About the Author

Laura Swart

Laura Young is passionate about writing and teaching. She taught academic writing at the University of Calgary for twenty years, encouraging students to move their writing from the sterile walls of the classroom to the arenas of publication and exhibition. She is Founder and Director of I-AM, a faith-based ESL program that uses story and song to teach the intricacies of English to refugees. Laura's degrees and research in Education and Philosophy have shaped her pedagogy, and the theories of Hans Gadamer in particular have woven themselves into her thinking, her teaching, and her writing.

Books by this Author
Cut It Out

Cut It Out

10 Simple Steps for Tight Writing and Better Sentences
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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INTRODUCTION

Have you ever slumped over an essay and blurted out one of the following?

 

 

  • I don’t care what a gerund is! I just want a better mark on my next assignment!
  • My writing is abysmal. But I have four classes, a part-time job, and a Bernese mountain dog to care for. I don’t have a lot of time!
  • I loathe grammar sites and grammar handbooks. They’re boring and impossible to navigate.
  • English is my second language, and I can’t find my mistakes. English verb tenses are crazy!

 

 

If so, then read on. You’ll learn how to write powerful, concise sentences without becoming a technician of English grammar. You’ll obliterate excesses, creating openings to delineate your weighty ideas. And most importantly, you’ll humour your professors by submitting intelligible essays and assignments.

How to Use This Book

You’ve probably heard it said that writing is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. I don’t completely agree with that ratio; writing is in many ways a transcendent affair. But certainly, you will not improve with the wave of a hand. You must do the time. You must learn how to see—how to imitate as Hans-Georg Gadamer defines it: understanding essence. You must discover who you are as a writer.

In this book, I’ve outlined ten common sentence errors that perhaps have caused your grades to dip below the surface. I begin each chapter by stating—and violating—one of the rules. Then, I give a sample of deplorable writing that you and I together will repair.

There is no answer key at the end of the book; writing isn’t about right and wrong. There are rules, certainly—but then there is instinct. There are landmarks. And the landmarks, like the inuksuit, will guide you through an often-barren landscape and invite you into a larger narrative that is always evolving, always unfolding.

As you read, you’ll find bolded terms that are defined in the glossary; each term is given both a colloquial and a conventional definition.

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Say Something!

Say Something!

Writing Essays that Make the Grade
edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In Say Something! Writing Essays That Make the Grade, you’ll discover what writing is and who you are as a writer. Words don’t just appear on the page—writing is hard work. As Hans-Georg Gadamer puts it, it comes from being around; in the process of writing, something emerges that extends beyond your control.

 

 

We learn to write largely by imitating others—not by producing copies, but by understanding essence. Reading evocative texts, then, both creative and analytical pieces, is critical if you want to gain the skills and confidence necessary to express yourself in unencumbered, detailed prose.

But there are barriers along the way—impediments, setbacks, limitations.

To overcome them, you must acquaint yourself with the rhetorical, structural, and stylistic properties of academic essay writing. Initially this exploration will involve debunking a few myths about the writing event: that a piece of writing is a box you put stuff in; that you must begin at the beginning and end at the end; that outlines always precede drafts; that low grades are a symptom of mediocrity; that the writer somehow dominates the writing event.

There are many types of essays, but in this book, we’ll focus on those that employ analytical rather than scientific modes of investigation—essays that are assigned in humanities and social sciences courses such as history, philosophy, religion, and literature. We’ll move through the essay-writing process four times—in four takes, as it were, with each take gaining in detail and complexity—and we’ll discover how to produce powerful pieces of writing, examining common errors that post-secondary students make when they compose.

 

 

By the end of the book, you will be able to do the following:

  • define who you are as a writer and use your gifts to create powerful pieces of writing;
  • read critically, ask effective questions, and grapple with difficult texts;
  • determine the rhetorical situation for each writing event and contextualize pieces appropriately;
  • develop an effective writing process—from exploring, to creating, to revising and editing;
  • write analytical papers with persuasive thesis statements and supporting theoretical arguments;
  • use appropriate source materials, ensuring that quotations are relevant, poignant, and seamless;
  • extend the boundaries of your thinking, giving a wide berth to mundane, ubiquitous ideas; and
  • improve your grades, whether your writing woes are minimal or substantial.

The bottom line is this: writing takes confidence. You have to believe that you have something to say. Soren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, puts it this way: “Be that self which one truly is.”

 

TAKE ONE

In our first take on essay writing, we’ll focus on who you are as a writer, veering away from the stiff conventions that you perhaps were taught in high school. I’ll introduce you to the essentials of essay writing—pointing out some of the more egregious errors I see in post-secondary writing—and teach you how to avoid them.

 

CHAPTER ONE: THE WHO

Who are you? The infamous question posed by the classic rock band The Who is pertinent to essay writing, it turns out. Some writers like to free fall: they begin at the beginning, end at the end, and make no stops in between. Others need structured, detailed outlines to guide them. I do a lot of drafting in my head while I’m picking saskatoons by the river.

I’m also a verbal processor, so I focus more on the beat of my sentences than on diction or even meaning. What about you? Are you a visual or a tactile learner? Are you studying law? Engineering? Fine arts? Do you prefer facts and figures or abstract ideas? Do you dislike or thrive on ambiguity? Your answers to these questions are manifested in literate gestures, as Timothy Findlay puts it, and affect how you think, how you learn, how you compose.

Writers such as Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck construct clean sentences with profound ideas; others, like Hans-Georg Gadamer or Michel Foucault, create mazes, not sentences—and writers like Friedrich Nietzsche bring entire worlds into every paragraph.

There is no right way to write, despite what you perhaps have heard to the contrary. You are the writer: to thine own self be true, Polonius says. You cannot contort the writing event—it won’t bear the tension. You need to discover what’s inside of you and learn how to extract it.

In essence, you need to develop your writing voice.

Many artists begin the process by imitating others. Eric Clapton, for example, imitated Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters until he found a sound of his own. In Michelangelo’s time, painters worked as apprentices, imitating the works of their masters. Most writers immerse themselves in texts that model what they want to learn. I go to John Steinbeck for imagery, Joseph Conrad for syntax, and John Updike for dialogue. I also read Indigenous poetry because it is compressed and lyrical, and I want my own writing to have a similar sound. Reading, I would say, has the single greatest impact on developing writing skills; it is just as important as writing itself.

And yes, I’m talking about reading both fiction and nonfiction to improve your essays. Your course textbooks are inadequate models—unless, of course, you want to sound like an encyclopedia. But how often do you think your professors read Wikipedia for pleasure? Find good authors—authors whom you enjoy—and spend fifteen minutes a day with them. When you finish a book, read it again. The syntax and images and ideology will infuse your mind, and your writing will begin its metamorphosis.

The issue is not about the way to write or the way to construct an essay or even about what the quintessential essay looks like. Certainly, there are expectations in academia and strategies for writing well. We’ll get to those. But you must learn how to maximize your strengths and shape your weaknesses so they serve your ideas rather than hinder them. And to do that, you must follow the wisdom of Polonius.

 

CHAPTER TWO: WRITING AS TRINITY

But here’s the rub: you’re not the only player in the game.

The writing event is a trinity of sorts: writer, reader, and text. Let’s first discuss that ubiquitous character, the reader. In university, students are zeroed-in on readership. They want to get the grade, so they write what they think the professor wants to hear—and that requires a sprinkle of clairvoyance. But nothing will stifle your writing more than writing solely for the reader. Your piece will feel more like a simulation than a live event if you obsess about the person on the other end, because the writing won’t come from you.

Look at it this way. When you conduct research for an academic essay, the texts that you study are alive; they’re not events of the past. Every time a reader enters into a text, she adds a layer of meaning to it; thus, although the author and professor wield a level of authority and understanding, they are not the sole proprietors of the text’s meaning. Each reader has an analysis as valuable as the professor’s—if her analysis is rooted in the text, and if she has studied the text, moved around in it, and understands it. Some of my students have proffered analyses of my own writing that are more intriguing than my original intent.

 

 

Don’t underestimate your relationship with course texts. Your ideas, your voice, your diction and syntax matter and are integral to your analysis. At the same time, don’t forget who you are writing for: an intelligent human being who carries a mantle of expertise, who wants to be engaged—and who likely is grading a foot-high stack of essays under a table lamp at one o’clock in the morning. Don’t sedate him with gutless sentences and ideas. Here are a few examples of gutless sentences I’ve encountered in the last few years:

  • An American president wields great influence.
  • The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines community as ….
  • Capitalism and communism are poles apart in their implications for governance.
  • Europe has undergone substantial changes throughout history.

Some professors want you to assume nothing, define everything. But in most cases, be assured that after decades of research, teaching, and publishing, your professor likely has at least a rudimentary understanding of his subject area and wants you to do one thing: say something. Take a risk. Make your essay stand out from the other 54 that he must grade before slipping beneath his downy comforter.

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