Writing Tutor: Narrative Methods

Posted by The Writing Wizard on 1/18/13, 11:18 AM

describe the imageGreetings from the Writing Wizard! Continuing the thread of posts related to minimal language, maximal impact, today we’re going to talk about two editing strategies that may help you in your travels through the worlds of homework, papers, admissions essays, cover letters, etc.

Both originate in popular culture, although I can only definitively cite the source of the first strategy. This is called the “Reverend Maclean” and it comes to us from Norman Maclean’s beautiful book A River Runs through It, which was later made into an award-winning film directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt. In both text and movie, the story concerns a young Norman Maclean, home-schooled by his Presbyterian minister father, growing up at the dawn of the twentieth century in Missoula, Montana with his bad apple of a brother, Paul. 

Towards the beginning of the narrative, we learn about the striking method for teaching composition that the father adopts for his son.

As the narrator—adult Norman—explains: “I attended the school of the Reverend Maclean. He taught nothing but reading and writing. And being a Scot…believed that the art of writing lay in thrift.” We then see father and son laboring side-by-side, the Reverend working on a Sunday sermon, the child working on an essay. After a certain point, the boy rises, and hesitantly offers the page, ink still drying, to his father. The Reverend glances down, nods approvingly, and instructs: “Half as long.” The scene repeats—both Macleans leaning in to their writing, the sound of wet quills scratching roughly against paper…  Again, the boy stands before the man, paper in hand: “Again,” says the Reverend, “half as long.” Once more to the desk…and then, as the Reverend holds the third version to the light, reading the compact lines of prose: “Good. Now throw it away.”

For apprentice writers—and we are all surely apprentice writers, there is much to learn from this episode. We must respect our writing, and love our language, enough to be exacting with them and with ourselves, finding ways to use the words of greatest precision to convey the clearest sense of our ideas. We need to be willing to return to the task more than once, viewing and reviewing our language to ensure that we are saying what we mean—and little else.

Yet, the “Reverend Maclean” also teaches us another facet of love, linguistic and otherwise: we cannot love our writing so much that we are unable to part with it. Self-editing is a brutal, tortuous enterprise—all the more so if we are overly sentimental about our written output. If we are to improve as writers, we must get over ourselves—and fast. Affection and pride for our writing is one thing, and boundless adoration is another. If we really want our readers to respect our writing, then we must be willing to improve it at any cost to our egos; we must be ready to reduce our prose by half, by half again…taking the essence as good distillers do to get the strongest stuff. And sometimes, to test whether we really have taken the best approach, we have to be willing to throw our work away, regroup, and start again.

Slightly more modern than the “Reverend Maclean” is the strategy known as the “Elevator Pitch.” 

Snappier and quicker, and certainly more popular in contemporary culture, the elevator pitch is one of those business terms that gets bandied about in boardrooms and locker rooms alike. The concept is very simple: if you’re trying to sell something, you should be able to make your sales pitch cleanly and effectively in less than a minute—say, about the time it takes to descend an office building in an elevator. The logic of the elevator pitch suggests that if you were to find yourself in an elevator with someone important, someone with deep pockets or a fat address book, you should be able to get that person hooked on your project, or at least intrigued by the idea, by the time you arrived in the lobby. It goes without saying that the elevator pitch is not a natural maneuver. How many of us can relay complex ideas in 45 seconds without pausing, stuttering, or screwing up? And therein lies the art of the pitch, and the mastery of the pitchman. Good sales pitches take time to develop and demand repetition, revision and sustained attention.

So, too, with a good idea for a paper, project, essay, etc. Although very few term papers are meant to be presented to professors in the elevators of office buildings, the impulse behind the elevator pitch is nevertheless essential to long-form prose: say what you need to say artfully and briefly, and your message will land with maximum impact. If you can’t present your thesis in 45 seconds without hesitation, are you really ready to argue it for 15 pages?  How confident are you in what you intend to show? 

In many respects, the elevator pitch is the “Reverend Maclean” for the modern age. Both strategies advocate a deep commitment to the precision of language, and both demand practice, practice, practice. A veteran salesperson, like the most austere Presbyterian minister, will agree that the “art of writing [lies] in thrift.” It is important to remember, however, that thrifty is not the same as cheap. Both of these strategies privilege clear writing over simple writing, rich language over banal language. The real trick is not in cutting down, but rather in leaning out—the ultimate product must still pack a mean punch.

So, as many of you return to school or work and confront your next big writing task, keep these methods in mind. And even beyond your next assignment, whether you take the express car or the stairs, remember: you never know whom you might be speaking with. 

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Tags: expository writing