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

Related Content: 

A 3,000-Year-Old Painter’s Palette from Ancient Egypt, with Traces of the Original Colors Still In It

Who Built the Egyptian Pyramids & How Did They Do It?: New Archeological Evidence Busts Ancient Myths

What Ancient Egyptian Sounded Like & How We Know It

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:

Zodiac

Stranger Than Fiction

Citizen Kane

Finding Forrester

The Magic of Belle Isle

The Shining

Adaptation

Mad Men

Barton Fink

All the President’s Men

Misery

Ruby Sparks

Trumbo

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

Royal

Underwood

Olivetti

Olympia

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.

Related Content:

Discover Friedrich Nietzsche’s Curious Typewriter, the “Malling-Hansen Writing Ball” (Circa 1881)

Discover the Ingenious Typewriter That Prints Musical Notation: The Keaton Music Typewriter Patented in 1936

Ray Bradbury Wrote the First Draft of Fahrenheit 451 on Coin-Operated Typewriters, for a Total of $9.80

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

The 69 Pages of Writing Advice Denis Johnson Collected from Flannery O’Connor, Jack Kerouac, Stephen King, Hunter Thompson, Werner Herzog & Many Others

The internet is full of inspirational quotations about writing, many of them from accomplished and respectable writers. But what need could such writers have of inspirational quotations themselves? Surely true literary art flows from its authors without need of encouraging words, demand though it may sustained periods of labor, frustration, and even suffering. These days, more than a few who seek to create such art spend time studying not just its past masterworks but its living masters. “Some years ago,” the novelist Karan Mahajan recently tweeted, “I was lucky to take a class with Denis Johnson, who dressed like a card-shark, in flashy jackets and (unlike a card-shark) wept over sentences. He gave my class a 69-page list of writing quotes he returned to frequently.”

Johnson’s list, which you can see in PDF form here, shows that at least one of our era’s most celebrated writers swore by the kind of writing advice most of us scroll past every day. Though somewhat eccentrically formatted, it rounds up a great deal of valuable wisdom from novelists, poets, and playwrights — as well as philosophers, sculptors, filmmakers, and other figures besides — from different lands and different times.




In it you’ll find these reflections on the art, craft, and life of writing, among many others:

  • “In genius we perceive our own rejected thoughts, returning to us with a kind of alienated majesty.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Simplicity is not an end in art, but we usually arrive at simplicity as we approach the true sense of things.” — Constantin Brâncuși
  • The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.” ― Flannery O’Connor
  • “Writing, ideally, is recognizing your bad writing.” — August Wilson
  • “One is always seeking the touchstone that will dissolve one’s deficiencies as a person and as a craftsman. And one is always bumping up against the fact that there is none except hard work, concentration, and continued application.” — Paul William Gallico
  • “But what is art, really, but a good instinct for staying alive in your own alley?” — Hunter S. Thompson
  • There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. — Cynthia Heimel
  • “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” — Thomas Mann
  • “I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” — Ernest Hemingway
  • “First thought best thought.” — Jack Kerouac
  • “The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see.” — Stephen King
  • “The important thing is that there should be a space of time, say four hours a day at least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything else but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor. But he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Write or nothing.” — Raymond Chandler
  • “I know this, with a sure and certain knowledge: a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” — Albert Camus
  • “Don’t look back.” – Bob Dylan

Over the course of these 69 pages, certain themes emerge: the importance of writing with one’s “blood,” the unimportance of critics, the value of simplicity, the danger of adjectives (and other excess description), the necessity of letting nothing block the flow of the first draft. While many of these quotations offer practical advice — much of it about consistently putting in the hours, both conscious and unconscious — some approach from a more oblique angle not just “writing” as a pursuit but the living of life itself. “To fail to embrace my dreams now would be a disgrace so great that sin itself could not find a name for it,” writes Werner Herzog in the diary he kept during the agonized making of Fitzcarraldo. If this inspired the author of Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke, it ought to inspire the rest of us as well.

Related Content:

19 Quotes on Writing by Gore Vidal. Some Witty, Some Acerbic, Many Spot On

Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writers

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story

7 Tips From Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction

Write Only 500 Words Per Day and Publish 50+ Books: Graham Greene’s Writing Method

To Make Great Films, You Must Read, Read, Read and Write, Write, Write, Say Akira Kurosawa and Werner Herzog

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.

Listen to James Baldwin’s Record Collection in a 478-track, 32-Hour Spotify Playlist

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Each writer’s process is a personal relationship between them and the page—and the desk, room, chair, pens or pencils, typewriter or laptop, turntable, CD player, streaming audio… you get the idea. The kind of music suitable for listening to while writing (I, for one, cannot write to music with lyrics) varies so widely that it encompasses everything and nothing. Silence can be a kind of music, too, if you listen closely.

Far more interesting than trying to make general rules is to examine specific cases: to learn the music a writer hears when they compose, to divine the rhythms that animated their prose.




There are almost always clues. Favorite albums left behind in writing rooms or written about with high praise. Sometimes the music enters into the novel, becomes a character itself. In James Baldwin’s Another Country, music is a powerful procreative force:

The beat: hands, feet, tambourines, drums, pianos, laughter, curses, razor blades: the man stiffening with a laugh and a growl and a purr and the woman moistening and softening with a whisper and a sigh and a cry. The beat—in Harlem in the summertime one could almost see it, shaking above the pavements and the roof.

Baldwin finished his first novel, 1953’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, not in Harlem but in the Swiss Alps, where he moved “with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter under his arm,” writes Valentina Di Liscia at Hyperallergic. He “largely attributes” the novel “to Smith’s bluesy intonations.” As he told Studs Terkel in 1961, “Bessie had the beat. In that icy wilderness, as far removed from Harlem as anything you can imagine, with Bessie and me… I began…”

Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, a curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, has gone much further, digging through all the deep cuts in Baldwin’s collection while living in Provence and trying to recapture the atmosphere of Baldwin’s home, “those boisterous and tender convos when guests like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder… Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison” stopped by for dinner and debates. He first encountered the records in a photograph posted by La Maison Baldwin, the organization that preserves his house in Saint-Paul de Vence in the South of France. “I latched onto his records, their sonic ambience,” Onyewuenyi says.

“In addition to reading the books and essays” that Baldwin wrote while living in France, Onyewuenyi discovered “listening to the records was something that could transport me there.” He has compiled Baldwin’s collection into a 478-track, 32-hour Spotify playlist, Chez Baldwin. Only two records couldn’t be found on the streaming platform, Lou Rawls’ When the Night Comes (1983) and Ray Charles’s Sweet & Sour Tears (1964). Listen to the full playlist above, preferably while reading Baldwin, or composing your own works of prose, verse, drama, and email.

“The playlist is a balm of sorts when one is writing,” Onyewuenyi told Hyperallergic. “Baldwin referred to his office as a ‘torture chamber.’ We’ve all encountered those moments of writers’ block, where the process of putting pen to paper feels like bloodletting. That process of torture for Baldwin was negotiated with these records.”

via Hyperallergic

Related Content: 

Why James Baldwin’s Writing Stays Powerful: An Artfully Animated Introduction to the Author of Notes of a Native Son

The Best Music to Write By: Give Us Your Recommendations

The Best Music to Write By, Part II: Your Favorites Brought Together in a Special Playlist

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

Jeff Koons and Salman Rushdie Teach New Courses on Art, Creativity & Storytelling for MasterClass

If MasterClass comes calling, you know you’ve made it. In the five years since its launch, the online learning platform has brought on such instructors as Martin Scorsese, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, Annie Leibovitz, and Malcolm Gladwell, all of whom bring not just knowledge and experience of a craft, but the glow of high-profile success as well. Though MasterClass’ lineup has expanded to include more writers, filmmakers, and performers (as well as chefs, designers, CEOs, and poker players) it’s long been light on visual artists. But it may signal a change that the site has just released a course taught by Jeff Koons, promoted by its trailer as the most original and controversial American artist — as well as the most expensive one.

Just last year, Koons’ sculpture Rabbit set a new record auction price for a work by a living artist: $91.1 million, which breaks the previous record of $58.4 million that happened to be held by another Koons, Balloon Dog (Orange). This came as the culmination of a career that began, writes critic Blake Gopnik, with “taking store-bought vacuum cleaners and presenting them as sculpture,” then creating  “full-size replicas of rubber dinghies and aqualungs, cast in Old Master-ish bronze” and later “giant hard-core photos of himself having sex with his wife, the famous Italian porn star known as La Cicciolina (“Chubby Chick”)” and “simulacra of shiny blow-up toys and Christmas ornaments and gems, enlarged to monumental size in gleaming stainless steel.”

With such work, Gopnik argues, Koons has “rewritten all the rules of art — all the traditions and conventions that usually give art order and meaning”; his elevation of kitsch allows us to “see our world, and art, as profoundly other than it usually is.” Not that the artist himself puts it in quite those words. In his well-known manner — “like a space alien who has spent long years studying how to be the perfect, harmless Earthling, but can’t quite get it right” — Koons uses his MasterClass to tell the story of his artistic development, which began in the showroom of his father’s Pennsylvania furniture store and continued into a reverence for the avant-garde in general and Salvador Dalí in particular. From his life he draws lessons on turning everyday objects into art, using size and scale, and living life with “the confidence in yourself to follow your interests.”

Also new for this holiday season is a MasterClass on storytelling and writing taught by no less renowned a storyteller and writer than Salman Rushdie. The author of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses thus joins on the site a group of novelists as varied as Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, and Judy Blume, but he brings with him a much different body of work and life story. “I’ve been writing, now, for over 50 years,” he says in the course‘s trailer just above. “There’s all this stuff about three-act structure, exactly how you must allow a story to unfold. My view is it’s all nonsense.” Indeed, by this point in his celebrated career, Rushdie has narrowed the rules of his craft down to just one: Be interesting.

Easier said than done, of course, which is why Rushdie’s MasterClass comes structured in nineteen practically themed lessons. In these he deals with such lessons as building a story’s structure, opening with powerful lines, drawing from old storytelling traditions, and rewriting — which, he argues, all writing is. To make these fiction-writing concepts concrete, Rushdie offers exercises for you, the student, to work through, and he also takes a critical look back at the failed work he produced in his early twenties. But though his techniques and process have greatly improved since then, his resolve to create, and to do so using his own distinctive sets of interests and experiences, has wavered no less than Koons’. At the moment you can learn from both of them (and MasterClass’ 100+ other instructors) if you take advantage of MasterClass’ holiday 2-for-1 deal. For $180, you can buy an annual subscription for yourself, and give one to a friend/family member for free. Sign up here.

Note: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

Related Content:

A Short Documentary on Artist Jeff Koons, Narrated by Scarlett Johansson

Christopher Hitchens Remembers Ayatollah Khomeini’s Fatwa Against His Friend Salman Rushdie, 2010

Hear Salman Rushdie Read Donald Barthelme’s “Concerning the Bodyguard”

Salman Rushdie: Machiavelli’s Bad Rap

Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling in His New Online Course

Margaret Atwood Offers a New Online Class on Creative Writing

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.

The Polygraph: The Proto-Photocopy Machine Machine Invented in 1803 That Changed Thomas Jefferson’s Life

Today we associate the word polygraph mainly with the devices we call “lie detectors.” The unhidden Greek terms from which it originates simply mean “multiple writing,” which seems apt enough in light of all those movie interrogation scenes with their juddering parallel needles. But the first “polygraph machine” meriting the name long predates such cinematic clichés, and indeed cinema itself. Patented in 1803 by an Englishman named John Isaac Hawkins, it consisted essentially of twin pens, mounted side-by-side and connected by means of levers and springs so as always to move in unison. The result, in theory, was that it would make an identical copy of a letter even as the writer wrote it.

“The polygraph was pushing technology to the absolute limit,” but for years “it was nearly impossible to make it work correctly.” So says Charles Morrill, a guide at Thomas Jefferson’s estate Monticello, in the video above.




Despite the prolonged technical difficulties, the third president of the United States of America fell in love with the polygraph, “a device to duplicate letters, just the thing if you’re carrying on multiple conversations with different people all over the world. You want to keep a copy of the letter to catch yourself up, to see what you had written to cause a response” — and, of special concern to a national politician, to check on the exact degree to which the press was misquoting you.

Image by the Smithsonian, via Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson wrote nearly 20,000 letters, one of them a complaint to John Adams about suffering “under the persecution of Letters,” a condition ensuring that “from sun-rise to one or two o’clock, I am drudging at the writing table.” That the polygraph reduced this drudgery somewhat made it, in Jefferson’s words, “the finest invention of the present age.” Like technological early adopters today, Jefferson acquired each new model as it came out, the device having been continually retooled by American rights-holder Charles Willson Peale. By 1809 Peale had improved the polygraph to the point that Jefferson could write that it “has spoiled me for the old copying press the copies of which are hardly ever legible … I could not, now therefore, live without the Polygraph.” Imagine how he would’ve felt had Monticello been wired for e-mail.

Related Content:

Discover Thomas Jefferson’s Cut-and-Paste Version of the Bible, and Read the Curious Edition Online

Thomas Jefferson’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandson Poses for a Presidential Portrait

Thomas Jefferson’s Handwritten Vanilla Ice Cream Recipe

Discover Friedrich Nietzsche’s Curious Typewriter, the “Malling-Hansen Writing Ball” (Circa 1881)

The First Music Streaming Service Was Invented in 1881: Discover the Théâtrophone

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.

Ray Bradbury Wrote the First Draft of Fahrenheit 451 on Coin-Operated Typewriters, for a Total of $9.80

Image by Alan Light, via Wikimedia Commons

It sounds like a third grade math problem: “If Ray Bradbury wrote the first draft of Fahrenheit 451 (1953) on a coin-operated typewriter that charged 10 cents for every 30 minutes, and he spent a total of $9.80, how many hours did it take Ray to write his story?” (If you’re doing the math, that’s great, but you might be in the wrong class.)

Bradbury’s composition of Fahrenheit 451 demonstrates two of the prolific writer’s most insistent demands among his many practical nuggets of writing advice: 1. Always write, all the time; a short story a week, as he told a writer’s symposium in 2001. And, as he told the same group, 2. “Live in the library! Live in the library, for Christ’s sake. Don’t live on your goddamn computer and the internet and all that crap.”




Granted, the library—and the school, and the office, and all the rest of it—now lives in the “goddamn computer” for many of us. But Bradbury’s elaboration of why he ended up in the library in the early 1950s, specifically the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library, will be relatable to any working parent. As he wrote in 1982, he found himself “twice driven; by children to leave at home, and by a typewriter timing device…. Time was indeed money.”

This was a different time, so you’ll need to adjust the currency for 21st century inflation. Also, Bradbury had the 50s’ writer-husband’s prerogative to beg off the childcare. As he explains:

In all the years from 1941 to that time, I had done most of my typing in the family garages… behind the tract house where my wife, Marguerite, and I raised our family. I was driven out of the garage by my loving children, who insisted on coming around to the window and singing and tapping on the panes. 

Devoted father Bradbury “had to choose between finishing a story or playing with the girls. I chose to play, of course, which endangered the family income. An office had to be found. We couldn’t afford one.” Bradbury did not write all of Fahrenheit 451 in the library basement. “He ended up with the novella version,” notes UCLA Magazine, “originally called The Fireman and did not come back to it until a publishing company asked if he could add more to the story.”

The speed at which Bradbury wrote, both to save money and to get home to his children, did not cause him to get careless. He looked back on the book 22 years later with pride. “I have changed not one thought or word,” wrote Bradbury in his introduction. He didn’t notice until later that he had named main characters after a paper company, Montag, and pencil company, Faber.

Bradbury told the magazine in 2002, “It was a passionate and exciting time for me. Imagine what it was like to be writing a book about book burning and doing it in a library where the passions of all those authors, living and dead, surrounded me.” When it came to finding the book’s title, however, supposedly the temperature at which books burn, not only did the library fail him, but so too did the university’s chemistry department. To learn the answer, and finish the book, Bradbury finally had to call the fire department.

Related Content: 

Ray Bradbury Reveals the True Meaning of Fahrenheit 451: It’s Not About Censorship, But People “Being Turned Into Morons by TV”

An Animated Ray Bradbury Explains Why It Takes Being a “Dedicated Madman” to Be a Writer

Ray Bradbury Gives 12 Pieces of Writing Advice to Young Authors (2001)

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

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.

More in this category... »
Quantcast
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.