On Writing

If I may borrow a phrase from Aristotle (On Rhetoric) and Cicero (On Oratory). I thought I’d include a little entry of my thoughts on the nature of writing. Based on eleven years of professional (business and academic) writing and ten years teaching the subject (I won’t count the, largely, crap writing I produced as an undergrad), I’ve come to a few conclusions, which are still evolving.

The first is that writing is one part science and one part art. There are certain codifiable things about writing which can be taught scientifically. For instance, the spelling, grammar, and punctuation that make a language work and facilitate communication between two people. Beyond those, though, there are other scientific elements. To look at one of these, I turn back to Aristotle. These are techniques that all writers use, whether consciously or not. Conscious use, of course, allows for greater control, which is why we have them classed and taught. The important ones are: logos (appeals to logic and reasoning), ethos (appeals to the positive character of the speaker/writer or negative character of the opposition), and pathos (appeals to emotion).

On the other hand, there are parts of writing that are an art form. Quite possibly the most important of these is style. There are scores of different writing styles, if not more, throughout the world. Learning them, even only one or two, is not something that can be done just by hearing about them. They must be practiced, revised, tested, and ultimately mastered. Which, I suppose, is a scientific process to some extent . . . depending on how systematically the writer approaches it.

The other thing that comes to mind is the importance of audience. Whether a person is writing fiction or non-fiction, for business or pleasure, audience is highly important. The classic examples I often use in my composition classes are:

1) The student talking about the party (s)he went to over the weekend. Talking to his/her parents, certain things come up and others are hidden, certain language is used while other language is avoided. Talking his/her friends, the important events and the language used changes. For instance, most kids (of any age) won’t “curse” around their parents, even when every third phrase they use among their friends is “f*** this” or “f*** that.”

2) Writing or talking about a subject, say media violence, to a group of college professors versus writing or talking about the same subject to a group of first graders. Obviously the language, terminology, delivery, and tone are very different. One shouldn’t expect the first graders to have a solid grasp of developmental psychology, for example, while the chances are good that the college profs in attendance probably do.

But, the same goes for fiction. To see this, we need only look at the evolution of the Harry Potter series (to return to this example). The tone of the books, their style, and the language Rowling uses evolves over the course of the series as her primary target audience ages and, therefore, changes. Obviously this series also appeals to adults, but the primary target is late elementary to middle and high school kids (ages 11-17 for the whole series). In book six, targeting a late middle school to mid-high school audience (10th grade and beyond), she can’t treat the reader/audience the same way she did the target audience of the first book (roughly 6th grade).

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Voice and Authority (part 2?)

A sort of add-on to my last Writing post:

The question of authorial voice, tone, genre, and the like also gets into one’s adaptability as a writer.  This is, really, one reason I quoted Darwin and Morehei Ueshiba (O-sensei) for writing earlier, even though they were discussing natural selection and aikido respectively.

Being able to adapt to different tones and perspectives is a very important skill in writing, I think.  It may also be required, depending on the writer’s situation.  I’m likely biased here, thought, since I’m a fan of adaptability over all, which is one reason I’m a big fan of liberal arts education (but that’s another story and post) and aikido (an apocryphal quote from an anonymous aikido sensei goes, “Your mistake was assuming there are rules”).

Acquiring experience writing in different genres and undertaking different types of writing helps improve one’s writing.  Likewise, reading both in quantity and variety is helpful for writers.  On one hand, both practices enhance vocabulary.  Reading also exposes the reader to different styles, voices, and methods.  Reading a variety of works also exposes the reader to myriad subjects, positions, and points of view, from which synthesis and new solutions and ideas are born.  I’ve also found in the last decade of teaching that those who read a lot tend to write better over all.

All of the above should ultimately bring us back to authorial voice, tone, genre, and perspective.  Why?  Because through practice and reading, the developing writer’s (and we are all developing writers, no matter how experienced) voice and style, even writing and pre-writing method(s) evolve.

(By evolve, I do not necessarily mean to imply steady improvement or advancement, but rather evolve in the biological sense of adapting to better suit one’s environment.  And this is a good thing.)

What Do You Mean “Find My Voice”? and What’s Up with First Person?

Students often ask how they can get their own opinion, position, and ideas in a formal paper without using 1st person.  This typically leads to discussing voice (authorial in this case), tone, genre, perspective, and type (of writing).

Obviously, the perspective is partially a matter of authorial voice and tone.  More of the latter, I think, in that while voice is important (if only to differentiate oneself from other writers), the formality or informality of the tone is often more important in various ways (I’ll mention this later).  Which brings things back to “person” or perspective and its role in the type of writing.

It should be pretty clear that there is a difference between fiction and non-fiction writing and that the use of perspective/person in the two types is different as well.  Purpose also comes into play, as does genre (by which I mean the kind of finished work—report, novel, scholarly essay, poem—rather than the marketing classification).

In non-fiction, first person is generally considered both informal and subjective.  Since most forms of non-fiction attempt a degree of professionalism, formality and objectivity are desired.  The exception here is first person plural, which can be used (sparingly) to connect with the audience.  For example, saying “Based on this data, we see that . . .” places the writer amongst the audience as one of them.  Second person, in non-fiction, is informally familiar or commanding.  It also tends to backfire.  For example, take the sentence, “The first thing you do in the morning is try not to step on the cat.”  Quick show of hands: how many do not do this?  And I’ve just sown the seeds of doubt in the minds of everyone whose hand is up, leading them to distrust everything else I say.  Third person, though, is formal and is seen as being objective.  Third person also projects confidence and certainty, even the presence or illusion of supporting data.

One other issue with first person in non-fiction is that writers, especially beginning writers, tend to slip into phrases like: “I believe,” “I feel,” “In my opinion,” etc. that sound uncertain, lack confidence, and generally serve to weaken the reader’s faith in the writer’s level of knowledge or expertise.

In fiction, we’re not concerned so much with authorial confidence, at least not in the same way.  Nor are we worried about authorial objectivity.  For fiction, perspective, I think, depends more on the author’s comfort level.  Some people write better fiction using first person, others writer better with third.  Both are effective and connect with readers, albeit in different ways.  That said, first person can make the reader more emotionally connected and sympathetic (this can be true in non-fiction as well, and is fine in certain types of writing such as memoirs).  First person tends to feel more like a conversation or being told a story in front of the fire.  Second person fiction is, to the best of my knowledge, rare outside of dialogue or Choose Your Own Adventure books.  It is very difficult to pull off in fiction.

Regardless.

I’ve found that one of the most difficult things to get early writers to understand is what we mean by “find your voice.”  They tend to confuse “finding their voice” with writing like they speak, which is not true and only rarely works.  Likewise, what works or is appropriate in one genre or rhetorical situation won’t necessarily work in another, e.g. one’s ability to effortlessly write good poetry has no bearing on the ability to write a good scholarly research paper or newspaper article and vice versa.  This realization too, I think, is an important part of finding the writer’s authorial voice, and the evolution of that unique voice.