Listen to your sentences

To communicate our ideas eloquently is a skill that takes practice. Dale Salwak offers advice on how to help our students write well

April 7, 2011

When Mozart was three years old, he first sat at his sister's clavier in the family house in Salzburg "to find notes that like one another". That became his life's work. I enjoy sharing this story because I hear in it a metaphor for the writer, who strives to find words that like one another.

As teachers, we know that for most of our students, writing will not become their profession, just as many music students will never perform at the Royal Festival Hall. But that's no reason to overlook the proper study and practice of the discipline itself.

While many students come to our classes well prepared and eager to learn all they can about the writer's craft, many others have had so many discouraging experiences at school that when we announce the subject we teach their first responses are, "Oh, I hated English!" or "That was my worst subject!"

And although many may utilise instant messaging as their primary mode of communicating, any similarities between "texting" in a sort of abbreviated, vowel-deprived Hulk-speak and the process of writing coherent sentences that flow together into a cohesive, expressive whole are purely coincidental. One could argue - and perhaps linguists and others who study the state of contemporary electronic communications are already doing so - that "Textese" or "Instant Messaging-ish" are, quite literally, new global dialects.

Because our society has devised so many substitutes for the written word - from telephone to radio to television to film - some say that we risk reaching the point where normal writing ability will be as rare among college graduates as is proficiency in composing a symphony.

Nevertheless, an educated person in a global society needs to be multilingual, and writing well in the more conventional sense still matters. Thus I ignore the cynics and try, instead, to awaken in my students the dormant excitement that comes from searching not just for the right phrase but for the best one, the one in which the words like each other. To fall in love with language, as a musician falls in love with melody, and to discover our thoughts and then to communicate them convincingly and eloquently - nothing is more satisfying.

Yes, writing well is difficult, but our students need to know that they are not alone in feeling its rigours. Behind every written piece there is a living, breathing human being who overcame his or her own challenges to express important thoughts on paper.

In English classes, a study of an author's life is an expected part of the curriculum, but I think of how rarely my own professors of, say, music appreciation or economics ever shared with us the lives of the composers or writers behind their chosen texts.

How dull information is when deprived of personality. If I were teaching music, certainly I'd want to relate the enormous struggles that Beethoven endured to achieve what some people now so blithely take for granted.

Or select any classic on economics. The words in the textbook or journal articles - or the professor's lectures, for that matter - didn't just pop on to the page. Communicating complex concepts and theories effectively represents many years of haphazard, fitful, incoherent thought and discovery before the author hammered out a text of principles and examples that has become assigned reading on campuses across the country.

With all there is to do in life, and with time in such limited supply, why would anyone want to spend even a minute writing? It's useful to raise this question although I don't know that I've ever arrived at a final answer.

Beyond the obvious - to say something to others, or to complete an assignment, or to create and clarify our thoughts - we write to preserve for future generations what matters to us now. Or we seek through our writing what T.S. Eliot called "the still point of the turning world" - the safe centre.

At other times, our writing is a message to ourselves, something that we had not been aware of before but now need to consider. If our students write what they really know, they will tap into feelings and perspectives and insights that will enlighten not just them but their readers. Plunder that deeper, unshared self inside, I say, for the best writing is most congruent with who we are.

To reach such buried selves, the writer must call upon tools much more sensitive and complex than the pen or the keyboard. The US novelist Anne Tyler develops her first draft in longhand on a yellow-sheeted notepad while she sits on the edge of her bed. When asked why she doesn't use a keyboard, she said: "Since I really do seem to do it by ear, if I'm typing I can't hear as well." She went on to explain that because she hears her characters' voices in her left ear, the clickety-click of the typewriter would drown them out.

To write well we must first learn to listen well, just as the musician must hear not only the sounds the composer intended but also the notes emanating from his or her instrument. But developing the ability to hear words internally takes time and practice and discipline, of course, and it is especially difficult for those who haven't pursued an active reading life, for the more widely we read, the better we will hear the printed word.

If I find in a submitted essay an irrelevant or incoherent paragraph or two, that tells me that the author has not heard the words. My response in the margin is, "listen to your sentences". I suggest to such students that reading their work aloud, to themselves or to a trusted listener with an educated ear, encourages them to tune into the language at a deeper level.

Another helpful tip I share with students to encourage reflection and revision is that they set false deadlines. If the essay is due on 15 February, for instance, then why not pretend it is due on the 11th and develop a polished draft by then? The extra four days will give them time to step away from their work, listen to it with fresh ears, perhaps get feedback from me or another reader, and then rewrite.

Most writing classes, as we know, are about revision. "I have never thought of myself as a good writer," novelist James Michener once said. "Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I'm one of the world's great rewriters."

Rarely do any of us, no matter how competent, confident or fluent, get it correct the first time. Rarely do we know what we're going to write about until we've completed a first, stumbling draft.

Sometimes when reading an essay I am at a loss to know its focus until I've reached the end, where I suddenly discover the central point or thesis. This tells me the essay is a one-draft job. The author has written her way to what she wanted to say in the first place, but has not utilised the discovery to reshape the piece and emphasise that central idea. Like a motif in a symphonic movement, the hint of the guiding theme is there but it hasn't been consciously placed or developed in a way that resonates with the audience.

Students also need to give themselves permission to develop their thoughts without restraints; discordance is fine, at least at first. Instead of planning or talking about your plan, I say, just get something out on paper before you forget it - no matter how uncertain you feel or how confusing it sounds. To talk about the work is to give it away, to weaken it, to take away its magic and its strength.

I also suggest that they write the first draft before they do any research. Indeed, a vivid sensation of rightness comes from discovering within what we have created something we were not aware that we knew. If students do their research first, they might never experience that joy. With time, they will learn to trust their instincts. Even if they have no idea how something fits in, they need to give themselves permission to include it; they can always toss it out afterwards if necessary.

Some of the best writing arises spontaneously. And some of the best writing can, to borrow a phrase from yet another medium, end up on the cutting-room floor.

"That's acceptable," I tell them. "That paragraph is something you can use another time. None of your writing is wasted. Writing the part you can't use got you to the part you can use, the part you really meant to say."

Sometimes knowing what to leave out is as important as knowing what to include.

Among my strongest memories as a child are the times when I accompanied my parents to the concert hall. My mother, an accomplished musician herself, could discern within minutes how much the performer did or did not know about the renowned composer whose music he or she was playing.

"He doesn't know Beethoven's voice" or "she understands Brahms' heart" typified her whispered remarks to me as we listened to the performance.

Afterwards, over dinner, we would conduct what our family called a post-mortem - a detailed analysis whose purpose was not to tear down the artist, but to understand what worked and what didn't, and why. From this I learned valuable lessons about critiquing another's work, including that of my students, in a positive, supportive way.

To assure them that I respect the time and effort they have put into their assignments, I promise to read their essays twice. The first time, I do so without a pencil in my hand. I read to learn. Then I re-read the essay as a critic, looking for places where I can offer a few appropriate suggestions for improvement. My feedback is intended to be constructive - aimed not at them personally, but at their work and always, I hope, written with a certain courtesy of heart.

We know how fragile young writers can be when first developing, how easily they can be discouraged by conflicting or intentionally unkind opinions. I wonder if teachers realise that students never forget being humiliated. How unfortunate it is in any field when someone is told only of faults or weaknesses, without any mention of strengths. My comments on their papers balance observations about what they might do better with what's already been done well.

For some, performance in writing - and in all of their classes, for that matter - may be undermined not by poor skills but by unsupportive attitudes from significant people in their lives. Such students may be fighting on several fronts, struggling to succeed in the world of academia as well as withstanding assaults against their decision to enrol.

"When are you going to take some courses that will be really useful?"

"How is that going to get you a good job?"

"What are you going to have to show for all that time and money?"

These are hard messages for both the student and the teacher to ignore.

I urge those who are dealing with such resistance to depersonalise the comments. So much of their lives is spent in a place of intensely private concentration that it's easy for others on the outside to misunderstand or even resent them.

What a student will discover, during that private odyssey toward the deepest self, is the lyricism, power and joy of expression. Like music, writing is about rhythm and timing and sensing our audience and seeing and hearing ourselves through their eyes and ears. It's about anticipating. It's about becoming so locked into our subject that we can tell when a point needs to be re-emphasised or when a question is shaping itself. It's about knowing, immediately, if the reader will follow the discussion, and if not, why not.

Too often, students seem to forget the reader altogether, and so I frequently ask classes to write their first draft as a letter addressed to a specific person. The writer who remains focused on the reader just as the musician focuses on the listener is compelled to shape the message in such a way that it becomes clearer, more accessible, more fully realised. To write for another is to think through the message in new ways. The addition of an imagined reader changes the behaviour of the writer.

"Letters", said John Donne, "mingle souls."

Finally, a huge (but often overlooked) bonus that comes from the teaching of writing is how we ourselves improve as authors from active work with others. I know that I write better and read better because I have taught in this field. I know that my sensitivities to the language have grown - in part because of the many years of reading and responding to tens of thousands of student essays.

I hope we never lose sight of how much we can learn from our classes, and what a privilege it is to work and play with others in the magical - if sometimes maddening - realm of language.

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