It’s that time of the year again – that time when everyone starts caring about GP. Because if you fail it, you re-take the A-levels. Such joy. To deny Cambridge a little extra revenue, here’s ten common mistakes students make when writing, and how you could instantly improve your exam scores by fixing them. Or, if you’re the example kind of guy, we’ll be exploring how you could turn this: At the outset, it is crucial and perhaps pertinent to note the fact that, due to the presence of a variety of reasons behind why students tend to make a plethora of errors and indeed miscalculations in their writing efforts, such as unchecked misconceptions about writing left unrectified by their educational instructors, the average or mean standard of communication, written or otherwise, seems to have fallen to a level that is definitely worrying and truly alarming. Into this: Misconceptions about writing cause students to write badly. By the way, the first sentence is grammatically correct. I’ve checked. Thrice. Only, the first thing you’ll notice is how it’s… 1. Using empty words. There are about 100000 words in the English language (not including those Shakespeare made). Actually, there are probably more, but that doesn’t mean you have to use every single one. The Enemy: Glue words that have no meaning on their own. The point is that depending on the situation, some words are more equal than others. I’m not being wordist here, only - the right word at the right place is always better than a lawyer in an emergency room, or a librarian in an ice hockey rink. For you see, words like table and swim have meaning. When I say flying pink bananas, I make images of aerodynamic, discoloured fruit appear in your mind. These words, usually nouns, verbs and adjectives, are full. They’re the workhorses of the English language. But when I say “and” or “the”, or “those”, I’m pretty sure nothing appears in your head. If something does, I’d really like to hear from you. The Solution: Reduce and rephrase. These words are just there to hold all the other words together. They have no meaning in themselves. So the right thing to do is to avoid them where possible. I don’t mean stop using them completely, only that a sentence like: It was decided by Henry that he would go and swim. Could be better expressed as: Henry decided to swim. And while we’re here, I’d like to draw your attention to a particular class of empty words, which frequently occur if you’re… 2. Calling a spade a manual entrenchment establishment device. The Enemy: Euphemisms, Technicalities and Jargon. These are the words you use when you have no real point to make, can’t convince, so you confuse. Big as these words can get, you can’t hide behind syllables and letters. To any examiner’s trained, tired and cynical eye, such ‘waffling’ gets you nowhere. In fact, using a complex word out of its place may draw unwanted attention to the weaknesses in your writing. And big words often betray. Sometimes we’re not sure what they mean, and we use them to act smart. But only those who aren’t smart need to act like they are. For starters, here’re some greatly overused words in a hugely misused phrase: The advent of technology causes a plethora of issues and concerns. NEWFLASH: “Advent” really means arrival, and has nothing to do with development or growth. So strictly speaking, the advent of technology was around 500, 000 B.C., when we discovered fire and knives. Does your introduction still make sense? NEWFLASH II: “Plethora” really means an excessive amount of something. IT ISN'T A HIGH-CLASS SUBSTITUTE FOR “VARIETY”. Varieties are neutral. Plethoras are bad. So if you’re saying you have a plethora of reasons why I should believe you, you’re really saying I shouldn’t. The Solution: Stick with your trusty childhood friends. Words you learn are like friends you make. The earlier you get to know them, the more you can trust them. Soon you’ll learn that you pretty much stop making good friends once you’re over 18, but that’s a sad story for another sad day. Suffice to say, words like right, wrong, good, bad, because, and also are never gonna let you down. They’ll never turn around and tell you “you thought I was this? Ha! I am actually that!” When in doubt, saying: “The writer is wrong because he does not consider how things will play out in the long run”, may be better than saying “the writer is erroneous due to the simple reason that he omits to calculate the extended efficacies of these extraneous factors.” For more on why a plethora of complex words is the worst thing ever, see this article on why you should use simple words, and my very enthusiastic reply. Anyway, there are another group of words which you should entirely avoid. They typically appear when you’re... 3. Pointing out that what’s obvious is obviously obvious. The Enemy: “Clearly”, “definitely”, “truly”and other rhetorical fluff This clearly happens a lot and is definitely a mistake students frequently make which truly reduces their exam scores. If you’re with me on this, you’ll realise I could have omitted all those words in the above sentence, and it would actually be better. That’s because if something is so clear, such definite, or very true, it usually speaks for itself. You don’t have to emphasise that it’s clear. Doing so only makes the reader wonder why you’re pushing the point so much, and question if it’s as ‘clear’ as you’re making it out to be. In other words, overdoing it makes your sentence sound like salesman pitch, which doesn’t help if you’re trying to be reliable. The Solution: Avoid using these words unless you’re sure it helps. Take for example a common sentence where this mistake occurs: Project XYZ was a truly enriching experience and I definitely learnt a lot in the process. I’m not sure about you, but when I read this, I get the idea that whatever that project was really wasn’t very much, and you’re trying to make up for that using stronger words. Which are empty. So save yourself time and ink by simply saying this: Project XYZ was an enriching experience and I learnt a lot in the process. This sounds more confident, direct, and is more persuasive because it doesn’t seem like you’re hiding something. Now we’re done with individual words, it’s also a good idea to stop… 4. Using empty phrases. There are about 10 million phrases in the English language. Ok, no, but you get the point. Some phrases are less equal than others. The Enemy: Placeholders and Distancers Distancers isn’t actually a word, but I’m using it to refer to that class of phrases we use to bring something further from the reader. Instead of saying problems, we say “the presence of” problems. Instead of saying factors, we say “the existence of” factors. And instead of saying technology, we say “the advent of” technology. The Solution: Omit, omit, omit. Unless you’re really trying to highlight the mere presence of something as the key to whatever it is you’re trying to say, it’s likely you could just not write anything at all. A meaningless phrase that always appears is “the presence of a variety of reasons”. That says nothing. Better to simply state what those reasons are. Hence… Due to the presence of a variety of reasons, Singapore’s grass is growing. Among these reasons are strong sunlight and rain. Can be better expressed as Singapore’s grass is growing because of strong sunlight and frequent rain. Indeed, one problem related to empty phrases is… 5. Cruel, Heartless Objectification. It is very unfashionable now to be misogynistic, so we should generally avoid objectifying things. Even if we do, we should at least be aware. The Enemy: ‘-ions’, ‘-ments’, ‘-isms’ and other suffixes merely there to lengthen words. For those who don’t know, a suffix is something you attach to the end of the word, like “-ment” in “argument”. In the spirit of unnecessarily complicating things, we often subconsciously objectify verbs to make them sound nicer. Here are some examples: The realization that he was going to fail put him in a crippled state. His ideas possess a great degree of liberalism. The generation of ideas is a painful process every student goes through in the creation of projects. The agreement on the formalization of their relationship was decided between Mary and John. The Solution: Rephrase and Simplify. Look out for phrases that go “the (something) of”. In these cases, things which didn’t need to be objectified were mercilessly objectified, dressed up in bloat, and denied of their rights as individual words. For a fairer world, we should really be writing as such: Realising he was going to fail crippled him. His ideas are liberal. Every student generates ideas to create projects. Mary and John formalized their relationship. For best results, avoid using phrases like “the … of”, and start your sentences with nouns and verbs. In fact, doing so helps you avoid… 6. Ambiguity and vagueness. For the record, they’re different concepts altogether. The Enemy: Phrases with dual meanings, or overly general phrases Ambiguity arises when it isn’t clear whether something is this or that. Consider this phrase: "The shopkeeper had many tricks in store". We don’t know if the shopkeeper was particularly cunning, or recently restocked his magic shop. Vagueness is when something is too general to say anything important. For example: Various studies and numerous research methods have shown that too much homework is bad for health. Nice try there, but that puff of smoke known as “various studies and numerous research methods” isn’t going to convince anyone. In short, ambiguity and vagueness is for politicians and diplomats who have to comment without commenting and still appear smart. Not for essay writers trying to score points and convince. The Solution: Be Specific. Re-read your work, and get to the point. An essay is basically a set of directions pointing the reader toward the conclusion you want. You don’t want to leave him at a fork in a road. The only remedy to ambiguity is to directly avoid it altogether by re-drafting your sentences so no doubt remains about what you mean. Hence, try: The shopkeeper had an ingenious plan up his sleeve. Vagueness, on the other hand, can only be tackled when you’re sure of what you’re talking about. It’s always convenient to rely on “various reasons” when we can’t think of anything specific. But that really doesn’t help. The key is to know your stuff. So you could write something like: “A study of 100 students in the University of Fairytopia found that a majority of students given more than 10 kilograms of homework per week suffered from kidney illnesses later in life.” Also, throw away the word “various”. Stop using it. Lock it in your closet. Chain it up. And discard it into the nearest incinerator. Then spray your entire house with anti-Various. And while you’re trying to be specific, also make sure you’re not throwing out lots of… 7. Irrelevance and Redundancy. I know what you’re thinking. I just made that error myself because the word ‘redundant’ was redundant after I already used ‘irrelevant’. Right? Wrong. The difference between the two’s relevant here. Something’s relevant when it’s so closely connected to the point that it’s appropriate to discuss. Let’s make sure you get that. To be relevant, it must be: Related to the point Suitable to talk about Or, to make things very clear, relevant = connection + suitability. Why am I harping on this? Because what’s related isn’t always appropriate. Let’s say you’re writing an essay on the benefits of extreme sports on the economy. Stuff about extreme sports is probably related. But that doesn’t mean you have to list every extreme sport out there, or devote an entire paragraph into the origins and development of extreme ironing. Further, what’s relevant could still be redundant. Redundancy means something that’s not needed or superfluous. The word is needed. That means what you’re saying should be a necessity, like oxygen, water, and Wi-Fi. So ask yourself this: If I leave this word/phrase/sentence out, would my essay die? The Enemy: Putting stuff in just because, for word count, and to ensure the marker knows you have a great memory. And saying the same thing with different words, to make sure the marker knows your vocabulary is has more colour than Dennis Rodman’s hair. As in this paragraph: Extreme sports like mountain-climbing, ice-skating, mountain-skating, ice-climbing, roller-blading, snowboarding and competitive Youtubing are beneficial to the economy because they promote tourism, especially in countries like Switzerland, France, Okinawa and Lichtenstein. By the way, did you know that Everest is the tallest mountain in the world, and that no cats have made it to the top? Anyway, the point is that people travel to Nepal to climb, scale, surmount, and summit that mountain. That’s a lot of or, can I say, a plethora of, people, which stimulates the local economy. Here’s a more insidious example: Every player was mostly tired after the exhausting game. The better sentence is simply: "Everyone was tired after the game". See? Even the word “player” was redundant. The Solution: Don’t. Just don’t. Common sense tells us writing nothing should be infinitely easier than writing something. But after years and years of writing to hit word counts, we learn that words = reward. And that association’s really hard to break. But like world records, bad habits we get from the system are meant to be broken. To help you, here’s a simple thought process: 1 - Is this even remotely related to the issue? 2 - Only if Yes: should I write it? 3 - Only if Yes - do I really need this? 4 - If still Yes - Have I already said the same thing earlier? 5 - If very certain Yes, write and repeat. I’m not saying you have to consciously do this for every single thing, only that you should subconsciously do this for every single thing. And if something’s somewhat related to the main point, but not so much to the smaller point you’re currently discussing, consider leaving it for later. Or admit that it’s unrelated. On an unrelated note, you should also avoid… 8. Putting everything far, far away. This one’s a small problem run wild. The Enemy: The words “have” and “had”, amongst others For some reason, we like to needlessly put everything we say in past participle. As if doing so makes what we say authoritative. For example, I had wanted to write this entire paragraph having used unnecessary past participles in every sentence I had written, but I have decided only to do so in his sentence had. There’s really no reason for these words. In fact placing them in distances what you’re saying from the reader – first by pushing everything further into the past, and second by literally adding distance between the subject of the sentence and its point. Similarly for words like “could” and “would” compared to “can” and “will” The Solution: Whenever you write “had” or “have”, ask yourself whether the simple past tense would work is better. For the grammatically-challenged reader, this means asking if “I had wanted to run away” is worse or better than simply “I wanted to run away”. Or if “I would be interested in your proposal which could make us a lot of money” is better than “I am interested in your profitable proposal. The last pair of issues are related, and if you’re following me so far you’d have guessed as much, but your essay should never… 9. Have more qualifiers than the World Cup. Behold the mighty Clause. It knows when you are sleeping. It seeps into your words. Its cousin only works once a year, but it loves attention. When you’re not looking, it sneaks into your sentence. And multiplies. Clauses, of course, are the basic building blocks of sentences. Like phrases, only more technical. You don’t have to know them very well to know that this next sentence is hugely confusing: Primarily, at least from an economic perspective, and where Asian countries are concerned, cultural barriers, except those which are not firmly entrenched, are difficult to break through unless one makes a strong, determined effort, both consciously and subconsciously, to integrate himself into the community, provided this community accepts his entrance. The Enemy: Subordinate Clauses (basically, the stuff that usually goes between two commas or in brackets and can actually form separate sentences). Assuming you understood what I wrote above, you probably think I made sense. Only it took you so long to make sure you understood that you either gave up trying or hate me now. I hope it is self-evident why shortening that sentence would make it better. Each clause adds a little tidbit of information into fray, which is supposed to shape how the reader understands its main point. Almost literally, the reader must juggle every little bit while trying to stay focused on the main thread of the sentence, all the while keeping track of grammar. So every time you throw a clause into the mix, you’re asking the reader to juggle one more thing. If you’ve ever tried juggling, you’ll know that juggling one ball is easy, juggling two is slightly harder, and juggling three is $@!#%. The Solution: Divide and Convince Unless you’re Dan Brown, you don’t want your reader working harder than you. So the right thing to do is to break them up into smaller, bite-sized chunks. And if some chunks can be combined into one, do that. I recommended a maximum of three clauses in any one sentence. Here’s how: Primarily, from an economic perspective, Asian cultural barriers are difficult to break through. Unless these barriers are not firmly entrenched, one has to consciously and subconsciously make a determined effort to integrate. Even then, the community must accept his entrance. For the grammar junkies (ie. None of you), here’s a detailed page on the wonders of Subordinate Clauses. Finally, if you’re cutting down on qualifiers, you should also be able to stop… 10. Dragging sentences on and on. The Enemy: Needlessly long sentences Long sentence bad. Short sentence good. I over-simplify. But school is about over-simplifying anyway. For some reason, students sometimes think writing long sentences is the best demonstration language ability. Perhaps because you’ve read academic articles comprising some of the longest beauties you’ve ever seen. Thing is, academic research articles aren’t always the hallmark of clarity in expression, because they’re commonly written to express very complex ideas to very complex people, by people whose main specialties are in scientific research rather than literature and communication. And trust me, the misconception that longer sentences = better work still exists in the mythical echelons of university writing. Of course if you’re really good enough, and you can successfully write in long, flowing sentences which best express your point (like Nobel writer Jose Saramago), then fine and good. But most of us aren’t Nobel writers and many of us will never be. As your sentences get longer, you find yourself losing track of grammar and forgetting what you were really trying to say anyway. Because you’re also trying to juggle lots of things when you’re doing it. The Solution: See #9 above. Or as a simple guide, when using a comma, always ask: Is this the 10th comma in this sentence? Could I use a full stop instead? Should I use a full stop instead? Do I really want to say this? And there you have it, the top ten errors you can rectify almost immediately. To summarise: Avoid words that are empty, vague, ambiguous, redundant, overly complex, and/or needlessly distance the point you’re making. Pay special attention to words like “advent”, “various”, “had”, “definitely”, “could”, and objectifications. Avoid phrases that are empty, crafted just because, meaningless, ambiguous, irrelevant, and/or overly qualify or lengthen a sentence. Special mention goes to phrases like “the <something> of”, and subordinate clauses. Finally, here’s one for the road. If you’ve been following me so far, you’d realize all of these errors can be avoided if we simply write simply, try not to act too smart and bite off more than we can handle, and actually think about the words and phrases we use. That’s really all there is to good writing – conscious effort coupled with an appreciation of what works well. If you know other mistakes students commonly make, share them in the comments. Till next time!
Articles tagged under writing:
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)
We all know the drill. After getting the essay paper, you analyse the question using the [insert acronym here]. Next you need to start planning your essay. If you take around 15 minutes, you’re on track. Oops, you took 14. Now to wait 1 minute before you allow yourself to begin. Then, the paragraph, where you must apply the PEEL format. Point. Evidence. Evaluation. Link. Or was it Point, Explanation, Elaboration, Link? How about Point, Example, Evidence, Link? What other words can E spell again? Enunciation? Exams? Exasperation? What the PEEL actually is: The PEEL format of answering taught in schools is an attempt to introduce structure and organization into essay scripts. It’s based on one (mostly true) assumption that students at this level need some help in sorting out their usually messy thoughts. And this format helps ensure candidates write what they’re trying to say first, followed by the facts and figures they can use to support it, before analyzing what these facts show and then bringing it back to the question. The problem, then, is that even after a long period of mindless adherence to such formats, students may not understand the rationales and, therefore, significance of ordering an answer this way. Rote learning replaces the development of a skill when one is no longer able to understand why he is doing something in a certain way. And that would be fine, actually, since we’re only concerned about marks here anyway. If not for how every kind of essay question requires a slightly different answering format. One that is more optimized for it. And that is not to say that there is any one single format best suited for a particular question. This varies along with the writer’s own style, knowledge, arguments, preferences, time of day, and the number of butterflies in the world. So when a new question that calls for something different comes up, an unsuspecting PEELer has no defence. The futile format does nothing to advance his cause except provide the beginning and end of the paragraph. When do I write the explanation? Now’s the time for evidence! But something tells me it isn’t right. Why do I find it so hard to evaluate now when I’m supposed to? Am I allowed to write an explanation after the evaluation? What does E stand for and in what order??! If you really thought about it, you’d realise the PEEL makes no sense. If it were even clear that the evidence/example came before the explanation/elaboration/evaluation (hint: it should), then the next problem is what happens when the evaluation needs some evidence? Could you have an explanation of your point and elaborate on that explanation before producing your examples? Would that not count as blasphemy? In fact, to really make sense of it all, you’d need to remove Elaboration and Explanation from the picture. Because they can be put, when they are required, in any part of the paragraph. If the point you’re trying to make its unclear, explain it. If the link isn’t very well expressed, elaborate. If there’s a very detailed example you’re trying to give, there’s no way you can do it without elaborating. For the record: to explain means to make something clearer by providing additional details, illustrations or reasons. Elaboration is, basically, to say more things about something. They’re not even two different things altogether. And then, evidence and examples. By the same logic, can they not be placed as and when they are needed? The point here is that knowing when something is needed is far more important than knowing when the PEEL format calls for it. A new paradigm What do you do when something doesn’t work? You fix it, or throw it away. You wouldn’t really want to throw the PEEL away unless the answer schemes do, though, so what you have to do is fix it. Can the PEEL be fixed? Maybe, if you start to understand the reasons behind it. One way of doing that would be to change the way you look at the PEEL. Instead of thinking of it as a systematic, ordered dictation of what and how to write, see the two Es in the centre as a symbol of the interaction between all the evil E’s of essay writing. The middle of the paragraph, therefore, is a mixture of explanations, evidences, elaborations, examples and evaluations (did I miss anything out) that are mutually interdependent and build upon each other. P-EE-L. Or, as I prefer to see it, the PPP. Barring how ironic it is that I’m suggesting another acronym here, this stands for: Proposition, or what argument you’re bringing up to prove, Process, the means by which you prove the proposition, and Point, the proven proposition we can purport as the Point you just made. In practice, the Proposition is exactly the same as the point in the PEEL. It just shouldn’t be called a point until you have made it, or, in other words, argued successfully for it. Then you’d feel like there’s something to argue for. The Point at the end is like the Link, except that, because it’s made on the back of the Process, a far stronger and more refined Point can be made here compared to the initial Proposition. You don’t have to simply link back and restate the question every time. Now the most important part – the Process, or how you turn your Proposition into a Point. It forms the logical arguments, empirical facts, and rationalization that go into making your opinion so persuasive that someone accepts it. Within the Process come other sub-Ps: that of logical Premises, Proof, Persuasive writing, and really other things like deduction, induction, and comparison, as well as the evil Es. In short, there’s nothing that should be limiting what and how you prove your point, as long as you prove it well. Note that this is not meant to replace the PEEL as much as it is to reinforce it by providing an alternative way of looking at how a paragraph works. There is no need to stick to a structural order that not only doesn’t make sense, but is not optimized to question requirements. Thinking of the EE’s as a Process you need to go through to prove your point may make things harder initially, but as you Practice more and more, you’ll realise the flexibility and space to experiment you gain would have tremendously improved your writing, reasoning, and marks-scoring skills. In the end, a fruit’s peel may contain healthy vitamins and fibres that we should eat even if it tastes bad. But when life gives you bananas, you may find the peel rather inedible, and easy to trip on.
It was appalling and indeed dreadful to peruse a previous submission entitled “Why You Shouldn't Ever Use Big Words.” Extrapolating epiphanies from this article, I opined it essential and in fact compulsive to provide a defence of the multifold and indeed enlightening usages of vocabulary frequently misconstrued as excessively bombastic and Herculean to comprehend. In truth, it is nearly always a wiser alternative to utilize a longer and thus stronger word over a shorter and thus weaker one. I append my quintuple rationales for this option in the following paragraphs: #1 – Polysyllabic vocabulary is additionally effectual. In our relentless pursuit for academic and linguistic excellence we are often confronted with the task of demonstrating our propositions in as convincing and persuasive a method as possible. And in the domain of persuasion and influencing thought, few words suffice as fittingly as those which exceed an arbitrary minimum of four syllabic units. Significantly, the continuous and conscious commitment to the contrived and complicated conforms completely to one of the wisest adages of argument which, unfortunately, is expressed in an overly simplistic way: If you cannot convince, then confuse. To put it sophisticatedly, if one ever, and when one inevitably, finds himself in a position in which a case one is charged with arguing for is lacking in evidence, logic, and other optional tenets of quality writing, it is possible and indeed recommended for one to gravitate towards these trustworthy lieutenants of multialphabetic origin to construct the concealment required to camouflage such aforementioned want of quality. As an additional meritorious enhancement, the ability to utilize words associated commonly with the bombastic is ubiquitously acknowledged as a mark of true intellect and loquacity. Despite arguments towards the contrary that the mere usage of sophisticated words in writing is inadequately indicative of similar complexity in thought, it must be noted that in any successful piece of persuasion there is no requirement to actually be intelligent – it is sufficient to appear to be so. Therefore and henceforth, it is not uncommon to observe that any writing conducted successfully in a consciously complicated manner convinces the reader of the notion that the writer of said literature must be clearly be remarkably thoughtful, and wins the allegiance of the reader’s thoughts even without making any substantial propositions. It is even not infrequently speculated that the integer value of the summation of the syllabic units one utilizes in any piece of writing possesses a positive if not proportionate correlation to the academic marks that one receives. Evidently and apparently it is unquestionably a wiser option to always resort to the verbose. What one lacks in quality is easily compensated by quantity. #2 – Continued employment of the verbose serves as invaluable experience and practice in sharpening one’s vocabulary and élan. It is simplistic and indeed naïve to perceive writing as an activity conducted merely for immediate purposes, and indubitably important to acknowledge that writing should also be carried out with due attention paid to the sustained development of the personal writing style in the extended scheme of time. It is evident, thus, that one must perennially attempt to summon powerful words in his writing – such that one gains critical insights and crucial familiarity into the methods and means to improve upon his own writing departments. Suppose one is content with simply utilizing the simple, and does not deem it necessary to conduct writing with the objective of employing the bombastic. Because there will seem never to be a requirement to use a longer word when a short one apparently fulfills the purpose, one may and indeed will never find it possible to progress upwards into the higher echelons of writing, which involve being comfortable and entirely conversant in the language of the upper classes, that is, words which, as previously highlighted, possess a minimum of four syllabic tenets. In summarization, it is imperative, when writing, to compel ourselves towards utilizing elongated words. This is the sole way of honing our writing faculties. #3 It is entirely easier to write in as indulgent and complicated a style as possible. Within a letter composed by the marvelous mathematician Blaise Pascal, a solitary line stands out as an indisputable case for the complicated. Concluding his composition, Pascal remarked how he “had wanted to write a shorter letter, but did not have the time”. There exists infinite wisdom within this exclamation, notably the appreciation of the indelible fact that in order to produce writing which is shorter and perhaps simpler, far greater effort and thought is required. Considered in tandem with the existing case we have observed thus far that simple writing has none of the benefits which consciously complicated writing possesses, it is clear how writing sophisticatedly promises major benefits at minor costs. In truth, there is, by now, an abyss of reasons to speak simply, owing to the fact that the aforementioned is an activity which requires more input and produces less output. It is an activity which requires such insignificant things as attempting to condense words into more palatable clauses and applying control on otherwise indulgently impactful vocabulary in the naïve belief that it is crucial to engineer your writing in a manner in which the target receiver is most probably able to understand. Catering to the ignorant is nothing except a waste of time, especially since if that receiver in question does not comprehend one’s words, it does not matter. He will either be bought over by one’s verbosity, or even if he is not, it is equally probabilistic that since he has not achieved a level from which he can comprehend your words, he would not be able to appreciate its true beauty even if he did’st. #4 – It is purely and pristinely logical to incessantly invoke intellectual vocabulary. A modest and yet unexpectedly apt argument towards the justification of the requirements for the ubiquitous occurrence of sophisticated language is merely thus: If there remain no purposes for the existence of such words, why do they occur in the first place? Surely it is not insurmountable to perceive that the very fact that verbosity lives, or indeed, thrives, in our environment, is due to its outstanding applicability and usefulness to our species. As such it is only logical that we employ and exploit them generously. Reinforcing the logicality of this assertion are various other instances in which the argument of pure existence has been successfully submitted in the defence of an otherwise disadvantaged situation. For instance and example, if guns are not meant to be owned by everyone, why do they exist? If money is not meant to be spent, why does it exist? If drugs are not meant to be consumed, rules not meant to be broken and other people meant to be taken advantage of, why do they exist? In all of these cases, it has consistently been proven that such existential reasoning, or specifically, that the existence of the latter justifies the former action, operates flawlessly. And applying such impervious logic to the regime of conversationalisation is nothing but the next logical and intuitive step. #5 – The procedure of writing in an overly saturated manner successfully fulfills most occupational and academic requirements with utmost rapidity. Herein lies the most vital and integral need for the verbose: In any situation whereby the act of writing is required, it is almost always the case that the purpose of such writing is for an employer or an educational facilitator. In this area it is clearly advantageous to write in the bombastic, because one key characteristic of such a writing technique is that it accredits one the ability to utilize a far greater number of words to express any individual concept, whereas one who writes in a simple style would be coerced to merely append a few words at maximum. Coupled then with the fortunate situation whereby multisyllabic words tend also to comprise more characters and are thus lengthier, we observe the undeniable fact that our preferred, consciously complicated conception of writing can aid us to absolutely fulfill the requisite restrictions in any given situation – regardless of whether it is in the production of a report that necessitates a minimum of 50 pages to demonstrate that substantial effort has been poured within, or in the submission of a domestic assignment that is bundled with a mandatory 600 word limit. In long, there are minimally a quintuplet of compelling rationales underlying why one is recommended to frequently and faithfully undertake writing as a task that demands only the very most in terms of verbosity, prolixity, extravagance, indulgence, and syllabic components. As a general regulation circumvent words with any fewer than 4 syllabic units unless presented with no other option alternatives. Simultaneously, there is, at best, a feeble case for the utilization of the simple and thus simplistic, a view championed by this article’s predecessor on “why speak simply”, because not only is it illogical, but the marginal benefits of speaking simply far from justify the additional costs required. And as we have seen and as any intellectual academic will remark, if it is illogical, or if the benefits do not justify the costs, or both, then there is never a case to do something, because it is almost always certainly wrong.
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.
or: Why the author advances the supposition advocating opposition of incessant repetitive inclusions of the verbose in the common colloquial vernacular. Did you enjoy reading something like that? Even I had to read it through twice to make sure it meant what I thought it meant. And even so I can’t really care. Sure, some would probably dissect that long tapeworm of a sentence to point out that: “My dear fellow, in truth supposition refers to the uncertain belief of an idea, which means the sentence above is not consistent with approved grammar and vocabulary.” Yes, these are the individuals I’m talking about. People who care too much about how good their voice sounds, how nice their words echo in other’s ears, how superbly intelligent they seek to come across to other people, this article/write-up/pseudo-rant is a wake up call to you. That sentence up was like a death sentence. It was butchered by wasteful adjectives and verbs that no one wants to listen to. This is increasingly evident among the intellectual student body. So excited are we by our ideas and eagerness to talk, it escapes us that when we finally deliver the package to our peers no one can even comprehend what we say. Its one of the great tragedies nowadays, that the more intelligent we try to sound the less intelligent we come across. And this is not without good reason. 1. Say what you need to say! (And not more.) Ever heard this Grammy-winning song by John Mayer? It’s about having the courage to do what you need to do and ‘say what you need to say’ before the end arrives, so that you can pass on with no regrets. It’s about doing enough before it’s too late. So many of us are guilty of this. We do not say enough. We talk weakly. Our sentences are frail. Not because we say too little, no. We say so much and mean so little that the strength of our words diminishes. It gets diluted. Diffused, like particles in so much empty air. Everyone knows that one guy that just loves to brandish his intelligence. He keeps to himself until it’s absolutely necessary. Then when the time comes it’s also absolutely necessary that others know how smart he is. He probably views becoming a lawyer or a professional debater as his sole career prospect and sees each conversation as practice for the future. He argues for the sake of intellectual stimulation, but he is the only one stimulated. The pen is mightier than the sword, but both are only effective when applied in the same way- directly. Words are only as strong as they are understood. Being too random and free with word choice destroys their strength. The great speeches of our time were anchored in simple slogans, because simple slogans were all they needed. This presents another simple rule: 2. Speak simply when you can. Imagine if Martin Luther King had said: “I possessed a fancy of outstanding conviction.” Okay. How would this be better than “I had a dream?” Did the former involved higher language caliber? More thought? How does using more advanced words equate to higher intelligence, especially when one disregards the listeners? His target audience, the tired and racially persecuted black Americans, was ignited by that short and simple phrase. King showed a lot more smarts using such a simple and relatable slogan, as opposed to a more verbose but detached one that no one would probably have understood. This brings us to simple rule number 3... 3. The occasion dictates the language used. Sometimes intellectual speech is needed to properly describe things. But by using complicated terms, we are actually trying to make things easier to understand. We need jargon to simplify ideas that are too long to be conveyed shortly. At heart, scientific and vocabulary jargon is a noble effort to summarize. The usage of acronyms too, signals our unconscious attempts to simplify things and concepts in speech. No one likes speech with lots of jargon. Sometimes no words are even needed. In a battle, people throw the gauntlet or raise their blades to signal challenge. Words then were viewed as a sign of weakness. In verbal battles too, excess speaking is frowned upon, viewed as redundant, and a waste of time. Even body language and being animated during debates are more intimidating than just empty words. Many people still have exaggerated responses for the occasion, especially those with low self-esteem. Yes, I know I’ll have a hard time proving this generalization but it is fair to deduce that people who constantly have something to prove really lack some self-confidence. There is a difference between talking intelligently and talking smartly. This is Rule number 4: 4. Be smart and stop being too intellectual. This does sound conflicting, but it just means being sensitive to the dynamics of the conversation. Many people are extremely intelligent but they just can’t stop seeing the all the world world as a giant Who Wants to Be a Millionaire stage. Getting carried away with an obscure topic of your sole interest is the surest way to lose engagement. Being smart = knowing when to say what at the right time = maturity and a better conversation. Being too intellectual = letting the random urge to express your knowledge take precedence over the occasion = serious awkwardness. Sometimes guys try to sound real intellectual and knowledgeable, and end up screwing up their first date because they dont know when to take the pedal off. They don’t realize the occasion doesn’t demand the hit points of Pikachu or the number of grand slams Rafael Nadal has. However, you can’t help but want the other to know you take them seriously, and that you value their presence with your thoughtful engagement! So how do you act smartly here? The key word is subtlety. To be subtle is to be humble. It is to recognize that too much intellectual conversation always leads to confrontation. Sometimes it’s smarter in a friendly conversation to put on the brakes instead of raising the stakes. Time to be sensitive and recognize the tradeoff. Is losing a friend’s goodwill worth winning an argument? Being subtle is also being patient. There will always be another time, another occasion to exhibit your knowledge. Bottom line, coming across as someone intelligent at the right time, is a smart thing. Coming across as an intellectual all the time is not a smart thing. Summing up these few pointers: We should always: Say only what you need to say Speak simply when you can Let the occasion dictate the language you use Be smart rather than intellectual. Being bombastic will probably get you scorn. Being prudent will probably get you respect. Nobody is impressed by sophisticated words. Most of the time, it comes across as pretentious and attention seeking. There is always, always strength in simplicity. “If you can’t explain [the idea] simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” ~Albert Einstein
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?