Mirror writing


A while ago, I read about Da Vinci's habit of mirror writing: writing right to left instead of left to right, with the letters backwards, such that the easiest way to read his personal notes was with a mirror. Being amused about this, I added the todo to my list:

Try mirror writing

That todo has been around awhile. I hadn't really prioritized it in my list, so it just sorta lingered.

Tonight, I decided to give it a try.

Except I forgot which way the mirror was supposed to go.

Da Vinci wrote right to left with reversed letters. The speculation was that, since he was left-handed and wrote left-handed (an unusual handedness of the time, as most south-paws were forced to use their right hands as children, because left-handedness was seen as a devil sign), he wrote his notes right to left to avoid smudging the ink.

The long way around to writing


I'm writing a book.

I'm actually in the process of writing five books, which is a shame, because the only consistent writing I seem to manage is the Scalzi stories, and with even those, I'm not completely consistent.

Three of the books i'm writing are technical books. They're completely in text format right now, which fails for a lot of reasons, and succeeds for others. I decided about a month ago to switch them to Markdown so that I can format them nicely, add headings with styling instead of just two underscores:

__Chapter 2: Getting Started

Okay, so, Markdown. I have pretty much avoided using most formatting, even for this site, so, great, time to learn Markdown (it's really not that difficult to learn, and, well, really, after about 2 minutes, I learned enough to get going). Oh, but wait, editing the Markdown and seeing how it looks, okay, I should automate that, right? Given that one of the technical books is on automating the crap out of front-end development, makes sense. Let's see, I can install grunt and set up a watch on my text files; or I could run the conversion by hand each time I saved the change; or I could add the Markdown module to a drupal site and hit save each time, which would display it; or I could, well, shit, pick some other process.

Somewhere on Twitter in the last week (okay, three days ago, from Mark Otto), I heard about MacDown, an OSX-based Markdown editor, open source no less. Awesome, I'll give it a try.

So, I download it, and open it. Rejected, since the box I'm on is 10.7 and the app requires 10.8.

So, I download it on the next box, and open it. Rejected, since the box I'm on won't run unsigned software.

So, I download the source, open up Cocoapods, update the box, and....

Realize that I'm doing all this stuff to avoid working on the book. Given how much I enjoy writing, how much I enjoy being in the flow of the words, how much I love the end product, I have no idea why I am avoiding working on the book. Okay, books.

Maybe it's the fear of producing something crappy, that I'll write and no one will read it. Would that really matter, though? I mean, I write because the words need to get out, not because I expect someone to read them. Public speaking is different: I present because I believe I have something to share. My writing is different.

Or maybe it's not and I'm lying to myself when I think it is.

Yeah, so, enough of the delay and procrastinating. It's early enough in the day yet, I can get a couple hours of writing in.

Narrative mode


One of the challenges I'm facing in writing the Scalzi-inspired stories, outside of the biggest challenge of keeping up with doing them daily, is maintaining a consistent narrative mode in each of the stories. I've been choosing a specific mode, not always the easiest for a given story, and using that style to challenge the way the story sounds.

What I remember from my high school literature classes is that there are four modes:

  1. First person - "I did this, then I did that."
  2. Second person - "You are eaten by a grue," choose-your-own-adventure stories
  3. Third person - "He did this, then she did that."
  4. Third person omniscient - "He looked at her and thought, 'Wow, what a hottie.'"

First person is the easiest, telling a tale from the viewer's point of view. Sometimes it works very well; the Dresden Files is a fantastic example of this.

Second person is the rarest, and usually found in only the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure and Zork-like tales.

Third person is where it becomes tricky with the omniscient parts.

The easiest way to write is to just blurt everything down, and leave nothing to the reader's imagination. This is also the least engaging for the reader with many authors' styles. When the omniscient part is thrown in and you know what every character is thinking, "He said this, he thought this, she thought this and then did that." there's less challenge for the reader, less to figure out, less to lure the reader into the story's world. I'm not particularly a fan of this style of writing, the third person fully-omniscient view, even as I use it sometimes when I'm lazy or haven't considered the narrative mode before I start writing.

Guy Gavriel Kay was fantastic with the third-person mode in his earlier books, The Fionavar Tapestry and The Lions of Al-Rassan. One of the beauties of his writing style was that he didn't spell everything out for the reader. In the Lions of Al-Rassan book, there's a scene where the heroine is walking through the town at night, and stops to look up at a lighted window. She watches it for a while, turns around and leaves. What is left to the reader's imagination, understanding is the internal conflict raging in the heroine as she stands there. We don't hear her thoughts, we don't know what she's thinking, we don't know what she decided, and that is what makes the scene so powerful. We read her actions, and need to fill in the details and understand the longing of this woman for the man in the window's room, without it being completely explained.

Kay's later books lose some of this style, which I find somewhat disappointing, but still enjoy the stories he tells enough to count him among my favorite authors.

So, I've been working with third person, where no thoughts are known, and third person limited-omniscient, where we know the thoughts of one character, but not all of the characters. I struggle to describe the characters' thoughts through their actions, but think my struggles will help me write clearer stories, the more I write. Sometimes the story needs to be first person, but I'm still finding enough of a challenge with a consistent third person viewpoint that I haven't tried the first person consistently yet.

Yeah, my thoughts on narrative mode, which I incorrectly termed "voice" when I first wrote this.

Time for another twenty minutes for the next Scalzi-inspired story...

Writing that essay


Driving home down 101 some time last week, I head the quote on the radio,

"Never put off writing an essay when a few words will do."

I think that statement is brilliant. I have so many notes to myself to write this or that great grandios post or essay, each guaranteed to take at least an hour or two to write. Notes to write works that are never written. Sometimes the moment is lost. Sometimes the task is overwhelmining.

Worse, sometimes a few words will do, and they don't get written.

I don't want a link blog. I like the ones I read, but don't want to be another "me, too" link site (well, not until I get the mirroring/caching module written, anyway) with stale 404 links. Ugh.

50 Ways to Get Yourself to Write

Book page

From: http://sfwa.org/writing/strategies.html

50 Strategies for Making Yourself Work

50 Strategies For Making Yourself Work

by Jerry Oltion

Copyright © 2001 by Jerry Oltion

Work avoidance is one of the major paradoxes of the writing profession. Generally, writers want to write (or want to have written), but all too often we find ourselves doing anything else but. We'll mow lawns, do the dishes, polish silverware--anything to keep from facing the blank page. At the same time we know we eventually have to get to work, so we come up with all sorts of strategies for forcing ourselves to the keyboard.

Sometimes a single strategy works beautifully for an entire writer's career (for instance: for over 40 years Fred Pohl wrote four pages a day no matter what, after which he was free to polish all the silverware he wanted), but in my own case I've discovered that any particular strategy only works for a couple of months before I learn to subvert it. As a result I have to keep inventing new ones. I've come up with quite a few (some of which I've stolen from other people), which I offer here for anyone who cares to try them. They're not in any particular order, so don't feel compelled to work your way down the list. Just try the ones that seem interesting, and remember that some of them won't work for you at all. Also, while some of them are mutually exclusive, most of them aren't, so you can mix & match all you like.

  • Set a quota of pages written per day. Make this realistic. The object isn't to prove anything to anybody, but to give yourself a reasonable goal to shoot for, one you'll actually be able to hit every day. If you go over it, that's cool, but all you have to do each day is hit the quota. The catch: Extra pages don't count toward the next day's quota.

  • Set a quota of hours worked per day/week. The same applies here as with page quotas. Make it realistic.

  • Write a story or chapter a week.

  • Promise your sweetie a steady supply of bedtime stories.

  • Pay yourself an hourly wage for time worked, and don't allow yourself leisure activities (movies, dinner out, etc.) unless you can pay for it with this writing money.

  • Have someone else pay you for writing. Use the coin of whatever realm you happen to be in: someone else cooks dinner when you finish a story, or a friend buys you a cookie, or your significant other does that kinky thing with the chocolate syrup.

  • Write to music. Put two or three CDs in the player and stay at the keyboard until they're done. Crank it up. Boogie a little. That's not just background noise; that's the sound of you working.

  • Lighten up on yourself. Give yourself the freedom to write when the urge strikes, and not write when you don't feel like it. That's one of the attractive things about the popular conception of the writing life, right? So enjoy it!

  • Hide your wristwatch in a drawer. (Meaning: reduce your dependence on the clock. Let your inner circadian rhythms tell you when it's time to write and when it's not.)

  • Set a timer for a short period of time (15 minutes or so) and stay at the keyboard--no matter what--until it dings. Then do it again. Only allow yourself to get up after the timer dings, and always set the timer again if you stay at the keyboard. This will hold you in place long enough for the first impulse toward work-avoidance to pass, and you'll often discover yourself eager to keep going when your time's up.

  • Schedule your day's activities--and schedule writing hours first. This doesn't necessarily mean putting them first in the day, but putting them on the schedule itself first, so they get priority. Schedule everything: bathing, eating, sleeping, telephone time (outgoing calls, at least), walking the dog--everything. Then, if it's not on the schedule, don't do it. Schedule it tomorrow.

  • Form a support/nagging network of other writers.

  • Graph your hours and/or pages against those of your support group. Post the graph where you can see it when you write. Also post it where you can see it when you don't write.

  • Challenge other writers to finish a story a week, losers to buy dinner (or dessert, or whatever) for winners.

  • Generate story ideas mechanically. Roll dice and pick characters and settings from a list. Tumble a desktop encyclopedia downstairs and write about whatever it opens to when it lands. Throw darts at your bookshelf and write a homage to whatever you hit. The goal here is to demystify "idea" as a stumbling block. Ideas are a dime a dozen once you learn how to find them. Become a supplier rather than a consumer.

  • If you've been sitting on an idea until you think you're good enough to do it justice, do it now! You may be run over by a bus tomorrow. Even if you aren't, by the time you think you're good enough, the passion for it will be gone. Write it now! Write all your good ideas as quickly as you can after you get them. Don't worry about getting more; they'll come faster and faster the more you write. Before you know it, you'll be begging people to take them, like a gardener with zucchini.

  • Outline. Plan everything you're going to write, scene by scene, all the way through to the end. Do your research while you're outlining, so by the time you start writing the actual story, you're already living in that world. With a detailed enough outline, the actual writing becomes a matter of choosing the right words to describe what you've already decided to tell. You can concentrate on style and let the plot take care of itself, because you've already done that part.

  • Don't outline. Don't plan ahead at all. Feel the lure of the blank page. Trust your instincts and dive into the story, and don't look back until you're done.

  • Keep written goals, and revise them daily. (Production goals, not sales goals, which you can't control.) Rewriting them every day helps you focus on each one and think about what you can do at the moment to further it along.

  • Unplug the TV for six months. This is a tough one, but it's the one with the biggest potential for shifting your priorities over to writing. You can gauge your need for it by your resistance to it. If you can't imagine giving up your favorite programs in favor of writing (or if you're more faithful to your viewing schedule than to your writing schedule), you should probably remove the TV from the house permanently; but no matter what you do, give it six months, minimum, before you even look at it. Turn the screen to the wall. Seriously. What's more important to you: your writing or TV? Find out.

  • Turn off the talk radio. Same as above; if you can't give it up, you're making it more important than your writing. Even if you think you need it for background noise, substitute some other noise that doesn't engage the language center of your brain. That's for writing, not for listening, when you're at the keyboard.

  • Remove all games from your computer. This is just as vital as reducing your dependence on TV or radio. The key to all these suggestions is to reduce the amount of time you spend on unproductive stuff. If you play games to relax, put them on another computer in a different part of the house, and play them outside your writing time.

  • Ditto the above for email and web surfing. Don't allow yourself to do it until after you've done your writing for the day. If you're really addicted, allow yourself to read only one email message per paragraph written. Don't count paragraphs shorter than 50 words, either. I don't mean add up all your short paragraphs until you get 50 words--I mean don't count paragraphs shorter than 50 words at all. Write until you get one that's at least 50 words long. So what if you're in the middle of a stretch of dialog? Keep writing. (And if this email-as-reward system works for you, join a busy listserver!)

  • Reward yourself for success. Choose the reward so you'll work hard to earn it.

  • Read a book a day (for inspiration).

  • Keep 5 (or 10 or whatever) manuscripts in the mail at all times. Choose a number that'll make you stretch a little, but one you can realistically maintain.

  • Use every spare moment to write something, even if it's just one sentence. An extreme version of this: don't plan any official writing time; just use the spare moments in your day--but use them all.

  • Carry a note pad or tape recorder with you wherever you go. Use it to record ideas as well as the actual text of stories. Make it your external memory. The idea here is to keep yourself focused on writing no matter what else you're doing.

  • Keep more than one project going at once. Switch to another the moment you slow down on one.

  • Collaborate. You'll be less likely to slack off if someone else is counting on you to perform.

  • Switch tools. If you normally use a computer, write with pad and pencil for a while. If you normally write hard sf, write fantasy. Get out of whatever rut you might be in.

  • Change your writing environment. Rearrange your study, or go write in the library or a cafe for a while.

  • Keep yourself constantly "on." Start another project immediately after you finish one, before you even get up to stretch your sore muscles.

  • Don't think; just write. Keep the writing and editing processes separate. Don't worry about clumsy bits; you can fix those later. If you're writing on paper, intentionally cross out a few lines and re-write them so you won't have to worry anymore about messing up the page.

  • Edit for perfect copy as you go. This one works for some people, but not for others. If you find yourself getting too critical of your new material, stop editing during your creative time. But some people discover that they build up momentum editing, and when they get to the end of what they've already written, they're eager to forge ahead into new territory.

  • Write an hour for every hour you read.

  • Spend an hour a day in the library researching new ideas.

  • Rewrite a story a day. (Works best if you've got a lot of unsold stories lying around.)

  • Jump-start your creative juices. Start your writing day with a long walk in pleasant surroundings, or gardening, or doing something else that wakes you up and gets your mind working.

  • Identify your best hours of the day and write during those. Let other people take the leftovers for a change.

  • Paper your study walls with Playboy foldouts (or whatever else is likely to keep you in the room).

  • Evaluate everything in your life according to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Air is at the top. Food and shelter are close behind. What's next? Sex? Money? Where does writing fit in now? See if you can move it up a couple of notches. Write now, breathe later.

  • Give yourself regular days off. Most people get weekends off; why shouldn't you? An important point: Days when you tried to write but failed don't count as days off. Only days you've scheduled in advance count. Conversely, now that you've got regular days off, don't use your work time for personal stuff.

  • Take up a hobby. A lot of writers started writing as a hobby, and it slowly became their passion. That's cool, but it left an empty niche in your life where the hobby used to be. Find something else to fill it. You'll be amazed at how much you realize you missed that kind of thing. More to the point: you'll suddenly stop resenting your writing for not fulfilling that need, and you'll start to enjoy it for what it is.

  • Turn writing into a hobby. Not everyone has to be a full-time writer. If you don't want to (or can't) write full-time, or if you can't find another hobby that scratches the particular itch that writing did when it was a hobby, then make it one again.

  • Hack-write. Put words in a row for pay. Write anything you can get a contract for, so long as there's money in it, but here's the kicker: do the best job you can on it. Even if it's something you don't care about, do a good job anyway. You're practicing two things here: writing on demand, and writing well.

  • Build a ritual around writing. Start well ahead of the actual act of writing, and continue the ritual after you've finished work. The idea is to make writing an integral part of a bigger picture. Let the cat out, make a cup of tea, feed the fish, put on some music, light a candle, write, check the mail, fix lunch, do the dishes. Doesn't seem quite so ominous when it's buried among all that other stuff, does it?

  • Light a candle. Make it a big, wide one. Write until the wax pool is entirely molten, as far out as it will go. Anything less will "core" the candle, wasting wax as the wick burns itself downward without using the wax from around the edge.

  • Binge! Gear up for a major writing weekend. Get your ideas ready, set a goal, and plan to work every waking hour until you're done. Cook meals ahead of time and freeze them so you can just nuke 'em and keep going. Tell your friends you'll be out of touch. Turn off the phone ringer and put a message on your answering machine telling people to send the cops if they really need to talk to you that bad. Lock yourself in your study and don't come out until you've committed fiction.

  • Chain the wolf to the door. Buy expensive things on credit, quit your job, etc. JUST KIDDING! (But I tried it once, and it worked, too … for a while.)

This article is Copyright. Reproduction and distribution specifically prohibited. All rights reserved. Reprinted here with the author's permission.


Hack your way out of writer’s block

From Merlin Mann at 43 Folders, specifically from http://www.43folders.com/2004/11/hack_your_way_o_1.html

Hack your way out of writer’s block

I recently had occasion to do some…errr…research on writer’s block. Yeah, research. That’s what I was doing. Like a scientist.

I found lots of great ideas to get unstuck and wrote the best ones on index cards to create an Oblique Strategies-like deck. Swipe, share, and add you own in comments.

  • Talk to a monkey - Explain what you’re really trying to say to a stuffed animal or cardboard cutout.
  • Do something important that’s very easy - Is there a small part of your project you could finish quickly that would move things forward?
  • Try freewriting - Sit down and write anything for an arbitrary period of time—say, 10 minutes to start. Don’t stop, no matter what. Cover the monitor with a manila folder if you have to. Keep writing, even if you know what you're typing is gibberish, full of misspellings, and grammatically psychopathic. Get your hand moving and your brain will think it’s writing. Which it is. See?
  • Take a walk - Get out of your writing brain for 10 minutes. Think about bunnies. Breathe.
  • Take a shower; change clothes - Give yourself a truly clean start.
  • Write from a persona - Lend your voice to a writing personality who isn’t you. Doesn’t have to be a pirate or anything—just try seeing your topic from someone else’s perspective, style, and interest.
  • Get away from the computer; Write someplace new - If you’ve been staring at the screen and nothing is happening, walk away. Shut down the computer. Take one pen and one notebook, and go somewhere new.
  • Quit beating yourself up - You can’t create when you feel ass-whipped. Stop visualizing catastrophes, and focus on positive outcomes.
  • Stretch - Maybe try vacuuming your lungs too.
  • Add one ritual behavior - Get a glass of water exactly every 20 minutes. Do pushups. Eat a Tootsie Roll every paragraph. Add physical structure.
  • Listen to new music - Try something instrumental and rhythmic that you’ve never heard before. Put it on repeat, then stop fiddling with iTunes until your draft is done.
  • Write crap - Accept that your first draft will suck, and just go with it. Finish something.
  • Unplug the router - Metafilter and Boing Boing aren’t helping you right now. Turn off the Interweb and close every application you don’t need. Consider creating a new user account on your computer with none of your familiar apps or configurations.
  • Write the middle - Stop whining over a perfect lead, and write the next part or the part after that. Write your favorite part. Write the cover letter or email you’ll send when it’s done.
  • Do one chore - Sweep the floor or take out the recycling. Try something lightly physical to remind you that you know how to do things.
  • Make a pointless rule - You can’t end sentences with words that begin with a vowel. Or you can’t have more than one word over eight letters in any paragraph. Limits create focus and change your perspective.
  • Work on the title - Quickly make up five distinctly different titles. Meditate on them. What bugs you about the one you like least?
  • Write five words - Literally. Put five completley random words on a piece of paper. Write five more words. Try a sentence. Could be about anything. A block ends when you start making words on a page.

On the other hand, remember Laurence Olivier.

One day on the set of Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman showed up looking like shit. Totally exhausted and practically delirious. Asked what the problem was, Hoffman said that at this point in the movie, his character will have been awake for 24 hours, so he wanted to make sure that he had been too. Laurence Olivier shook his head and said, “Oh, Dusty, why don’t you just try acting?”

So, when all else fails, just try writing.

Content on this page is © Merlin Mann, under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.

Beyond the five paragraph essay

This is a post originally from T Burke at Swarthmore. I found the link via del.icio.us

Beyond the
Five-Paragraph Essay

When I hand back
analytic essays, I try to leave room to do a collective post-mortem and talk
about common problems or challenges that appeared in a number of essays. I think
it helps a lot to know that the comment you got is a comment that other people
got, and also to know how some people dealt more successfully with the same
issue. All anonymous, of course, and following my Paula-like nature, nothing
especially brutal in terms of the actual grades dispensed.

I usually base
my comments on some scrawled meta-notes I keep as I work through each batch
of essays. Sometimes there are unique problems that arise in relation to a particular
essay question, which is sometimes a consequence of my having given enough rope
for certain students to hang themselves in the phrasing of the question. Often
there are problems I’ve seen before and commented upon.

1) Some
of these perennial comments concern smaller but important stylistic errors and
misfires, such as:

Choice of
, which can be difficult in history papers if the student is writing
about contemporary texts as well as past events.

The only thing I strongly discourage is the use of the “royal we”,
though there are ways to make it work rhetorically if used with care. The
other thing I mark is switching randomly or rapidly between point-of-view.

Endless unbroken

Weirdly arbitrary

misuse of commas and semicolons

that I label “awk” (awkward) or “ugh” (ugh)
, where
there’s just something really aggravatingly roundabout if not absolutely
grammatically forbidden in the structure of the sentence or where the sentence
or phrase is plain-old butt-ugly.

, e.g., wildly overwritten or florid. The template I have in
mind here is an actual paper I graded some years ago that began, in apparent
seriousness, “Verily, the colonial state in Africa indeed formulated
a versilimitude of societal establishments…”

, the opposite of purple prose, with every sentence a completely
unadorned subject-verb-object monotone. The composite effect is like reading
a telegraph message. “Africa was ruled by Britain, France and Portugal.
They constructed colonial states. Most colonial governments were based on
indirect rule. Indirect rule was based on Africans having their own customary
rules and rulers. Colonial authorities controlled customary rules and rulers.
There were many conflicts over these rules. Indirect rule was an unjust system.” And so on.

over the difference between different sources or materials.
On a recent
assignment, for example, some writers ended up comparing a contemporary scholar’s
work with a primary source from the 1920s and acted as if the two sources
were contemporaneous with each other and written for more or less the same

purely “structural”, use of evidence or supporting material
where an essay has the feel of having been written with “blank spots” for evidence which the student then fills by more or less randomly pulling
out quotes from a text.

: an essay that indiscriminately throws every scrap of potentially
relevant material and information at a problem, organized serially as it occurs
to a student during the writing process. This is especially bad at shorter
lengths, where making good decisions about what to include and exclude is

Words and
phrases that implicitly or explicitly assert mastery of the entire corpus
of material related to the assignment
, often through language that compares
a source text to all other source texts of the class X from which the text
comes. Every once in a while, I get an undergraduate who has some justifiable
reason to assert this sort of authority, but most of the time, it is a mistake,
though often an unconscious one.

Bad introduction
that doesn’t do any sort of useful job stylistically or structurally
A writer can have an introduction that doesn’t do any structural work
but is stylistically compelling, or a writer can have a plain-Jane intro that
gets the structure set, but having neither is a problem.

Bad or nonexistent
paragraph transitions
. At its worst, this makes me feel like I’m
reading the private confessions of a schizophrenic.

2) The
most important fundamental issue I see again and again is a paper which is largely
descriptive rather than analytical, which proves that a student has “done
the homework” but not taken ownership of the material and crafted an argument
of their own. Sometimes I see an argument in the first paragraph or in the last
paragraph (the latter often appearing to be a last-minute discovery) that is
cut off from the rest of the essay, unexplored or unsupported. I often comment
that papers lack what I call “flow”, a sense that they are moving
relentlessly and naturally from one assertion to the next, building towards
some goal or overall point.

I often suggest
some pre-built analytic structures that go beyond the usual five-paragraph essay
that students are taught to write in K-12 schooling. These are hooks, conceptual
heuristics that I hope can help a student find an argument, a structure, a “flow” to the analysis. Here’s some of the structures I often suggest for history
papers written in response to a professor's prompt or question:

Simple compare
and contrast
. This is often the next step up from the plain five-paragraph
essay. I sometimes call it the this-and-that paper. The essay can be written
around a block comparison, where the two (or more) things to be compared are
discussed separately in longer multi-paragraph sections, or on a point-by-point
basis, alternating each paragraph. The key here that makes this structure
rise above the purely pedestrian is the conclusion. A compare-and-contrast
paper that concludes with an unresolved or rhetorical question about the meaning
of the comparison is banal and descriptive, but a paper that concludes with
an emphatic resolution of the comparison or contrast can be excellent.

Close reading.
An essay built around a very tight interpretation of a single word, phrase,
metaphor or other linguistic component of a source or scholarly account, or
focus on a tight comparison of several related passages. The implicit hope
here is that the writer will find a potent enough metaphor or passage to hang
a larger argument on if they pay close attention to the language of their
sources or material.

A structure that is more precisely fitted to historical writing, where it
traces the development of a theme or issue over time. This is also very simple,
and often produces a mediocre paper that is purely descriptive and non-analytical,
but if it is done well, can be very sophisticated. The key to doing this paper
well is picking a theme or issue where tracing its development over time is
itself a potent or pointed analytic choice, where pursues a chronological
dimension to an issue repudiates some other way of understanding it. (The
reverse, by the way, works equally well, namely, taking an issue that is commonly
understood as changing considerably over time and arguing that it actually
is quite static.)

A paper built around a full-scale attack on the source material or even the
assumptions of the essay question. The key to doing well here is tight discipline
and focus, remembering that this is for “argument’s sake”—but
also making sure that the criticism on offer isn’t arbitrary, a wildly
inconsistent grab-bag of fault-finding or a mouth-frothing disproportionate
polemic. The best essays under this heading will identify some deep axiom
or assumption made by the source material and ask, “But what if this
is not the case?” and go from there. Incidentally, I tell students that
just thinking about a contrarian essay is a good way to clarify the argument
in any essay—if you aren’t offering an analysis that is potentially
arguable, that you can think of ways to attack or counter, you don’t
have a good argument.

Thematic. Hard to describe: this is a catch-all term for an essay that isolates a single
theme or issue in response to the professor’s initial prompt, and focuses
exclusively on it. On a recent assignment, for example, I had one very good
paper that took a general prompt about development policies in colonial Africa
and zoomed in very tightly on agriculture and gender. The good thematic writer
just needs to have enough faith in the heuristic they’re using to isolate
a single issue or problem—a thematic essay goes wrong when the theme
is very badly chosen or when the writer loses confidence and switches halfway
through to something else.

When it’s done right, this is just about my favorite
kind of short analytic essay, and it is one of the structures well worth learning
for its general utility outside of the college environment. In this structure,
the writer explores some simplistic or banal assumption or argument for the
first part of the paper, carefully bracketed off as a sort of “Let’s
suppose that X is true”, where it is clear that the author is just thinking
it through. Then halfway through the essay, the writer pulls the rug out,
revealing that the initial argument is totally wrong, and substituting some
other argument or line of analysis in its place. In the end, the reason I
like set-em-up, knock-em-down essays is that they are so clearly focused on
the purpose of analytic writing, at least in my classes, and that’s persuasion.
This is why I grade descriptive essays so relatively low: they only prove
that someone did the reading. An essay that is persuasive is an essay that
shows a student has command of the material, has taken ownership of it. It
doesn’t matter if their knowledge is less than encyclopedic in that case.

Ways to Start Writing

If you're not an author, or already disciplined to write every day, getting started on writing can be difficult. After pondering the problem with Kris and Hugh, we offer these ideas to start the long road to being published.

  • Have someone write/call/email/otherwise bug you to write. Preferably on a regular basis.
  • Write 3 pages in the morning after waking up (a la the book The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron)
  • Subscribe to an email list that sends out a topic each day via email (or one that sends out 30 topics once a month at the beginning of the month)
  • Participate in the National Novel Writing Month where each writer writes 50000 words (preferably as a novel) in a month
  • Send an introduction paragraph to a friend, who has to respond with the next paragraph. Continue back and forth.
  • Try freewriting: just sit down and start writing. The first parts will be crap, but it'll get the ball rolling.
  • Focus on a particular topic, write about it. Topics could include objects as simple as the moon, pine trees, a dark path, a pen. Put them in places you wouldn't normally see them.
  • Go to a place where people are. As you watch people, pick a person and make up a story about her/his life. Write up the stories as short collection.
  • Using an alternate history, write about a familiar event. Don't explain the alternate history, but give subtle clues about the adjusted history. Examples:
    • Write about the World Trade Center attacks as if Germany had won World War 2
    • Write about the 2000 Presidential election scandal as if the British had not defeated the Spanish Armada
    • Write about the establishment of Israel as a nation after WW2 as if Alexandria had not burned

Not so bad. A good way to start writing.

Spaghetti dinner inspires writing tips.


On Wednesday night, Kris and I went to Keith and Katie's house for a spaghetti dinner. The dinner was a fund-raiser for the Second Harvest Food Bank, which is a great idea. Lots of bridge friends were there: Lisa, Andy & Michele, Mark and Megan, Hugh & Bridget, Kitty and another friend of Keith and Katie, whose name I don't know.

Kris and I talked for a while with Hugh. Hugh is still looking for a job (anyone looking for a computational chemist?) in the Bay Area. He thinks he'll get an offer for a job with a company in San Diego. He's not thrilled about moving from the area. However, he'd rather not blow through his entire savings.

When I asked if he was excited about the job, he didn't say he was very thrilled. It was doing work that he had already been doing, so it wasn't a new challenge. When I asked him what he'd like to be doing, Kris responded, "Writing!" Hugh agreed, but explained he's had a block. He can write in his journal, but is unable to get writing on things he feels he "should" write about.

We went on to discuss ways to get Hugh writing. We had a large number of suggestions that I really liked, so I wrote them down. As my new policy of saving most everything electronically, the suggestions are now an article named Ways to start writing.