Shake (HUM220/HUM303/HUM415)

The first sentence of your essay should be a model of clarity and purpose. First sentences set the tone for the rest of an essay, and most readers will respond to obvious errors of syntax or diction with a sigh of dismay. A poorly constructed first sentence is like a limp, sweaty handshake: it’s disappointing and slightly repulsive.

Effective writing depends upon the accurate use of language. In this respect a good writer tends to rely more heavily on a dictionary than a thesaurus. The English language, it has been asserted, includes more than a million words, of which the average American– that mythical entity– is reputed to know fewer than 40,000. Though the disparity between these two figures may seem startling, don’t let it distract you. Even a relatively modest vocabulary can meet the demands of academic work provided the student possesses a sure grasp of its connotative and denotative dimensions. Though meaning is always promiscuous, words don’t mean just anything. To behave as though they do, whether through indifference or sloth, ultimately corrodes the capacity for critical thought.

The sophistication of some arguments demands syntactical complexity. In my experience, however, teachers prefer to read sentences with relatively few turns unless the thought expressed requires a kind of dialectical procedure that forces the writing to pivot back on itself in order to fully elaborate a content which might otherwise remain undeveloped. On the other hand, to use a transition phrase that signals a contrast with the preceding statement, inexperienced yet self-assured writers often needlessly convolute their verbiage, which frequently fails to add any substance to their assertions even as it strives to imbue them with an ersatz profundity.

Like reading, writing is an ethical pursuit. Oddly enough, though we live in a social world saturated with text, few people read deeply because they spend much of their time gazing at screens cluttered with images and words. Compare the effort that is wanted to read honestly and attentively in this environment with the energy expended in attempting to understand the content of a thought by trying to write it. Both of these endeavors depend on our active good faith. Why read the novel when I can consult Sparknotes for the plot outline and character analysis? Why painstakingly write and revise the same paragraph when I can simply rehearse someone else’s ideas– when, in other words, I can have someone think for me?

Paradoxically, my writing need not rely passively on the writing of others if I “write” while I read. An inability to read what I’ve written is a clear enough indication that my writing is inadequate. Yet if I cannot internally “write” what I read, if I can’t appropriate the language of others and make it my own, then I lack the materials necessary to write at all.

Here are a few practical suggestions:

Write to figure out what you think then read and revise what you’ve written.

Never open with a quote.

Always avoid constructions such as “Webster’s dictionary defines”; “Since the beginning of time”; and “In this book, written by this author, in this year, it says”.

Eschew slang and bullshit language like “relatable” and “lifestyle.” Both of these latter terms, as innocuous as they might seem, are highly ideological.

Look up words you don’t know. Look up words you think you do know.

Embed a quote in a frame tailored to its grammatical needs.

Writers don’t “talk” about subjects; they write about them.

Cite everything. Even ideas that are not your own.





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