Today’s topic is powerful writing. How do we get there? Here’s one piece of advice I’ve heard many times: “Strive for precision, and powerful writing will happen.” Who could disagree?
Take a look at this sentence: The ambulance rushed to the scene of the accident.
Ambulances don’t rush! It would be more accurate to write, “The ambulance was quickly driven to the scene of the accident.” But the revised sentence doesn’t have the energy and power of the earlier version.
So – what should you go for? Power – or accuracy?
Powerful writing should always be the goal – but that common-sense principle can get overlooked in writing courses. (I’m afraid that was sometimes true of the classes I taught myself.)
Students are routinely taught to soften their opinions – for good reason. How can fourteen-year-olds formulate a workable set of guidelines for dealing with – say – the opioid crisis in the US? Every time a kid states an opinion, a teacher is going to jump on their case: “Johnny, that’s sometimes true.” “Susan, it’s rather important.” “Billy, it’s fairly common.” [My friend Darrell Turner makes an important point that I wish I’d included in the original version of this post: qualifiers like “some” and “many” are important when you’re talking about Christians, Muslims, or any group of people.]
The hedging habit results in student writing that’s filled with hedging: “I would argue….” “In my view….” “It appears that…”
Eventually those kids grow up, graduate, and get jobs where they spend hours churning out weak writing. The rest of us wring our hands and moan that kids today are unteachable and nobody knows how to write anymore.
I used to teach developmental students – kids who failed the placement exam and supposedly couldn’t write a sentence and were hopeless. After a lot of trial and error, I worked up a unit that was a lot of fun and produced some interesting papers. We studied the Lizzie Borden axe murders. (I’ve actually spent a night in Lizzie Borden’s bedroom. I am not making this up.)
Students did a lot of library research, so that they knew as much about the murders as I did. And then I showed them a short – and hokey – news report about alleged new discoveries about the murders. Their job was to respond to the news report.
You never saw such writing! Students had something to say. They wrote confidently. They created sentences that linked ideas and evidence.
All their lives they’d been talking with power and conviction. (“I’ll tell you the real reason Kathy broke up with Bob. It started a month ago when….”) But nobody had ever challenged them to write that way.
What does this have to do with you and me? A lot. The hedging habit is ingrained in all of us. (You’d be surprised at all the cautious qualifiers that creep into my own writing. I slash away at them – but the moment I turn my back, they creep in again. Sigh.)
We need to remind ourselves that writing begins – and ends – with having something to say. It’s about power and energy. Everything else is secondary.
I hope you’ll forgive me if I make a dance analogy. I take two adult ballet classes every week. It’s easy for a bunch of older women to sink into a hopeless I-can’t-dance funk. But then our teacher will remind us that we’re performers – and suddenly the room vibrates with energy. I sometimes steal a glance at the women standing in the line with me – and I see magic: glowing faces and arms and legs and bodies dancing.
If you – like me – tend to plod along in your writing, stop! Forget about grammar jargon and the teacher who used to scribble comments all over your papers. What do you have to say that’s exciting? Say it. Be clear and strong. When you see a hedge word, strike it out. Have fun! Empower yourself! Language is wonderful. You are wonderful. (If you didn’t believe that, why would anyone want to read what you have to say?)