Optional- Writer John Maguire (readablewriting.com) on the Importance of Putting Objects in Your Writing
He's covered science news for three daily newspapers in the US, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism, and has written several books. When John was teaching at the Berkeley College of Music, he invented a new approach to help sometimes confused and worried students to write well. At the bottom of the ladder are, connected to the word nutrition, actual things like apples, oranges, slices of bread, hamburger sandwiches.
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John G Maguire comes from a family of news reporters and writers. His father, the late, John Maguire, wrote for the Albany, New York Times Union. His brother, Gregory Maguire is a novelist whose work includes the book, Wicked, from which a hit musical has been made. John Maguire has been a professional writer all his life. He began in college as a physics major but switched before graduation to studying English literature. He then pursued a career as a newspaper science writer. He’s covered science news for three daily newspapers in the US, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism, and has written several books. He’s also taught writing for many years at Boston area colleges. When John was teaching at the Berkeley College of Music, he invented a new approach to help sometimes confused and worried students to write well. It’s called the readability method. It was published by the Education Department of Newsweek Magazine. His latest version of this approach is described in his College Writing Guide. John has a Bachelors and a Master of Fine Arts degree in English. He currently has an editing business and teaches writing at Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Massachusetts. Let’s welcome John Maguire. John, you wrote a wonderful article for the Atlantic. The Secret to Good Writing, it’s about objects, not ideas. This is pretty counter-intuitive for a lot of people. I mean, most of us have been brought up to think that writing is all about the good ideas. So, can you explain what you meant?
Yes, Barbara, it does seem strange for a writing teacher to say think about objects more than you’re thinking about ideas. Of course, it is important to write about ideas. But my point in that article was to say, it’s easy to express ideas in terms of objects. And what a good writer thinks about is what objects can I use to express my ideas? It’s not bad to use idea words, but it’s easy to get overrun with idea words and use too many of them. You can become over-abstract, and when your writing becomes over-abstract, and there are too many I-O-N words or T-I-O-N words in a given passage. It becomes very hard for the reader to know what’s going on. And in fact, the writer often gets confused about what he or she is saying. When things become very abstract, they become very blurry, and both the reader and the writer has to spend a lot of time figuring out what the heck is being said. The point I wanted to make is that all ideas are related to objects. Let me show a diagram. Here on a white board is what we call the ladder of abstractions. This is a ladder that runs from low to high, and at the top end of the ladder are abstract ideas, let’s say, the idea of nutrition. Now, an abstract idea is a non-physical thing that you cannot touch. At the bottom of the ladder are, connected to the word nutrition, actual things like apples, oranges, slices of bread, hamburger sandwiches. Any idea that you’re trying to get across, let us say you’re writing about good nutrition for pregnant women, can be communicated in terms of things. And the principle that writers follow is, when you’re writing about ideas, go down the ladder to the world of things and make you sure write with enough things.
So, in our course, we suggest to learners that they should alternate between sort of close in focus and a more diffuse approach to learning in order to learn something difficult. So toggling between a tight intent sort of attention and a loose sort of attention seems to really work. You’ve told me that professional writers seem to do the same sort of switching. Can you tell us how a writer switches between focused and relaxed thinking?
Any creative person switches from one mode to another frequently. Maybe the best example of this is painters. The classic, cliche image of a painter is somebody who is up close to the canvas, putting a little dot of paint on. And then, he backs up halfway across the room, takes a look at what the effect has been of that dot of paint, thinks about it, weighs it, goes back in, puts some more dots of paint on the painting. The shifting of focus from up close to far back is obvious in the world of a painter. You have spoken about how important that is in the world of math. And how, when you are leaning equations, it’s a good idea to come in close, and really master what you need to know and sometimes it’s a good idea to pull back in order to understand the problems that you have to solve with math. Writers switch focus many different ways. Sometimes you will turn from what you are trying to say and you’ll talk to your friends and ask your friends what they know about the subject. That broadens out the discussion of what you’re trying to say. Sometimes you will shift and do a little bit of reading. Maybe go on Wikipedia for five minutes to look up some material that relates to what you’re talking about. Sometime you will shift writing on a computer to writing longhand. I sometimes shift from writing while sitting down to writing while standing up. And of course, there’s the tried and true, let’s take a walk around the block. Charles Dickens did it and if he did it, it’s good enough for me and for college writers, I would say.
I see. So beyond concrete nouns or things, what other advice do you give your students about what they should put into their writing? Barbara, writing well is a matter of choosing a good style, and style is basically the choice of what kind of words are you going to write with. What parameters are you going to have control over? So beyond putting in things, which is very important, I tell my students, put in active verbs. These are verbs that make something happen on the page. I also tell them to put in people. How do you put people into a piece of writing? You name them. Full name or nickname, name some people. Put them into your writing. Use some active verbs. Make things happen on the page. Other pieces of advice I suggest are, use short words when you can instead of long ones, and use short sentences. It’s often important, especially for beginning writers, not to let their sentences get out of control too long. When in doubt, write it short.
Have you ever taught students for whom English was their second language? What can you tell a student who has learned to write outside an English speaking country?
Yes, I have taught people to write who were ESL speakers. One of the more interesting friends I made recently was a young man named Saktai. I taught him last semester in the city of Lowell. The first papers he turned in were really pretty terrible. I asked him why he wrote that way and he told me he had been taught to write that way by his teacher back in I think it was Vietnam. And I said, you are out of control with what you’re saying here. You have to be simpler. And he told me that his teacher had told him, make sure you use your long words and show people that you’re educated. That’s the way to write. And, I said to him Saktai, that’s not the way we do it in English. In English, we really favor the plain style, which means clear and simple. So I’m going to give you some advice, young man, I said, trying to get his attention. I want you to stop trying to be impressive and just start trying to be clear. I had to say it a couple of times. And I told him this, I said, once you are clear then you’re going to be impressive. So stop trying to be impressive, just work on being completely clear. About four weeks later, his writing had improved quite a bit, and, he came to me and said that the advice that I had given him to stop trying to be impressive and just to be clear had really worked. Nobody had ever told him that before, he really needed to hear it. Now he understood what he had to do, and he felt much more powerful as a writer. Instead of trying to do two things at once, which was to be clear and to be impressive, he just tried to be clear. And as we both know, when you read something that is really clear, after you finish reading it you say, wow, that was impressive. And that’s the way it works, clarity first.
What a great point. It is funny, when I, I read research papers, I can always tell a difference between the second tier, the sort of lower caliber research papers and the upper tier research papers, because the lower caliber ones are often fuzzy. They use a lot of big words. They’re hard to read. They’re hard to understand. But the ones that really are top notch, they’re often so simple and so elegantly written. And, and you, you might say, well, you know, that’s not academic writing because it’s too elegant, but that’s actually the very best of writing in any discipline. So some teachers, let me ask you about this. Some teachers tell students not to edit as they write because they think it’s a bad idea. How do you feel about that?
I agree with those coaches who say separate the writing from the editing. Writing is a matter of getting things down on the paper, or on the screen rapidly. You want to maintain rapid forward progress. You don’t want to get stuck and lose your momentum. Editing is a process of being judgmental, deciding whether things are working. And if you’re not a very good writer, if you’re a beginning writer, it’s possible to produce a bad sentence and then be totally stymied about how to fix it, and spend minutes puzzling over something stupid that you’ve written. Far better to choose to maintain your momentum, roll forward. You want to get the conveyor belt of ideas rolling. After lots of material that’s come out of your idea factory and your writing factory, then you can change gears and edit. I have another idea about editing which is that it’s often useful to print out a draft and edit on paper. I do that. I think a great many professional writers will print out a draft, edit it on paper, and then enter their edits back into the computer version of the text.
That sounds like great advice. I know for me, when I’m writing and I find myself really getting stuck, it’s generally because I’m starting to edit while I’m writing. And so often I’ll find that I, if I just let go and let it come out, later on, mostly I find it’s not as bad as I thought when I was writing it. because usually when it comes out, I’m thinking oh, it’s terrible. But it comes out and it, and I do a little tweaking and it’s not too bad. So suppose a student really wants to write better. Is there some special technique of reading that will help improve your writing?
Well, read closely the people you admire. If you’re writing short stories, read the short stories you admire. But if you’re writing scientific papers or term papers, things to be published in journals, read the writers whom you admire. If there is somebody who is great in your field and he has produced very interesting papers that read well, your job is to study what he or she did. I would recommend looking closely at the openings of papers that you like. Perhaps, copying the opening paragraph down longhand. I would also recommend, underlining words that he uses that you might not use but you can consider using. I would recommend you study your writer’s sentence length. How long are his sentences? What is the pattern of long sentences and short sentences that your hero uses? I would recommend looking for a sentence that he wrote that you would think you could never write because it’s not in your nature, and then go and write that sentence out longhand a couple of times. Study what you admire.
So what if you’re writing a paper on a scientific topic which focuses around something like molecules? They’re too small to be dropped on your foot. How can you make that somehow more concrete?
Good writers are always thinking of their readers. A good writer is thinking, how is my reader going to understand this? A good writer is thinking, what is my reader going to see in his head when he reads my words? So this can produce a problem if you’re writing on a scientific topic, say, about molecules. After all, molecules are too small to be dropped on your foot. That’s no excuse to stop thinking physically. You can, if you’re writing about a simple molecule like the molecule of water, you can make a visual metaphor. You know, a grapefruit with two lemons attached to it will, can stand for H2O. Or, you can go looking for the physical objects that are related to the chemical research you’re writing about. You can put in as appropriate, test tubes or Bunsen burners or beakers, or spectrophotometers, or a laboratory bench. It’s a skill to go looking for physical correlates to your topic, but it’s a skill that you can get good at pretty quick. And it pays off because you always want to give the reader something to see.
I think that’s very helpful advice. So, tell me now, what’s more important, the words or the ideas?
As far as the writer is concerned, there are no ideas outside of the realm of words. Now I will grant you, there are wordless intuitions and little images you might get. There are diagrams you can put on a piece of paper to capture an idea. But when it comes to being a writer, your job is to make sure everything gets down in words. So if you were to ask me which is more important in a paper, the words or the ideas? I say it’s the words. I’d say, without the right words in the right order, you do not have any ideas to work with. As a writer, if you don’t have it down in a sentence, you don’t have an idea.
Very good advice. So, some coaches talk about the problem of having too little to say. What if a student writer discovers that he or she has too little to say? What or how can she or he deal with that?
I think a student who has quote, too little to say, is usually a student whose imagination is too narrow. Often, it’s a student who has decided to write about an abstract topic and has just kept focusing on the abstraction. When a student is, seems to be devoid of ideas, when a writer is devoid of ideas, he or she should slow down and brainstorm and brainstorm wildly. Go to a piece of paper and write down everything you know about the topic, draw diagrams on a piece of paper, draw idea maps or mind maps, make lists of objects. Shift the focus, in other words. A student who doesn’t have enough to say has often gotten too tense in trying to say something important. It’s a good idea to stop trying to say something important and just try to say something simple and clear. You can find your way to the simple and clear by talking with a friend, or by taking a walk, as I said. Another thing to do is to write some questions down for yourself. You don’t have to be an expert on what you’re writing about, you just have to be clear. Write down what puzzles you. Write down what confuses you. I am confused about x. I am puzzled about how x relates to y. Write these things down, cover several pieces of paper with ideas and sketches. It can even look like this. Tape them together. Cover a bunch of paper, with notes. Tape them together. Set them down on your desk and go out for a half an hours walk. When you come back, start again. You will have more ideas.
That’s a, a, I, I like that approach. So, do you have any final takeaways or advice for writing students? What’s one thing a student writer can do to write better?
I’ll give you a couple of things a writer can do to make things better. In terms of readability, I would suggest using short sentences. A writer ought to go into his paper, and if he has written any really long sentences, ask himself, do these sentences have to be this long, and replace them with shorter sentences. In terms of completeness, a writer can do two things. It’s asking himself a couple of questions. The first one is, what am I trying to say? Did I say it clearly? And the second one is, what must I not leave out? The very last question, which is, what must I make sure not to leave out? It’s very useful. I use it myself all the time at the, as I get to the end of a draft. I then ask myself, did I cover everything? And in particular, is there anything I must make sure not to leave out? Often it turns out I have left out something important. So, those are my final words on this.
I think that’s a helpful approach even for me. So, I, I just want to emphasize how important I think good writing actually is to the learning process. I often find, myself, that I really learn something in the best way when I attempt to write about it. So, I think this is why insight from people like you, who’ve, who’ve really worked to understand the writing process. Here is your, your book College Writing Guide. It is very, very helpful. So here, you can see clearly now. And so I just very, very, very much appreciate John your interview with me here today and thank you, we’ll see you on the flip side.
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