If You Can Think, You Can Write
Most people in this program do not come from a writing background and tend to choke up (or just choke) when it comes to writing. So here are some do’s, don’t’s and helpful tips. I have learned these over years of professional writing. If you can communicate ideas in conversation, you can do it on paper. It’s a learnable skill. No one expects you to be Flaubert. You are not writing a novel. You just want to communicate your ideas in the clearest, most compelling, and engaging way possible.
Separate What You Want To Say From How You Say It. These are two completely different activities. For me, writing is thinking. But you will rarely see the first thing I write. It’s my way of talking to myself to see if ideas make sense. I usually make an outline, because it helps me order my thoughts. My outlines do not look like the Harvard style with I.,A, 1,a headings. More often it looks like a map or drawing. I place ideas around a page. You may work more neatly. The main point is, know what you are going to say before you work hard on communicating your idea.
A First Draft is a sketch. Writing is editing. How often have you designed something and gotten it right the first time? Writing is as iterative as design, programming and production.
Think Of Writing As Design Same purpose, different ‘material’. Make it easy to read, desirable, appealing, and engaging. It should communicate your idea. Test it. Read it aloud. Every writer needs an editor. You will have plenty in the class.
You Don’t Hang Christmas Ornaments Up Before You Get The Tree Be kind to your readers and listeners. They have not been inside your head while you developed your idea. Provide a framework. Tell them what you are doing up front. Always take the time to set up the big idea. Make sure people understand the concept before you begin to elaborate.
Tell ‘Em What You Are Going To Tell ‘Em. Tell ‘Em. Tell ‘Em What You Told ‘Em This is the basic structure of any essay, report, or presentation.
Seduction: 8 Seconds, 30 Seconds, 1 Minute, 5 Minutes, Forever A VC, a grantmaker or someone in an audience will give you this progression of attention. You have got to grab their attention in about 8 seconds. (that would be an intro paragraph/abstract). If they continue to be interested, they will give you another 30 seconds (that would be the big headings throughout a paper, or a table of contents). Then they will give you a minute (they will read the first page). If you keep them there, they will scan for another 5 minutes. If they stay interested, you probably have the grant or the funding. It’s not that outsiders have short attention spans, but you are competing for their time and attention. They may have a pile of similar proposals on their desks. Your project is not as important to them as it is to you. Your job is to make it so!
Be A Revisionist—Three Ways to become a Good Writer: Edit, Edit, Edit No great thing was great right out of the box. If you have a decent idea it will be hard work to make it work and make it understandable. It should be hard work for you, not your audience. This is the third way I've said this in this paper. It's important.
Here are some things to do and questions to ask yourself as you revise:
Copy & Paste Can Be Prosecuted Plagiarism is easier to do than ever. But it is still a big no-no. Apart from the legal issues, when you put an idea into your own words, you really learn it because you have represented it in a different way. Marvin Minsky said, “You don’t really know something unless you can represent it in 3 different ways.”
You Only Get One Chance to Make a First Impression Be Professional. Proofread your work. But you should never hand in something that you haven’t proofread (and spellchecking is only the beginning). English may not be your first language, but it is probably your readers’. Ask for help.
When you send stuff to your teacher/classmates:
Write in the active voice. It is more direct and assertive and makes for clearer sentences and makes you seem more confident. Which is the active voice?
- Active:I will always think fondly on my days at ITP
- Passive: My days at ITP will always be fondly remembered by me
To Be or Not to Be.
- A trick to check for the passive voice when you proofread: look for the verb “to be” in all its forms. It often slings you into the passive voice.
- Look for a more interesting verb. You don't have to write like a sports writer, but the the verb "to be" is weak.
Don't Use Gerunds, Gerunds, words ending in ‘ing’, are verby-nouny things that not only throw you into the passive voice, but also screw up your tenses, make very convoluted sentences, and often, no grammatical sense. Even very accomplished writers get tangled in gerunds. Be careful, be very careful. Here is a classic example: Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap. (Who is dilapidated in this sentence??)
Think of it this way; Gerunds cost you a dollar. Periods are free. Don’t be afraid of short sentences.
Be Positive Describe things in terms of what they are, not what they are not.
Go Which-hunting People use ‘which’ way too much. Only use ‘which’ when it is a true subordinate clause. “Which” is always bounded by commas, and could be lifted out of the sentence and it still makes sense.
- The class that I teach is full of brilliant and creative students.
- My class, which is at 721 Broadway in the Tisch School of the Arts, attracts brilliant and creative students
Beware of Throat-Clearing: Two Ways
- Say what you are going to say. If you start with a whole bunch of qualifying sentences, you take away from your authority and confuse (or, worse, bore) your reader.
- You only have to start your sentence once:
Prepositional Phrases take the objective pronoun You would never say “Give it to I”, but people routinely say, “She gave it to George and I”. Between you and me that sounds weird.
Don’t worry about any of the above while you are writing your first draft. Make your outline. Then write as well as you can to get your ideas down on paper. But before you hand a paper in, go over it and look for where you need to make corrections. I often go through and circle all the variations of the verb ‘to be’, the gerunds, etc. and then I fix ‘em up. The grammar tool in Word is also a good first review. But the software is not the final stop, the wet ware is.
If you want to get one grammar/style book, I would get the classic “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. It has been my bible forever.