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.

The Japanese Traditions of Sashiko & Boro: The Centuries-Old Craft That Mends Clothes in a Sustainable, Artistic Way

The state of our troubled planet dictates that disposables are out.

Reusables are in.

And anyone who’s taught themselves how to mend and maintain their stuff has earned the right to flaunt it!

A quick scroll through Instagram reveals loads of visible mending projects that highlight rather than disguise the area of repair, drawing the eye to contrasting threads reinforcing a threadbare knee, frayed cuff, ragged rip, or moth hole.




While some practitioners take a freeform approach, the most pleasing stitches tend to be in the sashiko tradition.

Sashiko—frequently translated as “little stabs”—was born in Edo period Japan (1603-1868), when rural women attempted to prolong the life of their families’ tattered garments and bedding, giving rise to a humble form of white-on-indigo patchwork known as boro.

While sashiko can at times be seen serving a purely decorative function, such as on a very well preserved Meiji period jacket in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, its primary use was always one born of necessity.

As Austin Bryant notes on Heddels, a news and education website dedicated to sustainable goods:

Over generations of families, these textiles would acquire more and more patches, almost to the point of the common observer being unable to recognize where the original fabric began. As they recovered after the end of World War II, to some the boro textiles reminded the Japanese of their impoverished rural past.

Keiko & Atsushi Futatsuya are a mother-and-son artisan team whose posts on sashiko and boro go beyond straightforward how-tos to delve into cultural history.

According to them, the goal of sashiko should not be aesthetically pleasing rows of uniform stitches, but rather “enjoying the dialogue” with the fabric.

As Atsushi explains in an Instagram post, viewers seeing their work with a Western perspective may respond differently than those who have grown up with the elements in play:

This is a photo of a “Boro-to-be Jacket” in the process. This is the back (hiding) side of the jacket and many non-Japanese would say this should be the front and should show to the public. The Japanese would understand why it is a backside naturally, but I would need to “explain” to the non-Japanese who do not share the same value (why we) purposefully make this side as “hiding” side. That’s why, I keep sharing in words. One picture may be worth a thousand words, but the thousand words may be completely different based on their (free) interpretation. In sharing the culture, some “actual words” would be also very important.

To try your hand at sashiko, you will need a long needle, such as a cotton darning needle, white embroidery thread, and—for boro—an aging textile in need of some attention.

Should you find yourself sliding into a full blown obsession, you may want to order sashiko needles and thread, and a palm thimble to help you push through several weights of fabric simultaneously.

You’ll find many patterns, tips, and tutorials on the Futatsuya family’s Sashi.co YouTube channel.

via Vox

Related Content: 

20 Mesmerizing Videos of Japanese Artisans Creating Traditional Handicrafts

See How Traditional Japanese Carpenters Can Build a Whole Building Using No Nails or Screws

Explore the Beautiful Pages of the 1902 Japanese Design Magazine Shin-Bijutsukai: European Modernism Meets Traditional Japanese Design

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

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

In his legendary MIT lecture “How to Speak,” professor Patrick Winston opens with a story about seeing Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton at a Celebrity Ski Weekend. It was immediately clear to him that he was the better skier, but not because he had more innate athletic ability than an Olympic gold medalist, but because he had more knowledge and practice. These, Winston says, are the key qualities we need to become better communicators. Inherent talent helps, he says, but “notice that the T is very small. What really matters is what you know.”

What some of us know about communicating effectively could fill a greeting card, but it’s hardly our fault, says Winston. Schools that send students into the world without the ability to speak and write well are as criminally liable as officers who send soldiers into battle without weapons. For over 40 years, Winston has been trying to remedy the situation with his “How to Speak” lecture, offered every January,” notes MIT, “usually to overflow crowds.” It became “so popular, in fact, that the annual talk had to be limited to the first 300 participants.”




Now it’s available online, in both video and transcript form, in the talk’s final form from 2018 (it evolved quite a bit over the decades). Professor Winston passed away last year, but his wisdom lives on. Rather than present us with a dry theory of rhetoric and composition, the onetime director of the MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory offers “a few heuristic rules” distilled from “praxis in communication approaches that incorporate Neurolinguistics, Linguistics, Paleoanthropology, Cognitive Science and Computer Science,” writes Minnie Kasyoka.

Winston’s research on “creating machines with the same thought patterns as humans” led him to the following conclusions about effective speaking and writing—observations that have borne themselves out in the careers of thousands of public speakers, job seekers, and professionals of every kind. Many of his heuristics contradict decades of folk opinion on public speaking, as well as contemporary technological trends. For one thing, he says, avoid opening with a joke.

People still settling into their seats will be too distracted to pay attention and you won’t get the laugh. Instead, open with an analogy or a story, like his Mary Lou Retton gambit, then tell people, directly, what they’re going to get from your talk. Then tell them again. And again. “It’s a good idea to cycle on the subject,” says Winston. “Go around it. Go round it again. Go round it again.” It’s not that we should assume our audience is unintelligent, but rather that “at any given moment, about 20%” of them “will be fogged out no matter what the lecture is.” It’s just how the human mind works, shifting attention all over the place.

Like all great works on effective communication, Winston’s talk illustrates his methods as it explains them: he fills the lecture with memorable images—like “building a fence” around his idea to distinguish it from other similar ideas. He continues to use interesting little stories to make things concrete, like an anecdote about a Serbian nun who was offended by him putting his hands behind his back. This is offered in service of his lengthy defense of the blackboard, contra PowerPoint, as the ultimate visual aid. “Now, you have something to do with your hands.”

The talk is relaxed, humorous, and informative, and not a step-by-step method. As Winston says, you can dip in and out of the copious advice he presents, taking rules you think might work best for your particular style of communication and your communication needs. We should all, he emphasizes, hone our own way of speaking and writing. But, “while he never explicitly stresses the ultimate need for rhetorical devices,” Kasyoka points out, he demonstrates that they are imperative.

Professor Winston masterfully uses persuasive techniques to hammer on this point. For example, the use of anadiplosis, that is the repetition of a clause in a sentence for emphasis, is very manifest in this snippet from his talk: “Your careers will be determined largely by how well you speak, by how well you write, and by the quality of your ideas… in that order.” 

How do we learn to use rhetoric as effectively as Winston? We listen to and read effective rhetoric like his. Do so in the video lecture at the top and on the “How to Speak” course page, which has transcripts for download and additional resources for further study.

Related Content:

Literary Theorist Stanley Fish Offers a Free Course on Rhetoric, or the Power of Arguments

Novelist Cormac McCarthy Gives Writing Advice to Scientists … and Anyone Who Wants to Write Clear, Compelling Prose

The Shape of A Story: Writing Tips from Kurt Vonnegut

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

When Andy Warhol & Edie Sedgwick, the First Couple of Pop Art, Made an Odd Appearance on the Merv Griffin Show (1965)

Andy Warhol adored television and, in a way, considered it his most formative influence. While his paintings, silkscreens, and films, and the Velvet Underground, might be all the legacy he might need, Warhol, more than anything, longed to be a TV personality. He made his first concerted effort in 1979, launching a New York public access interview show. In one of the show’s 42 episodes, Warhol sits in almost total silence while his friend Richard Berlin interviews Frank Zappa.

But Warhol hated Zappa, and hated him even more after the interview. When he talked to and about subjects he liked, he could be particularly chatty, in his deadpan way: see, for example, his interview with Alfred Hitchcock, whom he greatly admired, or early eighties Saturday Night Live spots for NBC and later eighties MTV variety show. In Warhol’s much earlier 1965 appearance on the Merv Griffin show, above, long before he made TV presenter a profession, he appears with the stunningly charismatic Edie Sedgwick, his beloved muse and original superstar, and he chooses to say almost nothing at all.




Sedgwick does the talking, informing the host that Andy, unused to making “really public appearances,” would only whisper his answers in her ear, and she would whisper them to Griffin. It’s an act, of course, but the performance of a persona that hid an even more shy, retiring character. In a textbook irony, the artist who ushered in the age of self-promoting influencers and invented the superstar could be about as engaging as a houseplant. Sedgwick, on the contrary, is characteristically enthralling.

Known as “girl of the year” in 1965, the California socialite had defected from her privileged surroundings to live in Warhol’s world. The two “fell in love platonically but intensely,” Karen Lynch writes at Blast magazine, “and their mutually beneficial relationship became the talk of the town.” Griffin introduces them as “the two leading exponents of the new scene. No party in New York is considered a success unless they are there.” This was no hyperbole, though the audience doesn’t know who they are… yet.

Sedgwick explains how they met at the Factory, where she arrived the previous year with her trust fund to introduce herself and join the scene. She more or less takes over the interview, selling Warhol’s superstar myth with eloquence and wit, and she seems so much more like today’s art stars than Warhol (who eventually gives a few one-word answers), and has arguably had as much or more influence on Gen Y and Z creators. Sedgwick was “more than aspirational stereotypes allow,” writes Lynch, and more than the fact of her untimely death at 28.

One online artistic statement of this fact, Edie’s Farm, a site for “counterfactual current events,” supposes that Sedgwick had survived her drug addiction and anorexia and continued making art (and giving makeup tutorials) into the 21st century, imagining her as her young self, not the woman in her 70s she would be. “Maybe no one’s ever had a year quite as amazing as my 1965,” the fictional Sedgwick says. “I loved Andy and his Factory. But it wasn’t a sustainable life for me”—a tragic irony impossible to ignore in watching her otherwise impossibly charming performance above.

Related Content: 

Andy Warhol Hosts Frank Zappa on His Cable TV Show, and Later Recalls, “I Hated Him More Than Ever” After the Show

Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes: Discover the Postmodern MTV Variety Show That Made Warhol a Star in the Television Age (1985-87)

Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes: Discover the Postmodern MTV Variety Show That Made Warhol a Star in the Television Age (1985-87)

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

Jazz-Zither-Piano-Man Laraaji Discusses His Decades of Meditative Improvisations: A Nakedly Examined Music Podcast Conversation (#134)

Jazz multi-instrumentalist Edward Larry Gordon Jr. became Laraaji around the same time he started releasing meditative zither music in the late 70s and was then discovered by Brian Eno, who produced “The Dance No. 1” from  Ambient 3: Day of Radiance (1980). Laraaji has since had around 40 releases of largely improvised music, and this interview (below) explores his approach toward improvisation on numerous instruments, playing “functional” music intended to aid meditation and reflection, and the evolution of Laraaji’s unique musical vision.

Each episode of Nakedly Examined Music features full-length presentations of four recordings discussed by the artist with your host Mark Linsenmayer. Here we present “Hold on to the Vision” and “Shenandoah” from Laraaji’s latest release, Sun Piano (2020), the single edit of “Introspection” from Bring On the Sun (2017), and “All of a Sudden,” a 1986 vocal tune released on Vision Songs, Vol. 1 (2017). Get more information at laraaji.blogspot.com.

Want more? Hear all of “The Dance No. 1.” Watch the live TV version of “All of a Sudden” we discuss, as well another episode of Celestrana featuring Dr. Love the puppet. Watch a similar, recent isolation stream also featuring Dr. Love and much more. Listen to the full glory of “Introspection” and the trip that is “Sun Gong.” Check out some live gong playing. Here’s a remix of “Introspection” by Dntel.

Find the archive of songwriter interviews at nakedlyexaminedmusic.com or get the ad-free feed at patreon.com/nakedlyexaminedmusic. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Nakedly Examined Music is a podcast. Mark Linsenmayer also hosts The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast and Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast, and releases music under the name Mark Lint.

Daisugi, the 600-Year-Old Japanese Technique of Growing Trees Out of Other Trees, Creating Perfectly Straight Lumber

Image by Wrath of Gnon

We’ve all admired the elegance of Japan’s traditional styles of architecture. Their development required the kind of dedicated craftsmanship that takes generations to cultivate — but also, more practically speaking, no small amount of wood. By the 15th century, Japan already faced a shortage of seedlings, as well as land on which to properly cultivate the trees in the first place. Necessity being the mother of invention, this led to the creation of an ingenious solution: daisugi, the growing of additional trees, in effect, out of existing trees — creating, in other words, a kind of giant bonsai.

“Written as 台杉 and literally meaning platform cedar, the technique resulted in a tree that resembled an open palm with multiple trees growing out if it, perfectly vertical,” writes Spoon and Tamago’s Johnny Waldman. “Done right, the technique can prevent deforestation and result in perfectly round and straight timber known as taruki, which are used in the roofs of Japanese teahouses.”




These teahouses are still prominent in Kyoto, a city still known for its traditional cultural heritage, and not coincidentally where daisugi first developed. “It’s said that it was Kyoto’s preeminent tea master, Sen-no-rikyu, who demanded perfection in the Kitayama cedar during the 16th century,” writes My Modern Met’s Jessica Stewart.

At the time “a form of very straight and stylized sukiya-zukuri architecture was high fashion, but there simply weren’t nearly enough raw materials to build these homes for every noble or samurai who wanted one,” says a thread by Twitter account Wrath of Gnon, which includes these and other photos of daisugi in action. “Hence this clever solution of using bonsai techniques on trees.” Aesthetics aside — as far aside as they ever get in Japan, at any rate — “the lumber produced in this method is 140% as flexible as standard cedar and 200% as dense/strong,” making it “absolutely perfect for rafters and roof timber.” And not only is daisugi‘s product straight, slender, and typhoon-resistant, it’s marveled at around the world 600 years later. Of how many forestry techniques can we say the same?

via Spoon and Tamago

Related Content:

The Art & Philosophy of Bonsai

This 392-Year-Old Bonsai Tree Survived the Hiroshima Atomic Blast & Still Flourishes Today: The Power of Resilience

The Philosophical Appreciation of Rocks in China & Japan: A Short Introduction to an Ancient Tradition

The Secret Language of Trees: A Charming Animated Lesson Explains How Trees Share Information with Each Other

The Social Lives of Trees: Science Reveals How Trees Mysteriously Talk to Each Other, Work Together & Form Nurturing Families

A Digital Animation Compares the Size of Trees: From the 3-Inch Bonsai, to the 300-Foot Sequoia

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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