Writing is a complicated and often mysterious process. Although we may think of it as little more than arranging letters and words on a page, a few moments’ reflection reveals that it is much more than that. On the one hand, writing is an art–we don’t say Shakespeare’s language is “correct” but rather that it is beautiful. On the other hand, writing is a science-we want the instructions that came with our Blu-Ray player to be accurate, precise, and easy to understand.
Then there is the matter of what makes writing “good writing.” Although we might say that both an instruction manual and a play are “well written,” we appreciate them for different reasons. A play written in the clear, unambiguous language of an instruction manual would not be a hit on Broadway. In other words, writing must be judged according to its context–what is its purpose and audience? Finally, even readers with a great deal in common may not agree about the quality of any particular text, just as people’s opinions differ about which bands are really great. We really don’t know why people have such preferences and can’t make accurate predictions about what they will like or dislike. Simply put, writing isn’t simple.
If writing is so complicated and mysterious, can it be taught? Since Aristotle, great teachers have taught complex processes to their students by breaking them into smaller, more understandable processes. Aristotle thought that effective communication skills, like good math skills, can be learned and taught. Math teachers don’t teach trigonometry to their elementary students; instead, they begin with addition and subtraction. Everything else builds on those simple processes. No one is born a mathematician. Similarly, while luck certainly plays a role in any successful writer’s career, successful writers (or speakers) are not just born into the role–and everyone else is not just fated to flunk English. You can learn to write with substance and style. It takes work, but it is within your power. You have already taken the first step.
Most of what we know about writing is also true of speaking. Aristotle wrote a famous treatise on the subject of effective communication called “The Rhetoric.” This book is meant for speakers; however, teachers and students also have long used it to polish their writing. “The Rhetoric” is still widely read and applied today by people desiring to learn how to speak and write more convincingly to an audience. Your first-year composition course may even have the word “rhetoric” or “rhetorical” as part of its title. Aristotle taught us that rhetoric isn’t just about winning arguments. Instead, rhetoric is the ability to determine all the available means of persuasion at our disposal. Ultimately, it’s up to you to guess the best course of action, but rhetoric helps you make this a more educated guess.
Compared to speaking, writing is a much more recent phenomenon, and for many centuries it was assumed that the best way to learn to write well was either to pray, entreat the muses, or carefully imitate writings that were already considered great. Eventually, as more people wanted to write, teachers created rules to help them write “correctly.” Unfortunately, this heavy emphasis on correctness and writing with a narrow set of rules did little to improve student writing. Simply knowing how to write grammatically correct prose is important, but it is not enough, by itself, to make writing effective or persuasive. Indeed, too much attention to correctness can result in unintentionally rigid or even comical writing. Legend has it that Winston Churchill grew so irritated at pedants telling him not to end his sentences with prepositions that he said to one of them, “Madame, that is a rule up with which I shall not put.”
Since the 1970s, writing instructors have been teaching writing not as the following of fixed rules but rather as a dynamic process: a series of steps that writers follow to produce texts. At first in the ’70s, these steps were taught as a somewhat rigid sequence. Now, however, writing teachers emphasize “recursively”–moving forward through some steps and then circling back to redo previous steps–as the more natural way that many successful writers work. In other words, while we still think of writing as a process taking place in a series of steps, we now understand that good writers tend to switch frequently among the different steps as they work. An insight gained while editing one chapter might convince the writer that an additional chapter is needed; as a result, she might start another drafting phase–or even decide to divide one chapter into two or three, and begin reorganizing and developing new drafts. Likewise, failure to satisfy a publisher–whether it is your boss looking at a pamphlet you’ve written or a book publisher deciding whether to print and sell your book–might lead the author all the way back to the idea-development or organizing stages. In short, while it is very useful to think of writing as a process, the process is not a clear, always-the-same series of steps. Instead, it is a sometimes messy, forward-and-backward process in which you strive for simplicity but try to appeal to your audience, create but also organize, enjoy yourself if possible but also follow some rules, and eventually create a product that works.
If this sounds difficult, it’s not–at least, not if you learn a few lessons this book can teach you–and you practice, practice, practice. The more real writing you do, the more of a real writer you will become. If you are reading this book, then your first goal likely is to do well in a college (or upper-level high school) “composition” or “rhetoric” class. In short, you want to learn how to write a good academic paper. There are a large number of tips and methods this book can show you. They will work best if, like the writing process itself, you go back and forth between reading this book and doing some actual writing: try some of these lessons out by writing; then return to new lessons or review some of the lessons you’ve already read to discover what you next can do with what you’ve written–or with a new writing. Your next goal after learning to write a good general academic paper (or several types, perhaps–some of the most common being a summary, an analysis, an argument or “thesis,” an evaluation, and a research paper) is to write in your specific discipline or major. Each discipline or major has its own writing style, organizational method, and purpose or goal. Your major or discipline teachers can help you quite a bit as you learn to apply your academic writing skills to their discipline. And eventually, your goal is to write for your work–for your future profession.