The Craft of Writing Effectively: Essential Lessons from the Longtime Director of UChicago’s Writing Program

Aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing has a bad rep­u­ta­tion. “When a scholar’s vanity/insecurity leads him to write pri­mar­i­ly to com­mu­ni­cate and rein­force his own sta­tus as an Intel­lec­tu­al,” as David Fos­ter Wal­lace diag­nosed the prob­lem near­ly two decades ago, “his Eng­lish is deformed by pleonasm and pre­ten­tious dic­tion (whose func­tion is to sig­nal the writer’s eru­di­tion) and by opaque abstrac­tion (whose func­tion is to keep any­body from pin­ning the writer down to a def­i­nite asser­tion that can maybe be refut­ed or shown to be sil­ly).” Indeed. But the dis­or­ders behind the kind of prose that inspires provo­ca­tions like Phi­los­o­phy and Lit­er­a­ture’s “Bad Writ­ing Con­test” are, if you believe Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Writ­ing Pro­grams direc­tor Lar­ry McEner­ney, even more basic than that.

“You think that writ­ing is com­mu­ni­cat­ing your ideas to your read­ers,” McEner­ney declares to a room­ful of aca­d­e­mics in the video above. “It is not.” In this 80-minute talk, titled “The Craft of Writ­ing Effec­tive­ly,” he iden­ti­fies the core mis­con­cep­tions that cause aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing to be bad — or more to the point, unin­ter­est­ing, unin­flu­en­tial, unread. Most all of us grow up learn­ing to write in school, where we need not give much con­sid­er­a­tion to our audi­ence: a teacher, or in col­lege per­haps a teach­ing assis­tant, who’s paid to read what we’ve writ­ten. But when nobody’s next meal is com­ing from read­ing our papers any­more, we come face to face with an essen­tial mis­match between our assumed goals as a writer and the desires of an unpaid read­er.

“I got no prob­lem with some­body writ­ing an essay because they want to think,” says McEner­ney. “What I have a prob­lem with is when they come to my office and say, ‘My read­ers don’t appre­ci­ate me.’ ” But “they don’t owe you their appre­ci­a­tion,” nor even their atten­tion — not if you neglect your core task as a writer, “to change the way your read­ers think.” This has lit­tle to do with the task of writ­ing back in school, which involved the pre­sen­ta­tion of your ideas and knowl­edge in exchange for a grade. To pro­duce “clear, orga­nized, per­sua­sive, and valu­able” writ­ing, to McEner­ney’s mind, you must “iden­ti­fy the peo­ple with pow­er in your com­mu­ni­ty and give them what they want,” which neces­si­tates mas­ter­ing the “code” of that com­mu­ni­ty.

This does­n’t sim­ply mean suck­ing up to the high­er-ups. While you should, of course, demon­strate famil­iar­i­ty with the work already accom­plished in your field, you’ve also got to tell those high­er-ups — who, like most any­one else, read to have their ideas changed — that some­thing they know is wrong. This requires sav­ing the expla­na­tion of your sub­ject for lat­er, after first set­ting up a prob­lem with the lan­guage of insta­bil­i­ty (words like “but,” “how­ev­er,” “incon­sis­tent,” and “anom­aly”), then offer­ing your own solu­tion. You can see these and oth­er tech­niques in use, as well as exam­ples of what not to do, in the lec­ture’s PDF hand­out. Are there valid objec­tions to McEner­ney’s view of writ­ing?  He acknowl­edges that there are, such as as the moral cri­tique mount­ed by crit­i­cal the­o­rist Homi K. Bhab­ha, then a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go — and also, as it hap­pens, a sec­ond-plac­er in the Bad Writ­ing Con­test.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Speak: Watch the Lec­ture on Effec­tive Com­mu­ni­ca­tion That Became an MIT Tra­di­tion for Over 40 Years

10 Writ­ing Tips from Leg­endary Writ­ing Teacher William Zinss­er

Umber­to Eco’s How To Write a The­sis: A Wit­ty, Irrev­er­ent & High­ly Prac­ti­cal Guide Now Out in Eng­lish

Steven Pinker Uses The­o­ries from Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­o­gy to Explain Why Aca­d­e­m­ic Writ­ing is So Bad

Mar­tin Amis Explains His Method for Writ­ing Great Sen­tences

Why the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Reject­ed Kurt Vonnegut’s Master’s The­sis (and How a Nov­el Got Him His Degree 27 Years Lat­er)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (3)
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  • Gregory Paul says:

    Afraid, con­tin­u­al process­es in thaught, direc­tions pla­cate’ng visu­al cocep­t’s, I’m aware that mon­e­tar­ing plays less of a focal in con­tin­nu­at­ings, in under­stand­ing, fur­ther­more it is cor­rect I believe unre­lent­ing pas­sion for, and of creating;Leads rela­vant, insen­u­ata­tion, noticed : cate“d, pause changes,positive neg­a­tive­ly inacct’ed.So com­mon­al­i­ties or a normela­cy .Ever pur­port­ing Elevation,Histerics,genome’allies.Create in the pos­si­bil­i­ties ‚Peace,Strength, Stabilities,Knowledge meant New earth and Cos­mos dev­illing the the­o­ry’s in extenction.tbcont.

  • Loam Allan-Dalgleish says:

    The art of writ­ing is dead. Why? Because the demand for pre­cise mean­ing of words. When Lud­wig Wittgen­stein asked, at the begin­ning of the Blue or the Brown books: “How does a word mean?” He was ask­ing a ques­tion based on a philo­soph­i­cal agree­ment between read­er and writer, name­ly that both would exer­cise hon­esty in the use of what a giv­en word indeed sig­ni­fies. When, dur­ing the Water­gate scan­dal, Pres­i­dent Nixon’s press sec­re­tary I believe it was. Said of a state­ment that Nixon had made that turned out to be a lie: “That state­ment is no longer oper­a­tive,” he was tak­ing a word that had a defin­able mean­ing, turn­ing it on its head, and using it because it sound­ed abstract and impor­tant, but more impor­tant­ly, it avoid­ed the real appro­pri­ate state­ment: He lied. Pres­i­dent trump, tak­ing that sleight of hand, or sleight of tongue, and, com­bin­ing it with oth­er rhetor­i­cal devices for which I do not even know the names, has devel­oped a decep­tion tech­nique allow­ing him to run on ad infin­i­ty mus­ing only the no-longer-oper­a­tive device to nev­er say any­thing that ful­fills the mean­ing agree­ment between speak­er and lis­ten­er as far as the words used are con­cerned.

  • AHAR says:

    manipüle olmanın baş­ka bir ver­siy­onyu

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