How to Write Anything (Part I)
Writing is contentious. As someone who works in higher ed., I ought to know. Looking around the country at different universities and colleges it’s easy to notice some interesting structures in English departments. Some schools, such as the one I teach at, have a single department called English that handles all aspects of writing from the traditional focus on Literature, to Creative Writing Rhetoric, as well as Composition and Rhetoric. Other schools draw a line by creating several departments: a Department of Literature, a Department of Rhetoric and Composition, and a Department of Creative Writing. There are some very good reasons for this; clearly, fiction works differently than does a paper based in academic research, and academic research is different from a journalistic essay meant for a much wider audience. However, my goal in this essay, and the two essays to follow in this mini-series, is not to discuss the merits and weaknesses of departmental structures in academe. My goal over the course of the next three essays will be to show my readers that regardless of a writer’s focus, background or training, all writers work with the same tools; although, they might use those tools differently. This three-part series aims to demystify the writing process by making clear to my readers what those tools are and how to use them effectively.
In part one of this series I’ll discuss how to get started with any piece of writing by focusing on genre, audience and purpose. Part two will move into the more technical aspects of writing and the writer’s toolbox by outlining the various rhetorical modes: essentially, I will show you how to say what you want to say. Part three covers what might be the most significant part of writing: editing and revision. A wise friend of mine once said, “70% of writing is revision”. He’s on to something there. Writers are not born; they are made. Made through diligence by becoming aware of the basics of writing, the tools available to them and the knowledge and wherewithal to know when and how to deploy those tools to best affect their audience and achieve their purpose.
In what follows, I assume the writer has chosen a topic, and thus have eschewed discussing how to pick one. I will be happy to address that in the comments section should readers have questions regarding that part of the process.
At some point, no matter how good an idea (or topic) might sound in a writer’s head, they must sit down and commit that idea to “paper” and translate that nebulous concept into concrete language for consumption. And yes, some writers are extremely talented, have an amazing sense for language, and may even possess a natural gift for writing that allows them to easily translate those concepts into eloquent prose. But more likely than not, those who write well have worked incredibly hard to perfect their craft. They know the rules; they are conscious of their process; and they edit, revise and draft relentlessly. Skillful writing doesn’t happen overnight or magically in a single push. While it’s true that not anyone can become the next Ernest Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy, it is true that virtually anyone who puts in the time and effort can learn to write extremely well. Anyone. Can learn to write. Extremely. Well. Here’s what professional writers know.
Writers who write well write with purpose. What is purpose? There are three purposes in writing: to inform, to persuade, to entertain, speaking broadly. Of course, purpose might be narrowed further as in arguing, informing or entertaining regarding very specific positions and/or topics. As a quick side-note, the entertainment aspect of having a purpose does not necessarily mean one must incorporate humor to be entertaining. History might be entertaining to some: think of Ken Burns and his PBS specials, or Civil War enactors who aim to inform us about a certain period of American history by incorporating historical garb, acting, etc. Moving on… Usually, the best writing involves some blend of these. Many comedians have become expert at blending purposes. Late night comedians such as John Oliver and Trevor Noah primarily entertain (to some, anyway), but they also attempt to inform us through persuasion, or persuade us with information. George Carlin might have been the best at this. His sketch on “baseball vs football” primarily aims to make us laugh, but he’s also casually and implicitly making the argument that baseball is soft, while football is hard. Carlin reduces an argument about baseball and football to the absurd and forces it to serve his purpose of entertaining huge audiences. It’s something he was brilliant at. As one begins the process of writing, awareness of one’s purpose provides direction.
Once a writer has determined his purpose, he must then decide for whom he will write. Of course, if one is still a student the temptation exists to write for one’s professor or teacher; but the truth is that successful writing goes beyond that and considers a somewhat broader audience. Additionally, what happens when a writer moves beyond the classroom? Whom to write for then? How do writers know their audience? Most writers choose their audience, or use their best judgment. It’s really that simple.
Most people inherently know how to gauge audience. Often, though, they don’t realize it. Let’s take an example. Julia looks at her calendar and realizes that due to circumstances beyond her control, she is unable to keep her two o’clock appointment she scheduled for today. That two o’clock appointment can be with anyone about anything. This is how a writer can imagine audience. Insert any activity with any person into that two o’clock time slot and see what happens. Cancelling lunch with a best friend? Most likely, Julia will text her best friend with a simple message as to why she is unable to meet: “Hey Joe, sorry, but can’t make it today—sad face emoji”. On the other hand, if Julia had scheduled a business meeting with potential clients with whom she was not so familiar, she may choose to opt for email and start with something along the lines of, “Dear Mr. Kurtis, I am sorry to report that due to circumstances beyond my control”, etc. If it was to break a meeting with her mom, or a colleague from work, that might sound altogether different and she may choose a phone call. Put yourself in Julia’s shoes and see how you would address a given scenario. The point is that most people intuit how to approach situations like this because they know their audience—”I have to contact mom”—and are conscious of their purpose—“I have to tell her I can’t make it”. In writing for a broader audience there is very little difference: when a writer understands why they’re writing, and to/for whom, the process and how they ought to approach it becomes a little less mysterious.
Once the writer has a purpose and has chosen or determined their audience, they need to start thinking about genre. As students, we are often given assignments by teachers that dictate the genre and style in which we write. For instance, writing a five-page essay on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream often means a critical, interpretive approach using argumentative prose that must be written almost exclusively in the third person. The writer must develop a thesis, then find supporting material, quote and analyze: this is the research paper or literary analysis. Or a student may be asked to write a personal essay on an experience that they found important or in some way meaningful. This style requires a narrative, first person voice, frequently proceeds chronologically, and describes persons, places or things. But genres abound. There are academic CVs and job resumes; there are personal narratives; there are argumentative or opinion pieces; there are reports, product reviews, movie and book reviews; there are profiles and ethnographies and research essays. The list is long and possessing an awareness of it is yet another piece of the puzzle writers need to be aware of in order that they may write a successful article. Part one of this series will not delve too deeply into how to construct any one of the numerous genres other than listing them here and providing a few examples; if readers are interested I suggest they look this up for now. Purdue’s OWL is an excellent resource and can be found here. For the purposes of this essay, a few examples should suffice.
The city or town in which you live wants to pave over the local park or community green space to build a new business center. As a writer, community leader, or simply a concerned citizen, you feel the need to respond. Writers have several options. Do they 1) write an opinion piece for the local newspaper in which they lay out the numerous benefits green spaces provide in terms of mental and/or physical health or wellness? 2) Show up to a town meeting and share a personal story about how that space cultivated in them a lifetime love of the outdoors and recreation, or use other examples as to how that space has helped to shape the community over the last thirty or forty years? 3) Research the business or businesses planning on coming into the community, perhaps discovering some unethical business practices that have damaged other communities? 4) Or does the writer take community action and construct a petition, collect signatures and enlist the entire community to help? Perhaps all of these? The options seem endless, but at the end of the day the writer must choose which genre will best help them achieve their goal or goals.
One principle readers should not take away from this essay is that the writing process is always so neat, especially in the beginning; that is to say, writers don’t always find themselves in situations where they choose purpose first, audience second and genre third. It is more important to understand that purpose, audience and genre are commonly and hopelessly intimately intertwined, and learning to understand the relationship between them matters more to quality writing than proceeding one, two, three. For instance, writers are often chosen to give speeches: a valedictory, a retirement speech, roast or political event. In that case, a writer’s audience and genre are chosen for them and they must write accordingly. Or, a writer may be invited to write a piece on their particular expertise for a certain publication. That publication may lean left, or right, or be centrist; in all three of those instances that article will look, sound and feel different. Other times writers become interested in a certain topic and must decide for themselves the most appropriate genre and the audience they wish to address. For readers of this blog, I often aim my pieces at the outdoors community, especially people who hike or climb, even though, truthfully, I hope for as wide an audience as possible. Learning to navigate this space is not easy, but it is necessary in order that one may be a successful as a writer.
In part two of this series I will more fully address the writing process and the rhetorical modes writers use to help them achieve their writing goals.
Do you have questions about process? Want to know how to narrow and stick to a topic? Any other questions about writing or blogging? Please let me know in the comments. And remember, get out there… And write.