Monday, March 15, 2010 Expert Advice
By Brian Timmerman, Senior Writing Specialist
The strength of any piece of writing (fiction or non) is dependent on the strength of its narrative. Plain and simple. I might even have that put on my tombstone: “Here lies Brian Timmerman: The strength of any piece of writing (fiction or non) is dependent on the strength of its narrative.” Seriously.
And keep in mind, this is not just me telling you this. It’s smart people too. As Mark Turner (2001) concluded in The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language, story (the same lowly technique used by, yes, schlock writers like Danielle Steele) is still the primary mode in which our brains organize information. To use any other method to organize a paper, any paper, he argued, would be ridiculous, counterintuitive to the way we process information (Turner, 2001).
So, a DDP should read like a story?
Even a KAM?
What about a CRS-7?
You made that up didn’t you?
Yes, as simple as it sounds, everything you write needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs to, as our own Iris Yob (2007) pointed out, tell a story, and “you...need to follow that story line from beginning to end” (p. 24). It needs to introduce characters (typically a specific demographic that you think is in trouble), and have a plot (a way to get your reader to understand some sort of solution for the characters). And for God’s sake, it needs to have some sort of moral (i.e. “Revoke NCLB,” “We should be less reliant on corn-based products”).
And remember: The strength of any piece of writing (fiction or non) is dependent on the strength of its narrative.
By Jeff Zuckerman, Writing Center Director
Students occasionally ask the writing staff about our favorite books on writing. I hesitate to recommend books to students: To me reading about writing can be another excuse not to write.
But because you asked, here goes:
For grammar help the leading contenders are (no surprise here) The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss—but do get the American version. A couple others are Comma Sense Richard Lederer and John Stone, and, as far as I’m concerned, the best grammar book around because it’s the funniest: Woe Is I by Patricia O’Conner. Dr. Laurel Walsh on our staff recommends Grammar Sucks by Joann Kimes, which Laurel says is adult-themed and offensive. Now there’s a grammar book for a snowy night.
If you’re looking for a couple of great books on writing style, Senior Dissertation Editor Martha King recommends William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well, while Editor Jen Johnson has enjoyed Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. The author is one of my heroes, Joseph Williams, at the University of Chicago, and I’ve used that book when I’ve taught a graduate editing course.
Senior Writing Specialist Amber Cook offered this endorsement of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: “The focus is on the process of writing (revisions, motivation, that kind of thing), and it's super readable.” Amber added the caveat that Ms. Lamott swears a lot.
Two other books that popped to mind were The Craft of Research, recommended by Dissertation Editor Tim McIndoo, an excellent book at one time required of all MSEd students at Walden, and The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language by Mark Turner, and recommended by Senior Writing Specialist Brian Timmerman. I skimmed the first chapter online, “Bedtime With Shahrazad,” and immediately saw its entertaining, readable, and thoughtful way of discussing storytelling as a powerful means of expository writing.
As for me? My new favorite book is Death Sentences: The Decay of Public Language by an Australian writer, Don Watson. Thirty doctoral students learned about Mr. Watson’s rant during my most recent “Politics and the Junk English” presentation at the Dallas residency. (And say? If you found the copy that I left on a Delta flight, I’d be grateful if you mailed it to me.)
My next read will be Past Dark. Jen told me author Bonnie Friedman addresses topics that affect writers of all stripes, including writer’s block and (ah-hem) procrastination.
I mean it. I’ll read it when I get around to it. I really will.