Good with Words: A Series of Writing & Editing Courses from the University of Michigan

We’ve all used words just about as long as we’ve been alive. This obvious truth, alas, has led too many of us into the delusion that we’re good with words: that we’re good speakers and, even more commonly and less justifiably, that we’re good writers. Yet anyone who’s seen or heard much of how words are used in the realms of business and academia — to say nothing of personal correspondence — does understand, on some level, the true rarity of these skills. Now, those of us who recognize the need to shore up our own skills can do so through Good with Words, a specialization in writing and editing now offered by the University of Michigan through online education platform Coursera.

Good with Words comprises individual courses on word choice and word order, structure and organization, drafting, and revising. Here to teach them is Michigan Law School Clinical Assistant Professor of Law Patrick Barry, of whose lecturing style you can get a taste in this Youtube playlist collecting clips of a writing workshop held for Michigan Law students in 2014. In the clip above, he takes on the common problem of verbal clutter, working from the definition originally laid out by On Writing Well author William Zinsser (whose ten writing tips we previously featured here on Open Culture). In other brief views, Barry touches on everything from the power of description and sentence flow to facts versus truths and zombie nouns.

In one workshop clip, Barry reminds his students that, in order to write good sentences, they must read good sentences. This point bears repeating, and indeed Barry repeats it in his Coursera course, the relevant excerpt of which you can view here. “A young writer must read,” he quotes Colum McCann declaring in the book Letters to a Young Writer. “She must read and read and read. Adventurously. Promiscuously. Unfailingly.” But taking a course as well couldn’t hurt, especially when, as with Good with Words, it can be audited for free. (Coursera also offers a paid option for students who would like to receive a certificate upon completing the specialization.) Barry offers plenty of example sentences, good and less so, but the true writers among us will never stop looking for their own, even after Good with Words‘ suggested four-month duration is over.

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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 or on Facebook.

An Animated History of Writing: From Ancient Egypt to Modern Writing Systems

He would be a very simple person, and quite a stranger to the oracles of Thamus or Ammon, who should leave in writing or receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word would be intelligible or certain. — Socrates

The transmission of truth was at one time a face-to-face business that took place directly between teacher and student. We find ancient sages around the world who discouraged writing and privileged spoken dialogue as the best way to communicate. Why is that? Socrates himself explained it in Plato’s Phaedrus, with a myth about the origin of writing. In his story, the Egyptian god Thoth devises the various means of communication by signs and presents them to the Egyptian god-king Thamus, also known as Ammon. Thamus examines them, praising or disparaging each in turn. When he gets to writing, he is especially put out.

“O most ingenious Theuth,” says Thamus (in Benjamin Jowett’s translation), “you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth.”

Other technologies of communication like Incan khipu have the quality of “embeddedness,” says YouTuber NativeLang above, in an animated history of writing that begins with the myth of “Thoth’s Pill.” That is to say, such forms are inseparable from the material context of their origins. Writing is unique, fungible, alienable, and alienating. Its greatest strength — the ability to communicate across distances of time and space — is also its weakness since it separates us from each other, requiring us to memorize complex systems of signs and interpret an author’s meaning in their absence. Socrates criticizes writing because “it will de-embed you.”

The irony of Socrates’ critique (via Plato) is that “it comes to us via text,” notes Bear Skin Digital. “We enjoy it and think about it purely because it is recorded in writing.” What’s more, as Phaedrus says in response, Socrates’ story is only a story. “You can easily invent tales of Egypt, or of any other country.” To which Socrates replies that a truth is a truth, no matter who says it, or how we happen to hear it. Is it so with writing? Does its ambiguity render it useless? Are written works like orphans, as Socrates characterizes them? “If they are maltreated or abused, they have no parents to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves….”

It’s a little too late to decide if we’re better off without the written word, so many millennia after writing grew out of pictographs, or “proto-writing” and into ideographs, logographs, rebuses, phonetic alphabets, and more. Watch the full animated history of writing above and, then, by all means, close your browser and go have a long conversation with someone face-to-face.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hunter Thompson Explains What Gonzo Journalism Is, and How He Writes It (1975)

There’ve been any number of aspiring “gonzo journalists” over the past half-century, but there was only one Hunter S. Thompson. Having originated with his work in the early 1970s, this sense of gonzo made it into the Random House Dictionary within his lifetime. “Filled with bizarre or subjective ideas, commentary, or the like,” says its first definitions. And its second: “Crazy; eccentric.” Thompson seems to have approved, seeing as he kept a copy of this very edition, put on display at the Owl Farm Private Museum (run by the Gonzo Foundation) after his death in 2005. Thirty years earlier, he had the question put to him in the interview above: “What is gonzo journalism?”

“That word has really plagued me,” Thompson says. But he also credits it with putting distance between himself and the recently ascendant “New Journalists” like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Joan Didion: “I wasn’t sure I was doing that, but I was sure I wasn’t doing what we call straight journalism.” Indeed, few pieces could have seemed less “straight” than “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” first published in Scanlan’s Monthly in 1970. Assembled in desperation out of pages pulled straight from Thompson’s notebook and illustrated by Ralph Steadman (the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration), the piece struck some readers as a revelation. A friend of Thompson’s declared it “pure gonzo” — an unconventional name for an unconventional form.

“Christ,” Thompson remembers thinking, “if I made a breakthrough, we’ve got to call it something.” Why not use a label with at least one instance of precedent? (It also appealed, he admits, to his inner “word freak.”) As for the substance of gonzo, he attributes to it “a mixture of humor and a high, stomping style, a bit more active than your normal journalism” — as well as whatever gets him past his innate hatred of writing. “All I can really get off on,” he says, is “when I can let my mind run. I start to laugh. I understand that Dickens used to laugh at his typewriter. I don’t laugh at my typewriter until I hit one of those what I consider pure gonzo breakthroughs. Then it’s worth it.”

Published three years earlier, Thompson’s best-known book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas marked the culmination of a particular writing project: “to eliminate the steps, or the blocks, between the writer and the page. That’s why I always get the fastest and newest typewriter. If they make one that costs twelve million dollars, I’ll write a bad check and get it for a while.” Regulating this signature gonzo directness is a rigorous stylistic discipline. “That’s the one book of mine that I’ve even read,” Thompson says, thanks to the “four or five rewrites” he performed on the manuscript. “There’s not a word in there — I mean, there might be fifteen or twenty, but that’s about all — that don’t have to be there.”

Interviewing Thompson is veteran journalist Harrison Salisbury, the New York Times‘ Moscow bureau chief in the 1940s and 50s. He also wrote many books including The Shook-Up Generation, a 1958 study of juvenile delinquency (and a volume found in Marilyn Monroe’s personal library) that could have primed his interest in Thompson’s debut Hell’s Angels when it came out a decade later. Appear though he may to be the kind of establishment figure who’d have little enthusiasm for gonzo journalism, Salisbury’s questions suggest a thorough knowledge and understanding of Thompson’s work, right down to the “tension” that drives it. “It could be drug-induced, or adrenaline-induced, or time-induced,” Thompson says of that tension. “I’ve been told by at least one or two confident specialists that the kind of tension I maintain cannot be done for any length of time without… I’ll either melt or explode, one of the two.”

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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 or on Facebook.

Haruki Murakami’s Daily Routine: Up at 4:00 a.m., 5-6 Hours of Writing, Then a 10K Run

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Haruki Murakami has been famous as a novelist since the 1980s. But for a decade or two now, he’s become increasingly well known around the world as a novelist who runs. The English-speaking world’s awareness of Murakami’s roadwork habit goes back at least as far as 2004, when the Paris Review published an Art of Fiction interview with him. Asked by interviewer John Ray to describe the structure of his typical workday, Murakami replied as follows:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

This stark physical departure from the popular notion of literary work drew attention. Truer to writerly stereotype was the Murakami of the early 1980s, when he turned pro as a novelist after closing the jazz bar he’d owned in Tokyo. “Once I was sitting at a desk writing all day I started putting on the pounds,” he remembers in The New Yorker. “I was also smoking too much — sixty cigarettes a day. My fingers were yellow, and my body reeked of smoke.” Aware that something had to change, Murakami performed an experiment on himself: “I decided to start running every day because I wanted to see what would happen. I think life is a kind of laboratory where you can try anything. And in the end I think it was good for me, because I became tough.”

Adherence to such a lifestyle, as Murakami tells it, has enabled him to write all his novels since, including hits like Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore. (On some level, it also reflects his protagonists’ tendency to make transformative leaps from one version of reality into another.) Its rigor has surely contributed to the discipline necessary for the rest of his output as well: translation into his native Japanese of works including The Great Gatsby, but also large quantities of first-person writing on his own interests and everyday life. Protective of his reputation in English, Murakami has allowed almost none of the latter to be published in this language.

But in light of the voracious consumption of self-improvement literature in the English-speaking world, and especially in America, translation of his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running must have been an irresistible proposition. “I’ve never recommended running to others,” Murakami writes in The New Yorker piece, which is drawn from the book. “If someone has an interest in long-distance running, he’ll start running on his own. If he’s not interested in it, no amount of persuasion will make any difference.” For some, Murakami’s example has been enough: take the writer-vlogger Mel Torrefranca, who documented her attempt to follow his example for a week. For her, a week was enough; for Murakami, who’s been running-while-writing for nearly forty years now, there could be no other way.

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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 or on Facebook.

Umberto Eco’s 36 Rules for Writing Well (in English or Italian)

Creative Commons image by Rob Bogaerts, via the National Archives in Holland

Umberto Eco knew a great many things. Indeed too many things, at least according to his critics: “Eco knows everything there is to know and spews it in your face in the most blasé manner,” declared Pier Paolo Pasolini, “as if you were listening to a robot.” That line appears quoted in Tim Parks’ review of Pape Satàn Aleppe, a posthumous collection of essays from La Bustina di Minerva, the magazine column Eco had written since 1985. “This phrase means ‘Minerva’s Matchbook,'” Parks explains. “Minerva is a brand of matches, and, being a pipe smoker, Eco used to jot down notes on the inside flap of their packaging. His columns were to be equally extemporaneous, compulsive and incisive, each as illuminating and explosive as a struck match.”

At the same time, “the reference to the Roman goddess Minerva is important; it warns us that in the modern world we may struggle to distinguish between divinities and bric-a-brac.” This was as true, and remains as true, in the realm of letters as in any other. And of all the things Eco knew, he surely knew best how to use words; hence his La Bustina di Minerva column laying out 40 rules for speaking and writing.

This meant, of course, speaking and writing in Italian, his native tongue and the language of which he spent his career demonstrating complete mastery. But as translator Gio Clairval shows in her English rendition of Eco’s rules, most of them apply just as well to this language.

“I’ve found online a series of instructions on how to write well,” says Eco’s introduction to the list. “I adopt them with a few variations because I think they could be useful to writers, particularly those who attend creative writing classes.” A few examples will suffice to give a sense of his guidance:

  • Avoid alliterations, even if they’re manna for morons.
  • Avoid clichés: they’re like death warmed over.
  • Never generalize.
  • Hold those quotes. Emerson aptly said, “I hate quotes. Tell me only what you know.”
  • Don’t write one-word sentences. Ever.
  • Recognize the difference between the semicolon and the colon: even if it’s hard.
  • Do you really need rhetorical questions?
  • Be concise; try expressing your thoughts with the least possible number of words, avoiding long sentences– or sentences interrupted by incidental phrases that always confuse the casual reader– in order to avoid contributing to the general pollution of information, which is surely (particularly when it is uselessly ripe with unnecessary explanations, or at least non indispensable specifications) one of the tragedies of our media-dominated time.
  • Don’t be emphatic! Be careful with exclamation marks!
  • No need to tell you how cloying preteritions are.

Not only does each of Eco’s points offer a useful piece of writing advice, it elegantly demonstrates just how your writing will come off if you fail to follow it. In the event that “you can’t find the appropriate expression,” he writes, “refrain from using colloquial/dialectal expressions.” To this he appends, of course, a colloquial expression, Peso el tacòn del buso: “The patch is worse than the hole.” However clichéd it sounds in Italian, all of us would do well to bear it in mind no matter the language in which we write. (And if you write in Italian, be sure to read Eco’s original column, which contains additional rules applying only to that language: Non usare metafore incongruenti anche se ti paiono “cantare,” for instance. Sono come un cigno che deraglia.)

You can read all 36 of Eco’s English-relevant writing rules at Clairval’s site. If you’d like to hear more of his writing advice, watch the Louisiana Channel interview clip we featured after his death in 2016. And elsewhere in our archives, you can compare and contrast Eco’s list of rules for writing with those drawn up by the likes of Walter Benjamin, Steven Pinker, Stephen King, V.S. Naipaul, Friedrich Nietzsche, Elmore Leonard, and George Orwell. Though Eco could, in his writing, assume what Parks calls an “immeasurably superior” persona, he surely would have agreed with the final, thoroughly English point on Orwell’s list: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

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Free Italian Lessons

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 or on Facebook.

A Short Animation Explores the Nature of Creativity & Invention, with Characters That Look Like Andrei Tarkovsky & Sergei Eisenstein

A gentleman goes to the movies, only to find a marquee full of retreads, reboots, sequels, and prequels. He demands to know why no one makes original films anymore, a reasonable question people often ask. But it seems he has run directly into a graduate student in critical theory behind the glass. The ticket-seller rattles off a theory of unoriginality that is difficult to refute but also, it turns out, only a word-for-word recitation of the Wikipedia page on “Plagiarism.”

This is one of the ironies in “Allergy to Originality” every English teacher will appreciate. In the short, animated New York Times Op-Doc by Drew Christie, an official Sundance selection in 2014, “two men discuss whether anything is truly original — especially in movies and books,” notes the Times. The question leads us to consider what we might mean by originality when every work is built from pieces of others. “In creating this Op-Doc animation,” Christie writes, “I copied well-known images and photographs, retraced innumerable drawings, then photocopied them as a way to underscore the un-originality of the entire process.”

From William Burroughs’ cut-ups to Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” moderns have only been re-discovering what ancients accepted with a shrug — no one can take credit for a story, not even the author. Barthes argued that “literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.”

In Christie’s short, the smartass theater employee continues quoting sources, now from the “Originality” Wikipedia, now from Mark Twain, who had many things to say about originality. Twain once wrote to Helen Keller, for example, outraged that she had been accused of plagiarism. He came to her defense with an earnest conviction: “The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterance — is plagiarism.”

Postmodern sophistry from Mark Twain? Maybe. We haven’t had much opportunity to verbally spar in public like this lately, unmasked and in search of entertainment in a public square. If you find yourself exasperated with the streaming choices on offer, if the books you’re reading all start to feel too familiar, consider the infinite number of creative possibilities inherent in the art of quotation — and remember that we’re always repeating, replaying, and remixing what came before, whether or not we cite our sources.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A 4,000-Year-Old Student ‘Writing Board’ from Ancient Egypt (with Teacher’s Corrections in Red)

Americans raised on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books tend to associate slates with one room schoolhouses and rote exercises involving reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

Had we been reared along the banks of the Nile, would our minds go to ancient gessoed boards like the 4000-year-old Middle Kingdom example above?

Like our familiar tablet-sized blackboards, this paper — or should we say papyrus? — saver was designed to be used again and again, with whitewash serving as a form of eraser.

As Egyptologist William C. Hayes, former Curator of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan Museum wrote in The Scepter of Egypt: A Background for the Study of the Egyptian Antiquities in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol. 1, From the Earliest Times to the End of the Middle Kingdom, the writing board at the top of the page:

…bears parts of two model letters of the very formal and ultra-poite variety addressed to a superior official. The writers consistently refer to themselves as “this servant” and to their addressees as “the Master (may he live, prosper, and be well.)” The longer letter was composed and written by a young man named Iny-su, son of Sekhsekh, who calls himself a “Servant of the Estate” and who, probably in jest, has used the name of his own brother, Peh-ny-su, as that of the distinguished addressee. Following a long-winded preamble, in which the gods of Thebes and adjacent towns are invoked in behalf of the recipient, we get down to the text of the letter and find that it concerns the delivery of various parts of a ship, probably a sacred barque. In spite of its formality and fine phraseology, the letter is riddled with misspellings and other mistakes which have been corrected in red ink, probably by the master scribe in charge of the class.

Iny-su would also have been expected to memorize the text he had copied out, a practice that carried forward to our one-room-schoolhouses, where children droned their way through texts from McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers.

Another ancient Egyptian writing board in the Met’s collection finds an apprentice scribe fumbling with imperfectly formed, unevenly spaced hieroglyphs.

Fetch the whitewash and say it with me, class — practice makes perfect.

The first tablet inspired some lively discussion and more than a few punchlines on Reddit, where commenter The-Lord-Moccasin mused:

I remember reading somewhere that Egyptian students were taught to write by transcribing stories of the awful lives of the average peasants, to motivate and make them appreciate their education. Like “the farmer toils all day in the burning field, and prays he doesn’t feed the lions; the fisherman sits in fear on his boat as the crocodile lurks below.”

Always thought it sounded effective as hell.

We can’t verify it, but we second that emotion.

Note: The red markings on the image up top indicate where spelling mistakes were corrected by a teacher.

via @ddoniolvalcroze

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Celebration of Typewriters in Film & Television: A Supercut

There are a number of ways to come at video essayist Ariel Avissar‘s two-minute supercut of typewriters in action on film and television.

Cinema buffs will itch to connect The Typewriter’s clips to titles. Here are some of the ones we were able to identify:


Stranger Than Fiction

Citizen Kane

Finding Forrester

The Magic of Belle Isle

The Shining


Mad Men

Barton Fink

All the President’s Men


Ruby Sparks


And then there are the typewriter enthusiasts, more concerned with make and model than anything relating to cinema:





Clark Nova

Smith Corona

IBM Selectric

Given the obsessive nature of both camps, it’s not surprising that there would be some crossover.

Here’s a delightfully nerdy investigation of the onscreen typewriters in Naked Lunch, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burrough’s novel.

This collector’s top 10 list gives extra consideration to scripts that “place typewriters at the heart of the story.” First and second place feature typewriters on their posters.

An IBM Selectric III in Avissar’s supercut caused one viewer to reminisce about the anachronistic use of Selectric IIs in Mad Men’s first season secretarial pool. Creator Matthew Weiner admits the choice was deliberate. The first Selectric model is period appropriate, but much more difficult to find and challenging to maintain, plus their manual carriage returns would have created a headache for sound editors.

Avissar’s round up also serves to remind us of a particularly modern problem—the ongoing quest to portray texts and social media messages effectively on big and small screens. This dilemma didn’t exist back when typewriters were the primary text-based devices. A close up of whatever page was rolled onto the platen got the job done with a minimum of fuss.

Two of the most celebrated typewriter sequences in film history did not make the cut, possibly because neither features actual working typewriters: the NSFW anthropomorphic typewriter-bug in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch and Jerry Lewis’ inspired pantomime in Who’s Minding the Store, performed, like Avissar’s supercut, to the tune of composer Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter.

Up for another challenge? Which top Hollywood star is “obsessed with typewriters”?

Watch more of Ariel Avissar’s supercuts, including a supermoon tribute and The Silence of the Lambs’ “clever, careful fingers” on his Vimeo channel.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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