, for those times every so often when the mood strikes, my project will be there, waiting. And that’s enough for me.


Why academic writing sucks

17 Nov

Students write boring essays all the time. Big surprise.

The problem is they’re being taught to write boringly.

This conclusion is what I’ve come to after thinking about the topic of writing and education over the last few days. A short post over at 37 Signals set off this round of thinking. In it, an educator proposes a writing class that would essentially work in reverse, teaching students to cut down their compositions, rather than expanding them.

4 pages > 1 page > 1 paragraph > 1 sentence.

That’s the idea. I love it.

The entire focus of writing is turned on its head. The shortest written expression of an idea becomes the most valuable. Editing information is equally as valuable as the production of information.

It evokes the paradigm of journalism. The paradigm of journalism is editing. What is the best way to tell this story? What is the best way to write this article? Those are the questions writers and editors ask every day in journalism. The guiding principle driving decisions of how to present information in journalism is how to most clearly communicate information in a way that will be most accessible to your audience.

Most people in academia (primary, secondary, and the academy) who teach writing in some way would probably say they teach and value clarity and accessibility in writing. That’s good and I think they’re sincere. But these educators, from my experience, teach students to write clearly and accessibly to the wrong audience.

Most educators want students to write to them, the educator. The educator is the audience. Now, the educator is a valid audience. And knowing how to write about a subject area to an expert in that subject area is a valuable skill. But this is the primary audience students are taught to write to from cradle to diploma.

The cumulative effects of this focus on a single audience is devastating to teaching students how to actually communicate in the real world.

A five paragraph theme may be the most logical way to present information to educators, but for most real-world writing situations, this template fails. Think about what most of your writing is. Is it multi-page, thesis-based topic papers? HECK NO!

Our writing is the dozens of texts we send every day. It’s the short (and longer) e-mails we send everyday. It’s the comments we write on Facebook. It’s 140 character bites we spit out on Twitter. It’s the 200, 300 word blog posts every so often.

Now think of the writing we do occasionally. It’s resumes. It’s cover letters. It’s more formal letters to family and friends. It’s invitations to events. It’s letters to businesses. It’s instructions to babysitters and caretakers during nights out and vacations. It’s the longer, more deep blog posts (like this one).

Finally, think of the writing you almost never do (in the real world). It’s academic, topic-based papers.

Educators are teaching students to perfect a form that no one uses (except them).

The lack of use might have to do with the idea that the way in which academic writing is structured is designed to turn away all but the most interested readers. This form is actively trying to turn away potential audience.

The thesis often gets buried at the bottom of the first paragraph, which itself can be quite long. The thesis itself usually doesn’t actually communicate the most important information but rather just acts as a roadmap for the reader.

Key information is strewn throughout the body and is obscured by filling. I can almost guarantee that the vast majority of undergraduate papers contain filler. Students, including me, inject crap into their papers in order to meet what sometime seem like arbitrary page requirements.

Often, I lengthen my papers by including extraneous and extra adjectives and adverbs and other various parts of speech that are not needed or prudent and for which there are absolutely no logical and necessary reasons to demand their inclusion and use in my topical, academic essay.

I would never do this in journalistic writing. But I do it on purpose when writing papers. And teachers eat it up. Do they spurn my extra verbs? No. They don’t even realize this results in totally uninteresting crap writing. If they do, they usually don’t make their displeasure known on my grade.

It’s an example of how disconnected educators can be from how most people read.

On the other hand, journalism is a great example of writers trying to get as in touch with how people read as possible. Why are news stories written in inverted pyramid style? Because people naturally don’t want to read 300 words to get to the point. They want the point now.

We teach students to write introductions. We also need to teach them how to write leads.

Students are taught that they need 4,5,10 pages to explore a topic satisfactorily. They also should be taught that they need to earn the readers’ attention every page they write. No one’s going to read 10 pages of garbage in the real world.

Students are taught that detail is good, that context is valuable. They also should be taught that unnecessary modifiers kill pace and that strong verbs glue readers to the page.

We teach students to write conclusions. We also need to teach them to write kickers.

Teachers sometimes complain that young people vulgarize the English language through ungrammatical text messages and unpolished Facebook updates. But teachers haven’t taught students how to write to these mediums or express ideas in a short-writing world.

That’s what’s truly vulgar.