Stylin’

I really like to pretend that I’m a smart, successful, tweed-wearing British intellectual when I write my papers. This mentality has rarely been successful in reality, and generally that well-dressed, intellectual British professor-man is tossed out with run on sentences and redundant statements.

My first attempt at my draft was very much rooted in this British-professor-man style, and it was horrendous. I was unbelievably frustrated at the clunkiness of my words and the lack of clarity in my message. I also spilled Chai latte all over my laptop while writing it, so that didn’t help.

So, when I revisited my draft, I rewrote the whole thing from scratch in an entirely different tone. I attempted to emulate the thoughtful, consistent voices I had read in various New Yorker articles. I stopped trying to connect my ideas to grandiose metaphors and other figurative language. I didn’t use any words that would give the reader pause. My aim was clarity.

I felt so much better about my second attempt at the draft. The whole thing was much more readable thanks to simpler diction, a steady rhythm of simple, compound, and complex compound sentences (my favorite). Hopefully some of that translates to my readers!

Same Argument, Different Style

I chose to write a creative nonfiction article, meant to be featured in Time‘s Ideas category. Because I started with a research paper, I had a pretty clear argument from the beginning, but a very formal way of expressing it.  I couldn’t pull out any original sentences for my new project, they were all too academic for my new genre. Almost every sentence had to be rewritten from my original source to fit into my repurposed project.  Although that sounds like a lot of work, it was easier to change than I expected.  When I first read my paper again to start making changes, it was difficult to actually change something I had once crafted but the more I did it, the more I got into the mindset and habit of writing in a tone appropriate for my new genre.

I also gained inspiration from my main source, from which I modeled content and style.  I tried to use the same paragraph length and breaks as Laura Bates in her article.  After I got used to doing that, it was fun to be dramatic in my composition.  I never before had the freedom of abrupt endings or including quotes without in depth analysis.  I could say the things I was thinking without carefully wording an academic sounding sentence, I could be direct and therefore powerful (not to say that my original paper wasn’t also powerful).  I could also emphasize the importance of the author’s perspective more than I could in my original source.  In my research paper, I realized I could have come across as an upset teenager who just wanted to wear sweatpants to school.  But because I could take on the persona of a teacher with adult experience with the issue, and because I could speak in first person and be personal with readers, I feel like my argument was stronger in this project.

As for my individual style, I found myself using rhetorical questions often.  I also directly addressed the readers at a few points.  Both these style choices would be inappropriate in a research paper, but my new genre let me appeal on a personal level to the reader.  I could better entice the reader to consider the topic of my article through asking questions and directly addressing them.  But because of these personal touches, I had to watch myself when I used more serious and more academic phrases.  I tried to keep all of my sentences from sounding like they were from my original research paper, but it was difficult to do that when I referenced statistics or speculated on the societal impact of dress  codes.  Overall I found writing this creative nonfiction piece challenging but fun at the same time.  It wasn’t as easy as I anticipated and I know I still have room to improve, but I am happy with my first draft.

Harder Than I Thought (Blog 5)

To be totally honest, I think I had way too much confidence in my abilities to successfully emulate the Elite Daily tone and structure in my repurposing project. I figured this couldn’t be that hard. If I was writing in a blogging fashion geared towards people of my generation, I should be able to do it right? I mean, in reality, it’s just like talking to some of my friends. While this is the tone of the publication, and it is kind of like that, I found myself struggling a lot more than I had anticipated to project this voice in the best way possible. In terms of the “go-to” sentence structuring of Elite Daily, I lucked out in that I quickly realized their go-to sentence structure was super similar to mine. They get down a lot of their thoughts and either sum them up or interject them with some witty comparison. (Kind of like this, get it?) This made the structuring my piece a lot easier, because I quickly realized that the way they structured their sentences was super similar to how I structured my own thoughts, so I didn’t really have to alter that part of it. I noticed a lot more curse words entered my writing vocabulary.

While I’m a little embarrassed (honestly, not that embarrassed) <—look at that structuring! to admit that I don’t have the cleanest mouth, curse words were never a part of my writing vocabulary. Elite Daily, however, wholly embraces the art of swearing in their writing. This took some getting used to, but I noticed it definitely adds greater authenticity to the writing, further defining it as more conversational rather than academic or preachy, two things Elite Daily is not. Because I’m doing two different pieces for two different sections of the publication, I’ve found that I have a much easier time writing tongue-in-cheek about my own life experiences rather than in a more serious, reflective manner. That being said, the piece pertaining to using humor as a coping mechanism for the “Life” section, was much more difficult for me than the more light-hearted “Dating” section article about the 5 types of funny guys. Because I don’t generally take life too seriously, and this writing is very conversational, it was harder for me to change my normal thought process to be more serious. Not only did I have to alter my thinking, I then had to convey that new thought process in a reflective, serious writing tone for the “Life” section piece.

Probably shouldn’t have done that…

When I originally started this project, I thought writing a script would be easy. All I would have to do is let my thoughts flow from my brain to the keyboard, and then do a little bit of editing. So, in accordance with my hubris, I made the decision to write the entire script the day it was due, thinking that it would be a simple task.

To be honest, writing a script has been one of the most excruciatingly difficult things I have done as a writer. It’s not because I cannot think of content, that part comes easy (at least, that’s what I like to believe). It’s guessing how an audience would respond to said content. Since I am creating a satirical video, I cannot assume that the audience would watch the video in its entirety. In an academic essay or news article, the reader would (sometimes) respectfully read what you wrote to the end, and then comment on the piece with their opinions. That’s not the case with video; if the audience does not like it, then they can simply turn off the program. As a result of this, I need to keep the audience’s attention, which creates another problem: finding the medium with regards to comedy. If I come off as too crass, then people will ignore the video because of my vulgarity. However, if I am not edgy enough with my humor, then I will be written off as not being funny enough for the audience I am attempting to pander too. Creating this script has been incredibly daunting, and I am unsure whether I need to start from scratch or do a couple of quick edits.

Yet that’s the beauty of writing a script. The uncertainty keeps me on edge, making me double, triple, quadruple check what I wrote down to make sure that I am personally satisfied with it. In previous essays, if there was a line or two I was not completely enamored with, I would be content; the overall piece was good enough to justify one or two weak sections. I can’t do that with a script, however; if one sentence is weak or questionable in delivery, then it can completely ruin the rest of the piece. It invigorates me in a way, having to make sure that what I write is what I really want to say, that what I really want to say is truly representative on my stance towards an issue.

Writing the script has certainly had its rough patches; I have enough awkward similes and metaphors composed to fill a book, and am still making more while I edit my draft. Yet, this style of writing is one that I am becoming more comfortable with. No longer is it alien for me to write sentences that being with the phrase “it’s like,” and it does not feel strange to place random monologues in the middle of a presentation. This video will undoubtedly be one of the greatest challenges in my career as a writer, but I know that the reward will far outweigh the struggles and that the lessons I will take from this project will be invaluable tokens that I will remember forever.

How to Write a Creative Nonfiction Piece

Inhabiting a new genre in a new style has been challenging but rewarding. I chose to write a creative nonfiction piece written specifically for publication in The Atlantic. Ezekiel Emanuel’s piece titled “Why I Hope To Die at 75” was an invaluable resource in this process. I tried to mimic everything from sentence structure to argument development in my paper. While I faced challenges every step of the way, I am happy with how my first draft turned out.

I found the reverse engineering activity very helpful in initially picking apart the genre that is creative nonfiction. The Ta-Nehisi Coates articles were my first real exposure to this genre and writing style. I remember finding his articles very smooth and easy to read. Ezekiel Emanuel’s article seems to have the same easy reading quality. I believe this readability of the articles is the culminating result of specifically implemented structure, diction, and syntax. In my effort to create a creative nonfiction piece, I focused on these particulars of style as well.

Referring specifically to “Why I Hope To Die at 75,” the argument is developed through blending personal anecdotes and opinions with relevant facts and statistics. I noticed Emanuel constantly shifting his angle of attack (subjective vs. factual) in order to fully expose and develop his argument. This blending strategy also allows the piece to remain readable, and enjoyable. He includes the perfect amount of facts to gain credibility without losing reader interest. I found this blending act to be one of the biggest challenges while writing. My past assignments have been much more dichotomized: use facts in a research papers and eloquence in narratives. While combining the two was a challenge, I feel my final product (at least my draft) represents an entirely new side of me as a writer, which is fulfilling.

I attempted to first get my thoughts on the page before I became overly worried about diction and syntax. I felt that worrying about these finer details would prevent me from getting down on paper. However, once I had a fairly complete draft of thoughts written, I went back through and began adopting the style at hand. First, I attempted to eliminate as much abstract diction as possible and instead replaced it with more concrete diction. I felt this was an important step in creating the readability displayed by my model, as abstract diction often requires the reader to stop and think, re-read sentences, etc. This is not conducive to the causal audience of The Atlantic. The second major detail I focused on was sentence structure. My model used primarily simple and compound sentences in order to keep the ideas moving forward. I found out very quickly that my “go-to” structure is complex. It was quite the project going through my draft and changing some of the complex sentences to simple and compound. However, I feel varying my sentence structure will make me better as a writer in all genres, not just creative nonfiction.

I believe I will be spending a lot more time focused on the finer details of style in my editing process. We will see where I rank once my final draft is complete:

GQ Magazine cover: most stylish man alive edition
Cover of GQ magazine.

Why it’s ok that I’m not George Orwell

In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell advocates the following writing principle:

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out

87 years before Orwell wrote this essay, Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities. Here’s an excerpt:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

It’s pretty safe to say that Orwell would not be a fan of Dicken’s 119-word sentence. But does this make the sentence “bad”?

In regards to verbosity, it’s clear these two authors exist on different sides of the spectrum. Verbosity is one key component of style, and therefore this gaping difference in verbosity causes the authors to write with very different styles. And while some readers might prefer certain styles, there is no “correct” style of writing. Style is a fascinating grey area; some genres lend themselves better to certain genres, but in the end there is no concrete formula for each genre. This is why I found the Style Masquerade activity so interesting.

The author I emulated for this activity was George Orwell. I quickly realized that he writes with an extremely concise and to-the-point style. He doesn’t use flowery metaphors – or really even metaphors in general – and seems to avoid wordiness in every sentence. As I read more about his style, I began to feel embarrassed about my own style, which is more like Dickens than Orwell. While I try not to be unnecessarily wordy in my writing, I do tend to utilize long words and long sentences. The more I read Orwell, the more I thought “Wow, my writing is horrible; I’m breaking many of his six famous rules for writing.”

However, as I reflect more on this activity, I’ve come to realize that style is a very personal aspect of writing. Many people consider George Orwell to be a great writer, but this doesn’t mean I should try to be George Orwell. The activity was meant to expose us to different writing styles, so we can start thinking about our own style. And while we shouldn’t try to copy other writers, it’s certainty reasonable to evaluate how different elements of their style fit together. Orwell has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the choices he makes in regards to style (reflected in his 6 rules), and the biggest takeaway from this activity has been that I should do the same. In the future, I plan to spend more time reflecting on my style on a macro level, and this will hopefully jump-start my writing development as I navigate the Sweetland minor.

The Voice of a Writer

Rewriting my own words in the writing of Henry James, in our so-called “style masquerade”, was much more difficult than I originally imagined. Or, maybe difficult isn’t the write way to describe it – more like awkward perhaps. It was as if I was trying to speak in English and yet I was only allowed to talk in old Shakespearian. I couldn’t form ideas in my head into words the way I was accustomed to; I almost had to insert myself into another person’s mind. However, I wasn’t in reality writing in another language at all – I was still using the same letters, same words, and same punctuation as I had always used. So, why did it feel so strange?

I think it largely involves voice. A writer’s voice can often be their most prized possession – a unique way of expressing thoughts into words that only they can produce. My writing voice is often different than my speaking voice; it is more akin to what’s truly going on inside my head. This is what in part, I think, makes great writers so great – they are able to communicate with readers in a way that only they can. When I’m reading a work by a world-renowned writer or by one of my favorite authors, I nearly feel a connection between the words and myself; I think this is largely accomplished through the voice of the writer, one of the highest goals a writer can achieve – the ability to connect. Just as we read of all the different options to form sentences, there is no singular accepted “voice” for every writer to aspire to. Quite oppositely, a writer’s aspiration should be to find their voice and develop it as effectively and eloquently as possible.

The next thought I had relates to the balance and relationship between voice and writing style. How much does a writer’s voice influence their style and how much does a writer’s style influence their voice? I can’t quite differentiate between the two and don’t know if there ever can be a concrete answer. What I do know is that I will always continue to write, in constant pursuit of finding my perfect voice.

Why Blogging is Uncomfortable

I’m trying to take Andrew Sullivan’s advice to not think so much before I write a blog post. It’s really not going well.

That’s one of the things I started thinking about after doing the Style Masquerade in class — the difference between formal and informal writing and why I am less than confident about my informal writing. My lack of confidence is hardly a mystery, though. After a short lifetime of being taught to choose words carefully, a more formal and nitpicky style is my default.  And, to some extent, that contradicts what the blog post genre is all about.

In all, I’m fine with my style. After all, my writing style is a partial reflection of me: pretty comfortable in an academic setting, but incredibly awkward if placed in an informal, social context.

What I think I would like to change (and what I think will make me a lot better of a writer) is the way I go about writing. I would like to learn to get my thoughts on a page without dawdling over spelling, grammar, and diction. I’d really like to learn how to be comfortable with the knowledge that a first draft is SUPPOSED to be really terrible, to allow myself to embrace the many weaknesses that exist in my underdeveloped writing in an effort to feel more satisfied and confident in my writing overall.

 

But on the Contrary

You will be surprised when you are asked to actively look over something you do on what feels like a semi-regular basis. It doesn’t have to be a serious reflection. It can just be a quick glance, and something will catch your eye.  Since that is what we had to do in regards to the style of our writing, I was given the chance to look back at my writing and focus on something I had never really considered examining. While I thought I already had an idea about my style of writing, I never really thought about it in detail. Unsurprisingly, I learned something.

After going through the process of examining my writing style, I have realized that in most papers, articles, blog posts and other writing I have done all have very similar.  I am very contrarian in my writing. I have a tendency to provide one side to the story at the start of my papers and other works, and then I take it into another direction. Thanks to words like however, although, and yet, I feel as though it is easier to present one argument, make a coherent and thoughtful statement, and then break that argument down for the rest of paper.

What is interesting, is that this style of writing is actually pretty common in a lot of the online articles that I read. In the influential writing gallery, I posted an article from the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an writer who focuses on race and the underlying structures of racism that can still be found in the United States. In my opinion he is by far one of the best modern day writers, and if you pay attention to his style, he is constantly dismantling arguments after he brings them up. However, it’s not just him. Plenty of other articles I read online, ranging from sports to politics to posts about the newest Marvel movie, seem to have this style.

I wonder if that is because most of these articles write in the form of someones opinion while they are also stating the facts. In other words, even though they use plenty of factual information, most online writers still seem to write about one side of an argument, which indicates that they have an opinion on the topic. I guess when you think about it, that’s all that academic essays and blog posts seem to be.  Maybe my style isn’t contrarian. Maybe I just like to write about my opinion.

A Sense for Style

Upon reading our class schedule for the day, I was a little shocked when I saw the words “style masquerade” listed as our activity. The word masquerade automatically made me think of costumes and masks – all things that are used to cover up.

I immediately thought to myself: “Why would we possibly want to cover up our style? Isn’t that what makes our writing/appearance unique?”

Little did I know how rewarding this activity would be. I used a very formal essay I had written about the novel, Emma, and took on the challenge of turning a paragraph into something that Ernest Hemingway would write.  Did I emphasize the word challenge enough? Good.

For anyone who knows how Ernest Hemingway writes, it definitely is a style of its own. He uses a lot of parallel structure and writes in a concise conversational tone that emulates a lot tension. Quite different from the lengthy complex sentences that generally overpower my essays.

Although it was difficult to reproduce his style from my writing sample, I was proud of my final product. In fact, the newer version was more playful in tone and had more drama.

So…what’s the point?

After this activity and talking about Style chapters in class, I ultimately realized where I can improve. What I learned was that this was not about covering up our style, per se. It was more about seeing another way.

I think of style as the phrase “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” Sure, you can speed walk the mile to get back to your old ways. But, if you take a chance to look around, you will gain a new perspective that will only enhance your own uniqueness in the long run.

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