Confession time: I was a pretty lousy college student.
It took me seven years and a few interruptions to get my BA in English. And even now, three years after graduating, I still expect to wake up one morning to see my alma mater’s dean of students looming over my bed to tell me that it was all a dream and I don’t deserve a degree.
Admittedly, some of my lousiness as a student wasn’t my fault — I was struggling with untreated depression and ADD up until my actual-senior year. I basically owe my final year’s worth of good grades to finally getting the proper medication.
But in any case, I was a terrible English major.
I mean, hell, I didn’t even go into college intending to major in English. I chose my school for their History program then found myself unable to get into the required classes.
Although I liked to read, I was bad at it — especially when it came to sitting down and reading 100-page chunks of literature at a time. And my essay-writing skills were pure illusion, based more on tricks than substance.
As it turns out, these tricks weren’t just terrible for my learning; they were terrible for my writing, too. Even without assignments looming over my head I’ve found those same bad habits creeping into my other writing. So I’ve been spending the past three years trying to un-learn the following…
1. Fluff as much as possible
In school essays, page counts were my worst enemy. I’d do anything and everything possible to hit the minimum, which usually meant adding all the fluff I could to my writing.
The trick to getting away with it was to craft the fluff in such a way that it didn’t look like fluff. How? Stretch out relevant information as far as I could! This often meant explaining characters and plot points in excruciating detail, or adding completely unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.
Why it’s bad:
If I had to boil down the most common writing advice I’ve heard into one tip, it would be: be concise. I should say what I want as briefly and gracefully as possible. There’s no place for pointless fluff in good writing.
2. Bigger words are better words
Inflating illusory intelligence while obfuscating meaning with the utilization of sesquipedalian vocabulary is one of the myriad techniques employed by feckless essayists such as my past self.
Translation: one of my bad essay writing habits was using unnecessarily big words to describe something that could have been communicated just as well with simpler terms. Why? To sound smart and hide the fact that most of what I was saying was nonsense.
Why it’s bad:
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with big or complicated words, especially if they convey what you’re saying more precisely than a simpler word. But I still find this decorative doublespeak bleeding into my writing. And that’s a big problem.
Complex words can elevate writing if used deliberately. But throwing them around willy-nilly just makes my writing more inaccessible to the average reader. If I want my message to reach as many people as possible, I need to make sure it’s easy to understand.
3. Make nonsensical connections
More often than not, the connections I had to make between text and meaning in order to support whatever ridiculous thesis I’d come up with at the eleventh hour were more weak than Harold Hill’s intentionally-ridiculous argument that a pool table would lead to youth corruption in The Music Man.
“Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool!”
In my experience, you can argue pretty much anything about anything if you argue it forcefully enough.
Hell, in college I came up with a pretty in-depth joke theory that the film The Wizard of Oz was actually an allegory for World War Two written by a somewhat inept and confused time-traveler who then went further back in time to write the rest of the Land of Oz books under the name L. Frank Baum just to throw people off. (If you’re interested, I posted most of it on TV Tropesfor the lulz.)
Why it’s bad:
While pretty much anything went in literary interpretation provided my professor believed it too (see below), I feel that my writing now should strive towards some kind of truth. I can’t just make up crap to sound smart or unique or creative; I should genuinely believe what I’m saying.
Which brings me to my last point.
4. Your audience’s beliefs are your beliefs now
I learned very quickly that the key to passing a course was to accurately read my professor’s views and cater my arguments to them. I think this is a common survival tactic amongst English students.
Some of what I considered the better-written papers early in my college career got iffy grades. Generally this was because my professor didn’t like my thesis and the arguments I tried to support it with.
However, I found that if they agreed with the thesis, it didn’t matter how weak my arguments were. I’d already won their approval and the good grade to go with it.
In the end, essays are subjective — that’s the nature of the game. In a way I’d have been a fool not to learn how to play.
Why it’s bad:
Look, there’s something to be said for knowing my audience. I’m writing for them. I need to understand what their thoughts, beliefs, and needs are.
But I’m writing for myself, too.
I shouldn’t just say whatever I think my readers want to hear. I should be sharing something of myself with them — my genuine feelings, loves, fears, and overall understanding of the world.
There’s no shortage of people ready to create an echo chamber for their audience in exchange for fame, accolades, or money. It’s so easy even an empty room can do it.
But that’s not what I want to do. I want to provide what only I can provide as a writer, and that means knowing my own beliefs and sticking to them. Otherwise I’m not creating something valuable; I’m just making noise.