Today is Black Friday, that infamous day in consumer culture marked by deep discounts, long lines, and equal demonstrations among Americans of civility and barbarity. Although I am not in a position to offer you flat screen TVs, flannel sheet sets, or iPhones at incredibly low prices, I do want to partake in the spirit of the season and give you something for nothing.
Thus, in today’s (free!) post, I’ll be sharing some great writing advice from a celebrity guest (!), William Safire and my tips as a writing tutor.
A distinguished novelist, commentator, and speechwriter to Nixon and Spiro Agnew, Bill Safire also wrote for the New York Times for over thirty years, contributing his insights and analysis to a political column in the paper and to his famous series On Language in the Magazine. Safire has become, in the mythos of the modern media, something of a High Priest of Rhetoric.
Below, in bold at the start of each paragraph, you’ll find some of his most famous bits of advice on writing, with my subsequent – and paltry in comparison – glosses and explications:
Writing Tip 1: "Have a definite opinion."The best writing not only uses clear and impactful language, but also makes lucid and cogent arguments. It is not enough to write with snappy style; one must also take a visible stand. An argument that is unsure of its claims is like a lost dog, wandering from place to place with a mixture of curiosity and panic. Don’t write like a lost dog. Work out your positions in advance, anticipate counterarguments, concretize your thesis. Write from a position of genuine conviction, and your work will be all the stronger for it.
Writing Tip 2: “Never assume the obvious is true.”
One of the biggest pitfalls of argumentative writing is assuming that readers and writers approach arguments identically. The way that a set of claims forms in your head is, woefully, never the way that a reader will understand them, reading your work. It is dangerous to assume that your readers can make all of the connections that you have made, at exactly the same speed on the page or off of it. And equally dangerous is to assume that your conclusions are automatically right. Good writing is careful writing, and much care must be taken to craft arguments from evidence easily and methodically demonstrated to your readers. Do not skip steps in arguing from Point A to Point C, and most importantly, research Point C rigorously to make sure that it has real ground to stand on. Just because something makes abundant sense to you does not mean that the rest of the world agrees – or can even see your point.
Writing Tip 3: “If you re-read your work, you can find on re-reading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by re-reading and editing.”
Perhaps the single most important rule for generating writing that will be read by others: Nothing in the world substitutes for careful proof-reading. Whether you are writing a text message or a dissertation, editing and revising is essential. Otherwise, you’ll sound like a mocking Safire did in this very funny demonstration of a very unfunny problem.
Writing Tip 4: “Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.”
Everyone has heard the old adage and perennial defense that clichés are so popular because they are true. That may be a fair argument for proving the staying power of certain stereotypes and idioms, but it does not compete with the power of inventive and personal writing. The English language contains such a vastness of riches that it comes across as genuinely doleful when stylistic step-skipping is substituted for eloquence and originality. Anyone who has ever read a checkout aisle romance can recognize that over-writing is a problem. But under-writing is equally irksome, and an abundance of clichés can contribute to the trouble. The best writing comes across like a fresh bowl of Rice Krispies, filled with snap, crackle, and pop. Loading your writing with hackneyed turns of phrase will also load it down, adding weight but not flavor. Take that same helping of cereal and leave it in the sun for three hours. The soggy mush that clings to the bottom of the bowl is your essay with its clichés intact.
The holidays are about festive times with family and friends, but they also signal the ends of semesters, financial quarters, and application periods. So, for whatever writing you find yourself doing right now, be sure to reflect on the above bits of wisdom and enjoy these writing tips!