Alamak! GE2016 coming! (A tongue in cheek guide to writing “wall of text” essays for the general reader)

tl;dr — use tl;dr paragraphs, deal with all the evidence, keep to a single idea per paragraph, don’t assume prior knowledge (assume that your reader is an idiot), end with a bang.

Bonus: this is also relevant to O- and A-level students. The principles of writing are the same, just avoid the acronym (tl;dr) and snark.

1. If you plan on posting a wall of text, always, always have a tl;dr.

Your tl;dr paragraph is necessary. People online don’t have infinite attention spans. In fact, our attention spans have been shrinking.

Your tl;dr paragraph should contain the brilliance of your entire essay. There have been complaints that the tl;dr phenomenon has been dumbing down online discourse (online discussion), but the tl;dr has actually had a long and storied history. You may recall from your GP lessons a thing called the “introductory paragraph“. This is your tl;dr paragraph.

The reader should be able to guess at the purpose of your wall of text from this paragraph. If he can’t, he may just lose interest and not read your essay.

2. Deal with all the relevant evidence

When you are trying to decide on which shiny bicycle to buy, you don’t go around only comparing prices. You look at what you get for your money —  Does it have good parts? Will I be comfortable on it? Will it make me look like a clown? — and so on.

Likewise, in your wall of text, avoid looking only at limited evidence. Look at ALL the relevant evidence. For example, if you want to buy a certain bicycle, you cannot only look at the benefits it might bring you, you also have to look at the benefits the next bicycle might bring you — and all their drawbacks.

Please do the same for political parties. As your teacher might have once said, please give me a balanced argument!

3. One idea, one paragraph

This is a rule that is frequently broken, but still serves as a good guideline.

The purpose of this rule is crucial to understand: readers are stupid cows (but not you, heheh!) who can’t keep a huge amount of information in their heads. Breaking your wall of text into smaller bricks of text will help your reader understand and retain information.

You see how I’ve broken down my tips into numbered sections? Ah.

4. Assume a stupid reader (really, not you)

(This tip comes from my JC Economics teacher!)

While you may be an expert in political philosophy, your reader almost certainly won’t be. If you use a set of words in a specific way, be sure to define it for your reader.

Think about how everyone knows the definitions of these words: kings; divine; of; right. But if I say “they rule as if they had the divine right of kings”, most people wouldn’t understand that I am talking about the old kings (the real ruling kind, not the “only good for TV” kind) who claimed that their authority came from God Himself.

5. End with a bang

If your wall of text deserves to be read, your last paragraph should be a knockout. Remember that human beings now have very short attention spans, and may need some prodding to actually process what you are saying.

Lazy readers also have a tendency to skip the middle to get to the end.

So, it’s true. Your GP teacher wasn’t wasting your time. Academic principles of writing are useful in ‘real’ life. Now go forth and write! (But go read my whole post again if you skipped the middle. Naughty!)

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Fear (a young writer’s journey)

My teachers used to instil a sense of fear into me, when I was learning how to craft essays. I was never to use contractions, I never could write about violence, and trying to write in a fantasy realm was a definite no-go. There were so many rules to writing, so many rules I was so afraid to break. As a result, writing short pieces in school was a pain, for it was so boring — especially when the prompt was “About Myself”. Not that I am a boring person, of course.

If a teacher asked me to write about myself, I thought, should I not be allowed to break any and all of the rules that came with writing in school? But there was always that sense of being afraid of the teacher, for one, and having a real fear that if I broke the rules, I would come away without the skills I needed to ace my examinations.

This sense of fear became so ingrained into my mental processes that I almost thought not to question it. I have always been a voracious reader, and I noticed so many of my favourite authors using “don’t”, and “shouldn’t”, and “wouldn’t”, and worst of all, “ain’t”. Still, when I was in school, I would always dismiss those things as “bad” writing, rules that these authors could break because they were paid professionals.

This changed when I was in secondary 4. I remember reading a novel that featured such intense violence and action that I had a vivid dream about it. It was a novel that took place in a skyscraper, that had the protagonist running up the stairs of this building. I dreamt it, all hundred-and-some storeys of it. I remember waking up not only tired, but exhausted, and in some strange way, exhilarated. If an author — who celebrated violence in his writing — could make me feel this good, and bad, with a single piece of writing, I was going to try to be like him.

The next essay I did in class, I threw caution to the wind and wrote about a massacre. There were hangings, there was shooting, there was a car chase, and even a scene where my narrator jumped from a helicopter onto a moving truck. (Thank you, Hollywood.) It felt like a release, breaking that violence rule. Of course, now that I had broken the rule, I did not expect to get a terribly high grade.

When I got the essay back, I was gratified to see that I had gotten a very high mark. My teacher had written something to the effect of “I’d say try to avoid violence, but you do it very well, so I don’t know”, and I was absolutely delighted with that. Not only had I broken the rules, I had gotten approval for it.

That was the point when I realised that rules about writing were meant to be broken, sometimes, by some people. I had overcome my fear of breaking the rules, and my grades improved for it. No longer did I have to think about creating some boring story about going to the market to buy vegetables with my mother, I could write about disembodied voices (reason: schizophrenia), violence (reason: political unrest), fistfights (reason: violent criminals), and so on.

Overcoming that fear caused me to make some mistakes, of course, but learning how to break the rules wisely was probably the start of my journey as a writer. If I had never overcome my fear of breaking the rules, I would probably have abandoned writing and indulged in some other activity instead, for I would have never started to thoroughly enjoy writing.

 

 

Why I love reading non-fiction (this one simple trick will add years to your life!)

(First off, apologies for the buzzfeed-y sub-title, but ever since I saw VisakanV make a joke out of it on his facebook, I’ve been doing it in my head as well. It’s entertaining, la!)

I recently was reading (listening to) a book that talked about the wisdom of grandparents. If you have people around you that are, say, 70 years old on average, and you have ten of these old people around you, what do you first think of? Do you think oh, all these old people are so troublesome, I have to take care of them and they’re so much hassle, there’s so much farting and oh no no no? Or do you stop to consider that around you is the accumulation of 700 years of life experience and wisdom? Hmm.

That, in a nutshell, encapsulates why I love non-fiction so much. Authors put in years of research and energy into putting these books together, and those of us who read quickly can ingest that information in a few days. In my buzzfeed-y headline I wrote that “this one simple trick will add years to your life”, and sometimes it really feels this way. It feels like I’m living years of other people’s lives from the books that they have written.

When I read Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, the intensity of her prose and emotions made me feel as if I was living through the 2004 boxing day tsunami with her. When I read The Art of Happiness, it felt like I was accessing years of wisdom from the Dalai Lama, and years of research from psychologist Howard Cutler. When I read Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, I marvelled at how much effort went into turning scholarly research about the historicity of Jesus into a fast-moving, readable narrative mixed in with historical fact and conjecture. Since I know some of that scholarly research, I also understood why Christian scholars were complaining that Aslan presented scholarly debates as resolved to one side or the other, without touching on the complexities of some of the debates.

Living in this modern age, where we can download ebooks almost instantly, is a massive, massive privilege. But it is also a kind of disadvantage since so many things are calling out for our attention. The choice that faces me daily is this: will I let media outlets, websites, the rush of social media, or trite entertainment shape my brain? Or will I direct my attention to things that I judge to be more helpful to me in developing my mind, my maturity, and my overall sense of well-being?

The pleasure of reading non-fiction is a pleasure that can be hard to get into, but I promise you, it is worth the effort. And for all your kids who need to write argumentative essays, listen up. The pleasure of reading non-fiction is one that will help you get that A for your English, General Paper, English Literature, and any subject that requires critical thinking and an ability to write well. So get cracking. Read some non-fiction today! 😀

 

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

For editing and proofreading services, email kevinseahsg@gmail.com or call/SMS/whatsapp +65 97700557 for an obligation-free quotation. I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know your requirements.

Stanley Fish — How to Write a Sentence (And How to Read One)

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This brilliant little book is really opening my mind up to new ways of writing, reading, and teaching — and I’m a graduate in English Literature who has supposedly spent a number of years thinking about the language. Well, if I’ve spent 10ish years thinking about the language, Professor Fish has spent…. well, he’s spent a lot more time than me on thinking about this thing we call “English”.

It’s not for everyone — this book requires some ‘slow reading’ to be done, especially if you’re not familiar with the technical terms Fish uses. I suspect that people who consider themselves linguists might get annoyed by some bits that are perhaps a little bit unnecessary. Still, I’m finding this a productive book, in terms of the ways that I’m re-examining the way I teach students how to write a sentence.

Here’s a taste.

Quote 1 (Chapter 1):
My wife is a serious painter. When she and I go to a gallery we might both be impressed by the same painting, but she will be able to tell me, in analytical detail, what makes it impressive, how the painter did it. So it is with writing: the practice of analyzing and imitating sentences is also the practice of learning how to read them with an informed appreciation. Here’s the formula:

Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation.

Quote 2 (Chapter 2):
For decades researchers have been telling us that “the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or . . . even a harmful effect on the teaching of writing” (Research in Written Composition, 1963). I agree if by “the teaching of formal grammar” is meant memorizing the parts of speech or rehearsing the distinction between dependent and independent clauses or listing the uses of the subjunctive. That kind of rote knowledge is merely taxonomic. It explains nothing; students who acquire it have learned nothing about how to write, and it is no surprise when research demonstrates its nonutility.

 Quote 3 (Chapter 4):
In his great book How to Do Things with Words (1962), J.L. Austin considers the apparently simple sentence “France is hexagonal.” He asks if this is true or false, a question that makes perfect sense if the job of a sentence is to be faithful to the world. His answer is that it depends. If you are a general contemplating a coming battle, saying that France is hexagonal might help you assess various military options of defense and attack; it would be a good sentence. But if you are a geographer charged with the task of mapping France’s contours, saying that France is hexagonal might cost you your union card; a greater degree of detail and fineness of scale is required of mapmakers. “France is hexagonal,” Austin explains, is true “for certain intents and purposes” and false or inadequate or even nonsensical for others. It is, he says, a matter of the “dimension of assessment” — that is, a matter of what is the “right or proper thing to say as opposed to a wrong thing in these circumstances, to this audience, for these purposes and with these intentions.”

 

More quotes from this book here.

 

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

For editing and proofreading services, email kevinseahsg@gmail.com or call/SMS/whatsapp +65 97700557 for an obligation-free quotation. I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know your requirements.