How to Improve Your Writing – Part 1: from Tolstoy to Grohl

9 min read

1 English textbook

1 Book rec

1 Style Guide

4 Writers: Tolstoy to Grohl (of Nirvana and Foo Fighters)

Improve writing immediately, ages 9 to 99

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I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary text books.*

C.S. Lewis, opening sentence of The Abolition of Man, 1944

English text, Strunk & White style guide, Recent Books, The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

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Friday I sat down with an English text and read through the lessons on improving writing style.* So, I thought I’d report back to you on what I learned from the trenches.

This lessons go beyond grammar and mechanics, as well as good content and organization. The former duo makes up the machinery of the sentence; the latter are what you bring to the page, or screen as it may be: the information or message and how it is organized.

  • Writing Essentials – you should know from grade school
    • Grammar and mechanics – the machinery
    • Content – information or message
    • Organization – logical

These are not enough to make the writing good. They are essential, of course, because you ought to have something to share, whether that is an essay on the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on the elementary school curriculum or instructions on how to decoupage a cigar box. The topic should be meaningful and the writing logical if readers are to understand.

The aim of these lessons is to make your writing effective, that is, interesting, the kind of writing people want to read. Think of what you read. How often do you take in a couple paragraphs or a couple chapters, and the writing is flat, awkward, over-the-top, strained with Acadamese, or just plain bad?

The program focuses on five elements:

  • originality
  • exact words
  • active voice
  • figurative language
  • triplets

Yes, you read that right. Triplets, not as in a set of three children, but a set of phrases.

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Part 1. ORIGINALITY

The first lesson is to improve writing through originality. Use fresh and colorful words. Avoid cliches. Originality helps your writing. It is a “major element of an effective and forceful style” the text explains. Examples in the text are fun, to this reader, so I will share. The What did you do this summer? prompt resulted in this from a student.

I spent many hours in the bean patch.

What, you did? The textbook is not as old as you might think, some twenty years. I like the use of the words, bean patch. That’s specific and helps me imagine the setting. Here’s the paragraph that discusses this sentence.

This sentence expresses its thought clearly. Anyone who knows English should be able to understand it. But stop and think. Can you say this in a more appealing way, a way deliberately designed to be interesting? One student emphasized that his summer vacation was not a vacation from work by writing something like this:

I spent many hours of my vacation in the bean patch.

The added words are in italics.

Ha! Poor guy, that stinks, vacay picking beans– I like it and would probably like the author because he has a sense of humor.

His sentence has a surprising twist, because we are expecting a different ending. This follows the form of the paraprosdokian or comic one-liner: I would agree with you but then we would both be wrong. It’s also consistent with college desk-top reference, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Principle 22: Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

Why? Because such writing creates interest. There’s a thoughtful arrangement of words.

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Originality means avoiding cliches, such as these.

You could hear a pin drop.

At the end of the day, does it really matter?

She hit the nail on the head.

He wanted to say, that if the shoe fits, wear it.

This is a tired and common way of saying something that no longer has much meaning. It’s ok for speech and the best argument I’ve come across for cliches is in the novel, The Kite Runner, when Amir explains why and when the cliche is appropriate. But unless you’re a notable writer who builds the cliche into the tale, the rule makes sense. Avoid cliches.

Here are four quotes with my comments.

  1. The dead body lay immovable on the grass, and they sat as still as if they too were dead. (Leo Tolstoy, A Prisoner in the Caucasus, 1870)
    • This is a translation from the Russian, but Tolstoy outlasts translation and time as discussed in my previous letter. The tartars are preparing the body of a brother who had been killed. Death is immovable, grass is alive and the use of the word, dead, at the open and close of the sentence reinforces the tragedy–in their own stillness–to their loss. Tolstoy’s sentence creates a vivid image 150 years later.
  2. If you think of our story as a child’s snow globe, then this is the moment when we shake it hard and the various pieces churn in the water, dancing with gravity on their way to a new resting place. (Mitch Albom, The Little Liar, 2023. p 199)
    • Mitch Albom’s line is the opening to Part IV of his recent novel about the Holocaust. The characters disperse at this point in the story and the simile he uses about the snow globe to open this section creates an unlikely feeling of peace amid a horrific period. Contrast the hard shake with dancing, the gravity with rest. As a transition, Albom carefully takes the reader along. On the same page in short bold-font, he explains what happens to the main characters.
  3. In the hall there was the smell of cigarettes and Sunday dinner. (Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 1940. p. 56)
    • McCullers opens the paragraph with this 12-word sentence. Mick is ready to eat. Cigarettes is a smell I don’t associate with food, but these characters do and such were the times. This was written 84 years ago, but there’s a sense of immediacy to the setting and the misfits, the type of character she loves to write about, whose heart is a lonely hunter.
  4. After all, barring my one lesson from a local jazz drummer (“You’re holding your sticks backward, David”), I’d basically learned to play the drums by listening to Scream. (Dave Grohl, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, 2021. p. 75)
    • The last example has words like: jazz, sticks, drums, and Scream. The vocabulary puts me in a world that is completely foreign to me. Drummer and songwriter Grohl’s passion jumps off the page and I’m living this Punk Rock period of his life along with him.
Sentences from recent reading

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These are typical sentences from these authors and I could have easily chosen other sentences. The point of these passages is to demonstrate that original does not need to be fancy, ten-dollar words or the latest writing on the market. The works from Tolstoy and McCullers are from other centuries. Each word works and the order of words fits the story.

Yet, writing with originality is not akin to climbing Mount Everest. It is a skill, an aspect of the craft of writing, which you can develop. Practice. Effective writing with originality is everywhere.

The Teacher’s Manual is open to the first lesson on writing style. The classical model shows examples for study; these include passages with no originality, strained writing, and effective writing. The lesson includes sentences, paragraphs, and longer compositions on the next pages.

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IMPROVE WRITING IMMEDIATELY

Figure out what you want to say. If you don’t know, vomit on the page and time yourself. Anything goes. Then see what chunks–sorry for the visual–of substance might be there. This helps if you’re looking at a blank page and don’t know the writing form.

If you know the form, such as essay or resume or capstone thesis, then a simple outline with basic ideas helps you get started. You may have to research and take notes. Check out ChatGPT. Use AI as a tool, but do not let it do the writing for you because it is not original. The algorithms pull from existing texts in the public domain.

On the line, make sure to edit for originality. You must revise. All writing is rewriting. At a miniimum, formal writing requires three revisions: first draft, second draft, and final draft. Remove cliches and stop to think about what you are trying to say, and how you wish to say it. The words, the order. Cut excess verbiage and make each word count.

Last suggestion for this lesson on originality: study what you read. Read like a writer and stop to look at writing you like or enjoy. Write in the book, highlight, dogear the passage. You can see exactly how a writer does it, word for word, right there on the page.

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Stay tuned for the NEXT TreeHouseLetter in this series: PART 2, Exact Words.

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FOOTNOTES

*The epigraph is a quote from C.S. Lewis’s famous lecture, The Abolition of Man, Men Without Chests, 1944. Also known as: Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools.

The first paragraph from the lecture is included below and the 26 pages in my bound copy is worth your time. You can read it in full at the link.

MEN WITHOUT CHESTS

So he sent the word to slay

And slew the little childer.

—TRADITIONAL CAROL

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I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary text books. That is why I have chosen as the starting-point for these lectures a little book on English intended for ‘boys and girls in the upper forms of schools’. I do not think the authors of this book (there were two of them) intended any harm, and I owe them, or their publisher, good language for sending me a complimentary copy. At the same time I shall have nothing good to say of them. Here is a pretty predicament. I do not want to pillory two modest practising schoolmasters who were doing the best they knew: but I cannot be silent about what I think the actual tendency of their work. I therefore propose to conceal their names. I shall refer to these gentlemen as Gaius and Titius and to their book as The Green Book. But I promise you there is such a book and I have it on my shelves.

Excerpt from Men Without Chests

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*No doubt if you made it this far, you’re curious about my English text. It’s sort of old. For a textbook, anyway, considering ongoing changes and editions that have become part of the enterprise known as educational publishing. The average cost of a college textbook is $100 to $150 with hard copy books costing as much as $400.** Some years ago, I invested in an English program when I took my children out of school to travel, at a fraction of that cost.

The sad truth is to learn English, students have to study a foreign language. Or, take a Latin class. In earnest. Ask anyone. Better, try reading what young people write.

Anyway. Classes hadn’t been a concern for me, at first. The hamster wheel of progress in education and dutiful parents gave me pause. You’re taking them out of school!? How will they learn, what will they study?

TreeHouseLetter came out that year (2014!), written for curious friends and family. I built a curriculum for my three children. Since my husband and I had both taught in college, classes and travel seemed straightforward if not complementary. I chose Rod & Staff Building Christian English (this lesson is from Communicating Effectively 9&10, 2003) because I thought my children should know how to write and it was the best program I could find. Schools and an increasingly secular society find the Biblical or Christian content off-putting, but it was educational and uplifting for my children to learn English through study of such passages and virtues. At times they found the text humorous. My father was Catholic and learned Latin and English for catechism. He was not the best student by his own admission and he credits the nuns in parochial school for ensuring every child left the classroom with a knowledge of English. They were not paid in dollars and they would, by God, do everything to make sure he knew his letters. He would become a teacher, a principal and a diplomat, writing articles and policy and giving speeches around the world.

Too much to go into for this letter, but my children who were good students, did not know the eight parts of speech, how to write and post a letter, how to type, basic penmanship (yes cursive), and informal logic. I will not get into the finer points of the curriculum, only to say, it was staggering what they were not taught in this subject and others such as history or mathematics in years of bricks-and-mortar school.

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** Hanson, Melanie. Average Cost of College Textbooks. November 3, 2023

What is the average cost of a college textbook?

Hard copy books can cost as much as $400, with an average price between $100 and $150. The price of textbooks increases by an average of 6% each year, doubling every 11 years. Textbook prices are rising roughly 3 times the rate of inflation. College tuition and fees have risen over 80% in the past 12 years.Nov 3, 2023

Feb 26, 2024

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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