Teaching Writing


So tomorrow I have to go to MIT and teach about clear writing. We are using a piece by Samuel Delaney about the difference between good writing, which can be learned by anybody, and talented writing, which is much harder to achieve. We also have a piece on writing for business and it talks about topic sentences and coherent paragraphs and all the thing one hopes they learned in fifth and six grades, but these days, who knows.

This is not the way I normally teach about writing as it feels very mechanical and I tend to feel more organically about writing. I also believe that most good writing happens during the second and third drafts of anything. People who get hung up about these sentence-level infelicities often have problems with their writing process, and trust me when I tell you that perfectionism is already a huge problem for MIT students. That’s how they got in. I spend an awful lot of my time explaining that they’ll never get out if they don’t give up that bad habit as soon as possible.

One of my mottoes is “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly the first time.” It’s true about cooking. It’s true about sex. It’s true about writing. Make a mess. Write crap sentences. Doodle in the margins when you don’t know what to write. Scribble notes to self like “brilliant transition goes here.” Take a break and make a sandwich. Get peanut butter on your hard copy of the draft. Lick it off. Read your work out loud, even if it makes you wince. Then go back in and fix the problems, over and over and over.

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