One of our users recently asked me for advice on his/her situation. I thought it would be helpful to share the correspondence. It is reproduced here with his/her permission and some minor edits. The Question I’m a J1 BCME student. I’m not doing that well. I’m considering if I should change subjects and if so whether I should (voluntarily or involuntarily) retain one year to do that. I want to switch to a hybrid combination: maybe switching to H1 Math, removing Econs, and taking H2 E. Lit. Would it be advisable for someone who has absolutely zero experience in English literature to take H2 E. Lit? I had wanted to take it (as part of combined humanities) at the 'O' levels, but the principal of my school then just didn't believe in the value of it; they didn't want to open a class. For context, I wouldn’t say I’m gifted in the languages, having gotten a B3 for English at the 'O' levels. But I do know I like English as a subject. It's something I have liked studying since young, and I do take pride in it and see it as one of my stronger fronts. I’m fine with reading books. I didn't say "love" because I guess it really depends on what I'm reading. What worries me the greatest is that enjoying a good story is NOT the same as analyzing and picking it apart. Googling about H2 Literature intimidates me - the skill and immense quality expected of H2 English Literature candidates are things I fear I may not meet. Of the 6 poems you shared here, I could only get 2 of them (poems no. 2 and 4). My understanding of the rest is entirely partial... and messy. :'( I guess it is that thing about there not being fixed answers in Literature - not necessarily a bad thing at all, I agree, but I'm always worried my answers may not be good enough. Is Literature really that much of a subject where "you either have it or you don't"? Given the above, the bell curve for literature is probably very steep as only those who are confident in it take it. And the Humanities Scholars are required to take it as well. Literature can seem so simple as a subject yet so daunting. What if I get 'writer's block'? What if I simply can't "see the light"? There are few people I can approach in school about this and Google hasn't been the most helpful. Given what you (now) know of my situation, what would you advise me to do? Regards, PTC (not his/her actual initials) My Response Hi PTC, I think you should not take H2 literature. Here's why: Even though I strongly believe that everyone should learn literature, learning literature is not the same as taking H2 literature in school. To be very honest, JC is just a way for you to get As. Anything that makes it difficult to get As should be seriously (re)considered. It does sound like H2 literature will not be easy for you. The concerns you raised are very valid. Analyzing a book is not the same as reading one. Everyone enjoys a good movie but few people can ever film a blockbuster. Note that this says nothing about whether you are actually good in literature, nothing about whether you can compete with a bell curve of Humanities scholars. An O level grade is not much to draw conclusions from. It is more of how I suspect that you will not be blessed with the luxury of time, resources, and a conducive environment to study literature given your current situation. I still think literature is easy once you get it. And it is not hard to get. But school connotes homework, exams, and other mundane requirements. People who are good at a subject don’t necessarily do well at them in school. This is especially so for literature because we are trying to force-fit a living, open-ended art into dead, close-ended modes of instruction and assessment. Don’t get me wrong: exams are simply the pragmatic way to go. And literature is a lot more disciplined and methodical than most people give it credit for. It is just that exams are structural constraints dictated by the needs of industrialised schooling and ill-suited to encourage the pursuit of anything really meaningful. If you really like literature the better way is to do subjects that are easier to score in, save time, and spend that extra time analyzing the books you like to read and learning true literature (few Singapore schools teach it). Pragmatically speaking as well, it seems you are well into your J1 year, and unless you are really doing badly for all your other subjects, switching now is not a good idea. Please don’t be disheartened. I hear that NUS FASS has a good literature course which you can always aim for (provided your A levels are good enough...). Mark Twain, one of the best writers ever, said never to let your schooling interfere with your education. If I were you, I'd try my best to handle (read: do well in) school in the most efficient way so I have time to do things that matter. Hope this helps. Jerrold Anyone have any thoughts on this? Am I right, or should PTC just take the plunge?
Articles tagged under literature:
This article is written for Lit students, so I’m making two assumptions: That you know what a Shakespeare is, and Since you know Shakespeare, you’re familiar with No Fear Shakespeare. These competencies are important, because in the following paragraphs we'll will be ripping apart the very bastions of literary genius. We'll spray-paint a huge I WAS HERE right across the centre. Assuming that’s not possible, though, what we’ll do is re-write them in…*gasp* plain language. Because no one likes an incomprehensible, artsy fartsy poem, right? So let's not waste time... 1. Does it matter? -Siegfried Sassoon Here's the original: Does it matter?-losing your legs?... For people will always be kind, And you need not show that you mind When the others come in after hunting To gobble their muffins and eggs. Does it matter ?-losing your sight?... There's such splendid work for the blind; And people will always be kind, As you sit on the terrace remembering And turning your face to the light. Do they matter?-those dreams from the pit?... You can drink and forget and be glad, And people won't say that you're mad; For they'll know you've fought for your country And no one will worry a bit. Probably no one understands it all on first reading. What with the question-mark-dot-dot-dots and all. If he wanted to make a point, he could’ve said it directly, like this: It really matters if you lose your legs. Really. People are only kind that long. And it’s horribly difficult not to mind When everyone else comes back from hunting And they eat and drink in your face. It really, really matters if you lose your sight. I have no idea what work blind people can find in post-war Europe. People are never kind. It hurts to sit on the terrace imagining What it looks like from memory. Your dreams matter. But they’re all gone. You can drink forget and be happy For only so long. People start thinking you’re crazy Even if you’ve given, lost it all for your country. And everything’s horrible. Yup, much better now that only good’ol commas and full stops remain. And speaking of dreams… 2. Dreams -Langston Hughes Hold fast to dreams For if dreams die Life is a broken-winged bird That cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams For when dreams go Life is a barren field Frozen with snow. This one’s already awesome. Short and sweet. The longest word only has two syllables. That is if you excuse the hifenated jargon. But hey, what’s the point of all those metaphors? Life is a barren field? It’s not like we’re all farmers. Are we? I’m sure we’re not though, last I checked we lived in the 21st century. Really, why waste words when he could’ve just said: Dreams are important. Yes they are. They’re really important. Hold on to them. Otherwise you’ll have a sad life. 5 lines did the trick. We’re on a roll. Now let’s tackle something harder… 3. Sonnet XVIII -William Shakespeare The Bard himself. Terrorising lit students since 1564. Can you imagine how his English teacher must’ve felt when he read this?... Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer's lease hath all too short a date. Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimmed; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed; But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st, Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade, When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. First things first: No one knows what a sonnet is. It sounds a like a cross between a comet and a clarinet. It’ll probably do well as a line of tennis apparel too. There’re a fixed number of lines in every tennis racket right? And seriously, thou art? That’s like so five centuries ago. Till date no one has any idea why we’re still studying such obsolete, perplexing poems which have no relation to modern living. Let’s modernise it a little, shall we? Rose are red, violets are blue. A summer’s day is lovely and hot, And so are you. In May the winds blow petals off flowers (if you know what I mean). Summer (holidays) passes way too fast. Sometimes the sun can be really scorching. But even the sun gets dark. And beautiful things usually decline Either by chance, or by nature, even if we leave them alone. But you are eternally lovely and hot. You’re really fair too. If you die everyone will be sad. Especially when your eternal hotness grows with time. As long as men live and see (which basically means forever), Your beauty lives in here and in me. Many romantic. Such feels. Observe how every dating trick in the book has been incorporated within. And speaking of beauty… 4. Stopping by woods on a snowy evening -Robert Frost Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year. He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep. Here’s another great one with no words of more than two syllables. Simply brilliant. But he’s just describing a forest, some trees and a lake. There’s a horse somewhere too. And the only sense of a linear plot (which, clearly, all poems require) is when the bells ring and he moves on. This all sounds like a wonderful casual journey in the woods but why should we care? Perhaps if he said it this way: I’m in a beautiful forest now but sadly it’s owned by someone else. He lives in the village though. He doesn’t know what he’s missing. Luckily he won’t see me here so he can’t chase me out. Plus he’s missing out On the beautiful views here of the snow falling in his forest. My horse probably thinks I’m crazy Stopping like this in the middle of nowhere. Probably other people will think I’m mad too Stopping between the woods and a frozen lake in The darkest evening of the year. But this only makes it so much more beautiful and surreal. My horse rings his harness bells and wakes me up from my daydream It seems like he’s reminding me I’m making a mistake stopping here in the middle of nowhere. It’s so quiet. I can only hear The snow gently falling in the light breeze. This forest owned-by-someone-else is beautiful. A silent, soothing darkness lurks. It draws me in. But there are so many things I need to do. So many things I must chase. And I’m already behind time. There are so many things I have to do before I can rest. There are so many things I have to do before I can rest. Isn’t it wonderful how a little elaboration and removal of all poetic devices and metre makes things so self-evident and easily understandable? Off that, here’s the final one for today. Be warned…it’s madness. 5. The Jabberwocky -Lewis Carroll 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe. 'Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!' He took his vorpal sword in hand: Long time the manxome foe he sought -- So rested he by the Tumtum tree, And stood a while in thought. And, as in uffish thought he stood, The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, And burbled as it came! One two! One two! And through and through The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head He went galumphing back. 'And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy! Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!' He chortled in his joy. 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe. Whatisthisidonteven…Of course, what else could we expect from the insane dude who gave us Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I mean, he’s the founding father of the genre known as literary nonsense (yes, this really exists). Hardly flattering, if you ask me. And this jabberwocky thing, if a thing it indeed is, makes marginally less sense than rabbits with stopwatches rushing for circular ad infinitum tea. Cheshire cats and growth mushrooms – at least these have some real-life equivalents don’t they. I don’t know what kind of - substances - prompted this poem, but safe to say none of the following – brillig, gyre, wabe, frabjous, borogoves, mome, raths, outgrabe, jubjub, manxome, tumtum, uffish, tulgey…are actually words. Are they? I’m not even sure what words are now. Carroll here creates more words per line than Shakespeare. It’s probably impossible to rewrite this without entirely changing its meaning and significance. This only shows how absolutely incorrigible and worthless this is, doesn’t it? The best I could do was: Behold a Jabberwock – a fearsome monster with jaws and claws (I think). Someone grabbed a sword. And killed it. Hurray. And one more thing. Here’s one of Emily Dickinson’s great writes: After great pain, a formal feeling comes – The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs – The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’ And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’? The Feet, mechanical, go round – A Wooden way Of Ground, or Air, or Ought – Regardless grown, A Quartz contentment, like a stone – This is the Hour of Lead – Remembered, if outlived, As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow – First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go – Got that? That last part? As freezing persons…snow…chill…stupor…letting go…? Sound familiar?... Let it go, let it go Can't hold it back anymore Let it go, let it go Turn away and slam the door I don't care what they're going to say Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway. Kudos to Disney for helping us understand was Emily was trying to say :) Now that that’s over, I do hope you’ve figured out the actual point of what we’re doing. Although I honestly still have no clue what Carroll’s poem is about.
As well as Metaphors, Symbolism, and other Joys Of Life. This guide is composed for the average student, who: 1) doesn’t take literature, or isn’t very good at (scoring for) it, 2) hates the metaphor question in GP compres, and 3) thinks the smoke produced from lit essays may have been responsible for the recent haze problem. If this isn’t you, and you’ve been consistently scoring 42s/50s for your literature essays, then well done! This is no place for you. Run along now and do your maths TYS. For the rest of you who are still here, welcome to the plainest literature lesson you will have in your entire life, partly because this makes it way easier to understand things, and partly because this writer here did not go on to learn more about symbolism and onomatopoeia at the tertiary level. Ok, I promise that’s the last 4-vowel-in-a-row word I’ll use for today. Let’s get started. Literature is easy. The only thing you need to understand is how literature is not about what is being said, as much as it is about how and why it’s said. If you get this, my job here is done. Because that is what took me about one and a half years to understand. And when I did, rainbows began to form in the post-monsoonal skies of my dark and stormy grades. Throughout your education from secondary school to JC, you, the average student, would’ve come to believe that pointing out what the text says is the ultimate aim of literature. Because after all, that does give you marks. When you were able to say Macbeth was about Hubris, Catharsis and Anagnorisis, or when you managed to weave the words parallelism and manifest destiny into your response to The Crucible, you got nothing but pr-A’s. Right? Unfortunately, just like that other thing known as ‘everything else you learn in school’, things are slightly different in the real world. Literature is not Shakespeare. It’s not Great Expectations about your Sense and Sensibilities to what the texts say. These are all pieces of literature, or, in other words, examples of it. Really, really good ones. So what then, is literature? It’s the study of how words work to say what they say, based on what words are used, in what order, patterns, structures, and even shapes. And also the application of this knowledge to produce more of such pieces of writing that involve the informed use of words. H2 literature, in particular, is focused on the How. For example, how does the phrase “as vulnerable as a donut in a police station” tell us in a comical way things about donuts, policemen stereotypes, and whatever is being called vulnerable? Or, in the preferred language of the exams, what are the ways in which the extract does what it does? When you go further, you’d realise that who wrote a piece, when it was written, and other details do matter. But that’s slightly beyond your syllabus. So you don’t care, do you? Now that you're really concerned about How words work... How Words Work – The Intuitive Don’t think about an orange fish. Oops, I guess you just did. Sometimes, words work in the most insidious ways. They occur to us intuitively and directly. Getting the meaning of a word is like getting the answer to 2 x 2. You don’t have to go through any ‘workings’ to arrive at the answer. And that’s great, because if we had to consciously re-construct the meaning of a word every time we heard it, we wouldn’t get very far with life. Now the problem, when our brains get ahead of us like this, is we don’t even realise we’re doing it. We think it’s the most obvious thing in the world. But it’s not, and writing it down can actually work wonders. Consider the opening line from Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood." It’s pretty obvious what’s happening here. I’m guessing in your head now you’re standing at the fork in the road and seeing two different paths unfold. ‘Yellow’ somehow factors in. It may suggest a serene, serious feel, or even a cheerful, jubilant atmosphere. Repeat the line in your head. Let it bounce around the walls of your consciousness, and let the image in your head sharpen. So, how does the colour yellow affect your mental image? If there’s anything we can learn about the iPhone 5c, it is that colour changes the world. Colour, along with size, space, position and shape, is one of those things that ghost past our logical minds and conveys messages directly to our subconscious. If you think about it, it does not quite make sense that just because something’s yellow, it makes us feel a certain way. But that’s how it works. We classify things by colour. We link yellow with lemons and bananas, the sun, rubber ducks and other happy things. But yellow can also be sad – like the faded yellow of an old photograph. A yellow wood, in particular, seems more in line with a forest in autumn, fallen leaves everywhere. Yellow can be sad, happy, sombre, energetic, and so many other things. Now explain to yourself how the use of colour in Frost’s opening line advances its intended meaning. You may also want to examine the use of the past tense in the word “diverged”, and how it works together with the colour yellow. To encourage yourself give yourself 100marks for each question, cos that's what motivates us all anyway. How Words Work II - The Elaborate But sometimes, literature works in the exact opposite way. It presents you something like 101325 X 9001. Here is when you do need to go through some thought processes to arrive at its meaning. Consider then, anything from Shakespeare. Or, to make things slightly easier, the next line from Frost: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveller…" Here, Frost uses an expression quite foreign to everyday language. He forces us to stop and think what he actually means. Only after we rearrange the ideas do we understand what he’s trying to say: I felt sorry that as one traveller I could not travel both paths at the same time. This is the plainest way of saying it. But there seems to be something missing when we say it like this. To better understand such expressions, there is a simple ‘working’ you can perform: The first step is to look at the literal, surface meaning (called the ‘form’) of the words. Here it is simply that the traveller couldn’t simultaneously travel both paths while staying in one piece. Second, consider the effect of this literal meaning. What does the form imply? Do you see in your mind an image of this traveller multiplying himself into two? Put yourself in his position. Do you feel like two opposing forces are pulling you in different directions – each towards a different path? Use your five senses to guide you. Third, think about what meaning this image and emotion conveys. The idea that, if the traveller could, he’d split himself into two so as to explore both paths. Does it bring out a stronger sense of indecision, uncertainty, and maybe even frustration at the physical constraints of his situation? The poet is emphasising the traveller’s dilemma here. Finally, ask Why. Why does the poet choose to write this way? How is this better than or different from if he had called the forest green instead? Does it make sense? Does it help to convey the overall message of the entire poem or text? If your interpretation of a certain verse is inconsistent with the rest of the text, chances are you may be misinterpreting it. But it could also be the poet trying to bring about contrast. It is important to think about Why the poet tries to emphasise, downplay, mention, hide, or does whatever he does to what he’s talking about. Understanding Why also helps you arrive at the meaning in step 3. Bonus step: Write ALL of these down on your script. NOT just the meaning. Marks are awarded for workings aren’t they? For the average student who also takes GP: This is exactly how you should attempt a metaphor question as well: Form – Effect – Meaning. Note: If you’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, all you need to know for this portion is that words work in both slow and fast thinking, and you really need to write down all of those slow thinking processes in a lit exam. But you’re an average student. Average students don’t read such books. A Quick Demonstration Just so you were wondering how to apply what you've learnt. Because the average student typically doesn't care about application. Question: How does the expression “as smokey as a literature essay” work? Bad example: Simile and symbolism is utilised here to evince the cloudiness of a literary piece of writing, in that the latter is being juxtaposed with the concept of smoke, what is produced where fire, something that symbolises anger and power, exists, such that the writer illustrates the unclear nature of literary writing. This. Makes. No. Sense. What on earth is “the concept of smoke”? Simile and symbolism, concepts raised in the answer, have not been explained to show how they strengthen the meaning of the expression. The sentence is way too long, and not to mention fire is brought in for a spectacular over-reading. A quick rule of thumb? Write simply. You're not trying to copy what the author did as much as explain it. Good example: Smoke is a cloudy, nebulous entity that obscures vision. (form) In a school context, “smoke” is also commonly referred to as the act of writing as much as possible in an attempt to, literally, cover up the lack of substance. (form, put in context) By describing literature essays as “smokey”, the author likens the two (effect) and highlights how many essays are similarly obfuscated and unclear. (meaning) There may also be an association to how smoke in itself is gaseous and intangible (form), reinforcing the idea that literature essays often have no solid substance(meaning). When something is good, the merits are self-evident. If you’re reading this, congrats on surviving a full article on literature. Din’t think that was possible did ya? Me neither. Now the only thing left to do is re-read it a few times, let it all sink in, and start dominating the world with your newfound literary genius. And now, for the mandatory statement that ends all great lessons: Any Questions? (post them in the comments)
Writing as we know it is dying. In a world where words are communicated in large and incessant quantities over increasingly convenient social platforms, it seems as if no one takes the effort to make sure they’re expressing themselves well. It’s unlikely anyone from now on would be able to write in prose and pentameter as powerful as Shakespeare’s, and we’re looking at a possible future filled with nothing but novels about vampire romances and shades of monotones. Simply because the quantity of communication has increased does not mean that the quality of it has fallen. But it’s not hard to see that, especially in Singapore, the standard of writing and expression is on a decline – fuelled on many fronts by a lack of interest in effective expression, a paucity of passionate and experienced people teaching language and writing, as well as a continuous shift towards occupations and subjects that are more scientific and thus perceived to be safer. In our continuing effort to spread the joy of words and save us from a future of illiteraricy, here are five steps for you to instantly improve your writing. If you’re already doing this, keep it up and share the wisdom! Step #1: Know What You’re Doing. Writing is the same as just about any other activity. If you’re not sure what you’re doing it for, then you might be going in a completely wrong direction. You could use up all your ammunition and still not land a hit. Worse, you might hit the wrong target, and that is sometimes a bigger problem than aiming at the right one and missing. So before you even begin writing, you need to understand what exactly your purpose is. Here are a few possibilities: Is it to prove a point? Typically, essay writing requires a very close understanding of what exactly is it you’re trying to prove. If the question is about “whether green apples are better than red apples”, you’d need to do a comparison between the two. It’s not the same question as “whether green apples are good”. Is it to tell a story? If so, what story do you want to tell? How do you want people to feel after reading your story? Sad, happy, disgusted, inspired? These all will and should affect how you begin and end your writing. Is it for fun? Even when you’re writing for leisure, say, for a blog post or on a simple whatsapp chat, paying some attention to the words you use could infinitely increase the fun and enjoyment you get. Consider who your target audience is, what they’d like to hear, and most importantly, what kind of images and words they would understand the best. Don’t go around talking about Scylla and Charybdis if you're addressing a class of primary school kids. Is it for marks? This is, sadly, probably the most common type of writing we do nowadays. When doing this you need to be aware of the requirements of the answering format – are there certain restrictions to the words you write? Should you be more careful of making grammatical errors because it’ll get you penalised? If you’re writing for marks, it really helps to clarify what kind of writing will get you what kind of marks. But, generally, I’d say that the better you write, the more marks you’d get, although ‘better’ is often relative to the answer scheme. Step #2: Plan. Planning is the best thing you can do for your writing. That’s because planning is actually thinking, and writing without thinking is the number one cause of bad expression, if that isn’t already obvious. It doesn’t matter how you plan, as long as it involves you ironing out and coordinating your thoughts before, not as, you write. Plan when you’re writing an essay, because otherwise you’ll be confusing yourself as you go along. Plan when you’re doing a short answer question worth only 4 marks, because then you’ll know exactly how many points you’ll cover and you can add/remove things before it becomes indelible ink. Plan when you’re hard-pressed for time, because planning takes out the content-related thinking that you’d otherwise do during the actual writing, and being able to focus solely on expression saves you lots of time. Plan before you answer any question, be it for an interview or a test, because prior thought organises your answers and shows how much of a mature thinker you really are. Plan and plan always. Step #3: Stop Using Words You Don’t Know. I’d daresay every one of us is guilty of this. We think of a brilliant quote or phrase that’s somehow related to the topic at hand, and we reverse engineer our content so we can fit those words of wisdom into our writing. To be fair, this is not always bad, but it mostly is, especially if the quote or word in mind is not totally relevant to begin with. Actually, we do this because we’ve been trained to. Since young we’ve been handed writing assignments with ‘helping words’ that are supposed to enhance our writing. In the short run it does work, as the young us typically don’t know enough vocabulary to fully express ourselves yet. We organise our plots and storylines around these words as if the list was a checklist and the more ‘helping words’ we get to use the better our work will be. Build your expressions around your points, not your points around your expressions. But then a dependency develops, and we begin to force-fit words and phrases into our writing, organising our thoughts around phrases when we should be doing the exact opposite. A force-fit point is horribly obvious and does nothing except to highlight the awkward fundamentals of your writing. While being able to show off good vocabulary and use powerful words at the right times are a definite plus, using words wrongly or without fully appreciating their meaning and connotation can backfire. I don’t really want to describe essay writing as a titanic task, for example, because although it really is difficult, it is not as much of a physically large and powerful activity as the association to the mythological Greek titans suggests. Instead of using inextricably epicurean vocabulary that obfuscate, perplex and hinder meaning, rely on simple words that have less chance for error, unless you really know what you’re doing. Step #4: Don’t Write For The Sake Of Writing. Another unfortunate habit created by the bane that is homework is that most of us see writing as an involuntary activity, typically involving forcing our minds to throw up words and phrases that don’t naturally occur to us. But if you don’t like writing, knowing this lesson will help you avoid doing more of it. I’d say we’ve all done this before too, because there’s always that one teacher that gives us a minimum word limit for an assignment, even though there’s really nothing much to say about it. It’s not wrong, to be fair, but an undesirable side effect is we start to think writing more for the sake of writing more gives us more marks. What makes it worse is that there is some truth behind this perception. The act of waffling, as writing smoke and fluff is known, is really very obvious and could ruin an entire essay if the rest of it is actually sharp and condensed writing. To borrow a common Chinese proverb, it is like drawing a really nice and elaborate snake and then adding legs to it when you realise there’s too much white space. It doesn’t make sense, and distracts the viewer from the beauty of the rest of the picture. Sometimes, less is more. And other times, less itself is better. Just look at all those ‘minimalist’ designs that are trending now. Write when you have something to write, not when you have to write something. And subtlety is also important, especially for more narrative writing. Imagine if Darth Vader had said ‘I am your father but I don’t think you knew that because I was actually Anakin Skywalker previously and I had a tryst with your mom and became a Sith behind this mask before you were old enough to know”. Just say what is necessary to achieve your purpose - there are some things better left to imagination and self-evidence. In short, writing is only partly about what is said. Step #5: Learn From Great Writers. One of the reasons why we are commonly asked to do book reviews and other painful reading assignments is that books are really great places to learn how to write. I mean, they’re the longest written things around, yea? That’s also why people copy model essays and rewrite them thousands of times. It’s ok to copy (unless it's during a test), because almost all great artists start by doing so. When you look at something wonderful and attempt to recreate it yourself you’re also developing some of the skills and muscle memory needed. The problem is if you merely copy but never learn. It is as important to be able to express yourself in your own voice as it is to be aware of how other strong voices express themselves. You could start by copying, but what is more valuable are the lessons which good writers offer – why and how to write rather than what to write. To get these, though, you have to consciously seek them out. Try asking yourself: Why is this so much better than mine and how can I improve? To start you off, here are six rules of writing from amazing academic badass George Orwell: Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short one will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Never use the passive where you can use the active. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Of these, Orwell’s rule #6 leads me to one extra, and perhaps most important step... Step #6: Know That There Are No Rules For Writing. Only guidelines. And even these are meant to be broken intelligently. It might sound contradictory and weird, but as much as the education system might want you to believe, there are no model answers for essay questions, and no hard and fast rules to writing. There are only pieces of writing which are stronger or weaker. And the best measurement of the strength of a piece is how much it can say to how many people in how many words. That is exactly what the marking schemes try to get at when they talk about ‘economy and accuracy of expression’. In the end though, the PEEL and SEE formats of answering are useful, but only because they are a beginning to your writing, not the end. You’re supposed to make use of them to guide you towards developing your own writing style that suits the requirements of the purpose, and is sharp, condensed and strong. So here’s a recap of the 5 + 1 steps to instantly improving your writing: Know what you’re doing. Plan and plan always. Stop using words you don’t know. Don’t write for the sake of writing. Learn from great writers. And know that there are actually no rules to writing. None of these are actually difficult to apply, and I’m speaking from experience when I tell you it’ll instantly improve your writing ability. Go forth now, and change the world with your words. And one more thing, remember you don’t have to follow guidelines if you already know what you’re doing.
Everyone thinks literature is pointless. At least, that’s the impression you get if you look at the number of schools and students taking that up as a subject. That’s also the impression you’ll get if you take a look at what people who study it do: That perception, though, can’t be further from the truth. Literature isn’t Shakespeare. It isn’t comparing things to midsummer’s days and seas incarnadine, nor is it a mess of symbolism, metaphors, allegory, onomatopoeia and personification. These things are part of the package, yes, but literature in its simplest and most beautiful form is essentially the study of the choice and order of words, and how they work to create meaning. And contrary to popular belief, knowing how words work might be one of the most increasingly important skills in the present day, because amidst the sharp decline in literature’s take-up rate, the lessons and skills it offers are becoming more and more valuable. If you’re not convinced, here are a few factors to aid your judgment: #1 – Literature is extremely valuable. Yes, even commercially. You don’t really need to know economics to realise that something with an increasingly high demand and falling supply is gonna be valuable. Literature teaches you to communicate with sharp effectiveness. It trains you to see the full meaning of every word, phrase and sentence, and helps you express yourself in a way not everyone can. Not too long ago, that skill might not have been that useful, because apparently you didn’t need to talk to anyone to get rich by working in a bank or investing in blue chip stocks. But then, facebook happened, and iPhone, and the app store, and twitter, and suddenly everyone, everywhere is trying to reach out to you via their company’s facebook page. Everyone’s telling the story of how they came to be, who they are, what they believe in. And, for the first time, people are actually listening. Social media marketing has brought an entirely new dimension to the game. And if there ever was a time when it is crucial to know how to write a proper story, or choose the best words for a message or a company slogan, it is now. Not because they didn’t exist before, but because people now actually pay attention to these things. The demand for literarily-trained people is going to increase. Companies are going to look out for people who can design an entire marketing campaign with a persuasive central message. But the supply? The numbers speak for themselves. In Singapore, there are only about 3000 students left taking it, from over 16000 in 1992. Yes, it is no longer over 9000, and if you account for the fact that the population has increased a whole lot since 1992, the numbers are even more significant. Rising demand and falling supply. No prizes for guessing the outcome. What’s more, literature itself distinguishes you. By distinguishing, I don’t mean that it makes you part of an intellectual elite too high up for the uneducated masses (that is a disgusting thought which some people might have), but simply that it makes you different from the other 90%. It automatically gives you attention. The fact that most people think it is extremely difficult to score well for the subject also doesn’t hurt, because it makes an A in literature seem much, much more equal than an A in another subject. And being different is amazing in so many ways that people resort to a whole variety of methods to prove they are unique. But why would you need to perform thousands of hours of CIP, be a member of fifty two clubs and chairperson of five when all you really need to do to put yourself within that 1% is to take a subject? Because scoring for literature is even harder than that. Right? Wrong. Because… #2 – Literature is really easy to study for You heard it here first and I’ll say it again. Literature is easy. That’s because it’s a skill - like riding a bike. You learn it once, and even if you don’t cycle for a few years, you’ll still be able to do it when you have to. That’s brilliant as a subject, you know, because it precisely means you only need to revisit it the day before your exams, as long as you already understand what it’s all about (emphasis added in case advice is misinterpreted and destroys lives). The reason why many people think it’s difficult is because they see it as just another subject you have to memorise facts for. That perception is horribly misguided. You can study literature, but you can’t quite mug for it. It is a subject in which you actually need to think and to understand, and sadly for some people that makes it the hardest subject of all time. To make things worse, effort put into studying literature can often go unrewarded. Many hardworking people become extremely disillusioned when they continuously fail their literature tests. But if you think this shows how much of a pain literature is, then you need to be acquainted with the mantra of all lazy and somehow successful people (I am not saying I am one of them): “If it ain’t easy, you’re doing it wrong.” No, really. Literature seems difficult because everyone has the wrong perception about it. They think it involves hours of memorizing quotes and deciphering unintelligible language and finding meaning in absolutely nothing. But that’s not what it’s about. To do well you simply need to instigate a paradigm shift within yourself and recognize all you need to do is comment on something you already naturally know. Say for instance, I threw you the word “Moon”. Now that word creates some kind of image and emotion in your head right? I’d guess you’re seeing a picture of a moon in your mind right now. You might see the night sky behind it, and some clouds partially obstructing a full moon, and this image tells you it’s nighttime. And nighttime makes you feel calm, or sleepy, or energized, or evil and mysterious. You might see an entirely different image from what I described, and you can still be entirely right, because as long as you can describe how you get those images and thoughts from the word, and it’s not horribly contrived (like if the word moon made you think of definite integrals, in which case you might need help), you’re gonna be a whiz at lit. So literature is a skill. Some say it’s hard because there’s no right answer, but isn’t it awesomely easy because there’s also no wrong answer? You’re free to write anything you want, and the stuff you write are basically things you intuitively feel. There’s no mugging or memorization required. C'mon....the exams are OPEN BOOK. And since it’s really not difficult, it makes sense that… #3 – Literature makes life awesome. I’m gonna make a new word here, cause Shakespeare did that, and so can I. This word is literaricy. It’s like literacy, only instead of meaning whether you can understand words or not, literaricy is about whether you can understand literary devices, references, and all the other amazing things words and images can do. Literacy comes from plain schooling, and literaricy comes from studying literature and being awakened to the world of how literature works to convey meaning. It’s really amazing and it heightens your enjoyment of almost everything. Typically, products that claim to heighten enjoyment can be a little pricey, but literature is great because it is free, and lasts a really long time (pun not intended). It’s one thing to be able to read a poem, but to be able to understand its meaning and appreciate the pure genius that went into the poet’s clever choice, inclusion and exclusion of words is another. Of course you might not care about poems, but this holds true for movies, shows, advertisements, whatsapp messages, and basically anything that involves the use of words. With literaricy, movies become especially enjoyable because you’re able to see, clearer than anyone else, the parallels that the director puts in the beginning, middle and end of the show. You know what’s going on in Inception when Leonardo Dicaprio takes Ellen Page for her first tour of the dreamworld. And the appropriate response is “Christopher Nolan is doing it right.” A purely literate person and a literarate person can watch the same show and come out with entirely different insights. Once you’re literarate, you’re able to appreciate so much more in life that it’s almost as if… #4 – Literature gives you abilities that would normally be called superpowers. Like mindreading, because from what a person says you can infer his thoughts, motivations, and purposes, in addition to the literal meaning of his words. And the ability to say things on a specific frequency so that only certain people get the message. And actually write poems. Because how else did William Shakespeare make Anne Hathaway his wife? And, really, the ability to write at all, in perfect, grammatical English. Guys, you'll realise how much of a superhero this makes you when you enter the army. Girls, you too when you start doing university level projects with less-than-ideal groupmates. So, yea, superpowers, and what’s truly great about them is that… #5 – You actually keep them for the rest of your life. You’re never really going to forget how to ride a bike. Because literature is a skill more than a subject, art more than academics, you’ll almost never lose it. All the effort you’re putting into memorizing formulas and keywords is going to evaporate the moment you finish your exams forget them. You might not ever need any of that knowledge ever again anyway, so who cares? But you’re going to be talking, typing, reading and writing almost everyday. And the lessons you learn studying literature will be applied on a daily basis. Even if you tried, you couldn’t shake off the habit of choosing exactly which words you’re using to say exactly what you’re trying to say. You’re not going to be able stop yourself from analyzing the words you encounter in your day to day life. Trust me, I’ve tried. The hard part about literature is that you really need to understand and internalize what it’s all about. But that is what makes it truly great, as I’m pretty sure somewhere in the thesaurus, ‘understand’ has a synonym called ‘long-term memory’. When you really grasp something that well, it’s really, really hard to lose. In the end, you’ll continue to benefit from all the awesomeness, distinction, awareness and superpowers that literature bestows upon you, long after you forget what Lady Macbeth says in 1.5. about spirits that tend on mortal thoughts. I’m not saying it’s better than any other subject, just that it’s better than what people give it credit for. It's true that you can learn all these lessons elsewhere too, except literature lets you do that in school. Awesome, right? So if you’re interested in something that’s valuable, applicable, and lasting, literature might be for you. Of course, if you’re not confident of scoring fine in the subject, even when it’s really not that hard…well then let’s just say that, unfortunately, there’re some things in this material world that are more equal than others…
William Shakespeare. His works are considered amongst the greatest pieces of English literature ever written. They’ve been translated into every spoken language there is, and performed in almost every auditorium, theatre, and classroom in the world. His pieces – Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet and many more – still serve as the inspiration and creative backdrop on which today’s stories are written. Yet if you ask anyone who has ever picked up one of his works, and you’ll realize that they are also amongst the most cryptic, hard to understand, and painfully slow moving stories to ever be published for mortal eyes. Almost every edition of his plays comes with explanatory notes and appendixes which actually outnumber the actual text at a ratio of about 4000 to 1. So how did someone who was so difficult to understand become so successful? We can’t quite deny that he was a great playwright and poet. But he would probably have failed all his English exams, too, because he had the habits of… 1. Not giving two cents about grammar, sentence structure and other established rules of the English language Consider this exchange by three witches right at the beginning of Macbeth: So erm…what’s a hurlyburly? Is "where the place" a typo or something? And who or what on earth is Graymalkin? And Paddock? Did Macbeth have a side hobby in F1 racing? I'm really confused now. In this short scene, Shakespeare manages to create words which don’t exist, break the conventions of grammar, and refer to unknown characters which were never properly introduced and will never again appear in the play. You know, if all of us had the luxury of being able to create words out of thin air just to say what we wanted to say, I’d expect essays to turn out something like this: Then again, who are we to say that he’s broken the rules anyway. After all, he’s Shakespeare. He practically wrote the rules. So it’s a little hard to say he didn’t follow them, but even if he did, he’d probably still not perform very well for his tests because he was also fond of… 2. Not being clear about what he means Shakespeare was either medieval England’s most accomplished tightrope walker or its most intelligent troll, because, even now, 500 years after his death, people are still arguing over what he meant. Now if you’ve ever taken an English class (yes you have), your teacher would probably have told you that you need to say clearly what you mean, instead of leaving it to the reader to second-guess what you’re trying to say. Shakespeare was probably on sick leave the day his English teacher taught this, because many of his stories have no clear ending. The literary community still doesn’t know if The Taming of the Shrew was ultimately a play sympathizing with the plight of women, or if it was just Shakespeare’s idea of an “in-your-face” to the women of his time. There are research papers being written and rewritten about it, but till this date no one is sure. It wouldn’t be so bad, though, if this uncertainty wasn’t over the MAIN THEME OF THE PLAY. It’s like he was working on the play’s ending but somehow got distracted and decided to, well, just leave it. Also, he probably missed that part where the teacher tells the class about the problems with… 3. Writing about dreams, magic and unicorns Admit it. Sometime when you were young and innocent, you wrote an epic and fantastical story about unicorns and rainbows (or castles, knights and magic swords depending on your gender), and justified everything with the words “and it was all just a dream”. You submitted it to your teacher thinking you’d probably do well and get a nice little sticker as a reward. But instead of that adhesive fix, all you got was “the real world isn’t made of dreams, little one.” Well, Shakespeare disagrees. In almost every play he has written, Shakespeare introduces us to a wonderful world of magic and mystery. There are fairies and witches and floating heads and magical reanimation potions, and some scholars even suggest that, if you look closely, you can find evidences for the Mayan apocalypse of 2012 and the Loch Ness monster (note: I made this part up). Perhaps the best example of his ultimate quest to refute every convention of composition-writing wisdom is when he decided to write a play called “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which, incidentally, ends exactly with A FAIRY TELLING THE AUDIENCE THAT, IN THE END, IT WAS ALL A DREAM, or in other words, exactly what we were told not to do. Clearly, Shakespeare would have struggled to gain the favour of his teachers, and it was probably even more difficult because he was also fond of… 4. Having plots in which, basically, everyone dies. In fact, if you paid enough attention, you’d probably get the impression that Shakespeare was the medieval equivalent of a psychopathic sadist. That’s because whenever possible he had no use for a character any more, that character usually died. Some characters even appear and die in the same act, as if the only reason he created them in the first place was so that he could orchestrate that character’s undoing. And if that’s not enough, Shakespeare’s characters died in so many ways that his plays probably inspired final destination. But wait, what’s wrong with that? After all, everyone loves watching other people die right? There’s nothing wrong with appealing to popular taste. He was a playwright wasn’t he? Well, yes. But this also means his initial works probably sounded something like: It’s no wonder he was able to create such wonderful stories, because whenever he was done with one character, he could just conveniently kill him off and move on to bigger, better things. Add this together with how he would simply conjure up new words from nowhere, or misspell words and twist grammar to fit his favourite rhythm of iambic pentameter, and you’d realize that, honestly, it probably wasn’t very difficult for him to create something new. And here lies an interesting revelation – that when you’re already successful, you can do absolutely anything you want and people will still think it’s genius. And this brings me to the final point, not so much about why he’d fail as a literature student, but why, in fact, he could have been just slightly overrated. 5. Writing in language that’s difficult to understand and making people think that’s what works I’d first begin by qualifying that there is probably nothing wrong with this if you’re looking from the perspective of what was happening in the Elizabethan era when Shakespeare was alive. At a time when most people were too busy dying from the plague or paying taxes to knights in shining armour, the Shakespeare fan club would have comprised mostly rich and powerful aristocrats. And in that point of view, there’s nothing wrong with him taking the whole of three weeks just to describe a single scene of a play. Because what else would those rich royals have to do with their lives anyway? There was a time when it was considered good writing to make 42 allusions to 42 different things just to illustrate what you wanted to say more vividly and to make sure the reader knew just exactly how much of a literary powerhouse you were. I'm not quite sure we're still living in that time. Because, if you ask me, the best measure of good literature is not just how much it can say, but also how many people actually are enriched by it. What is the point of writing in beautifully verbose language and being able to employ over 9000 literary devices if at the end of the day, only about 5 people actually get it? In fact, Shakespeare’s works weren’t even recognized during his time. They only began to be popular and celebrated about 200 years after his death, because that was probably how long it took for people to understand just what on earth he was talking about. And if it wasn’t bad enough, people are actually getting inspired by his success and writing scores of 'beautiful literature' that only other people who actually specialize in decoding such 'beautiful literature' can understand. We start to think literature is when you don’t use words with less than five syllables and when you try your utmost best not to say directly what you mean. And when you read something like this and simply cannot understand what’s going on, instead of thinking how horrible this is, you start to think it’s because you are shallow and uneducated. While that – might – be true, it’s not always the case. That’s why no one thinks literature has any commercial value, because what we think is literature, as inspired it’s poster child William Shakespeare, really doesn’t have much of it. So, the next time your teacher penalizes you for not writing clearly, misspelling a word, or generally not caring about grammar and other established rules of the English language, find an extract from Shakespeare and show him that this is exactly what Shakespeare did. It might not do much, but at least you’ll feel better as you receiving an F for your assignment knowing how much of a literary genius you might actually be. Now the question is, if the best writer of all time would've failed his exams, does it mean he's actually a bad writer, or really that the exam formats are a little...Shakespearan?