Video Summary: The Craft of Writing Effectively
Larry McEnerney is (was?) the director of the writing program of the University of Chicago. His video on writing effectively has had an enormous impact on my life. You can watch it here, or read the summary below. 10/10.
A journalist writes to explain something after he has done the thinking. An expert writes to think about what he is writing. Writing appears as a thinking process. This type of writing is the highest level you can write at.
People write and think differently. When a writer writes something, it will collapse with the thinking process of his readers, because both are different.
Good writing is writing that fits thinking processes.
When people read something that wasn’t made to fit with their thinking patterns, they slow down, then don’t understand, then get angry, then they stop reading.
Writing must be:
- But above all else, writing should be valuable.
Your writing should change people’s lives. If it doesn’t they wont read it. When people read something, it is to find value in it. If there is none, they won’t read it.
As such, writing is not about the writer wondering if his ideas have values. Writing is about what the readers think is valuable.
The main thing you must focus on when writing something, is the readers. Is it valuable to readers?
Now, let’s say you write a paper and someone tells you what you wrote is neither clear nor important. What would you do? You would explain to them why it is in fact, important. Well, don’t do that. If the audience doesn’t find the paper important, it means it isn’t important.
In schools, teachers ask students to write assignments where they explain what they have understood because it is teachers’ job to make sure that students have understood the knowledge. As such, students are trained to show teachers the inside of their mind so that teachers can make sure that students indeed, understood. In the real word, nobody cares about what is inside your head.
As such, you never want to explain someone why your work is important. It has to be obvious.
You think writing is conveying your ideas? It’s not.
It’s changing the ideas of your reader.
Nobody cares what ideas you have.
What matters is that you write “knowledge”, and you don’t get to decide what “knowledge” is. Other people do. So the purpose of writing is to write for other people.
Each community has a code made of a set of words that communicate value. You must know these words if you hope to write valuable information for this community.
If you don’t know your readers, you are very unlikely to create value and to be persuasive. Persuasion depends on what they doubt. If you don’t know that, you can’t convince them.
You can’t go to a community of scientists and tell them “hey, there is something I’d like to add to what you have done” because they’ll answer “we don’t care”. However, if you go and say “what you have done is amazing, I have read everything congratulations, all is great. But, there is one thing though, that I am not sure is correct”…then you’ll have their attention. Because suddenly, what you are saying has value to them.
The idea of writing, is to identify the people with power in the community, and to give them what they want.
Your writing should help a group of people to understand better something they want to understand well.
The value of knowledge changes over time. The knowledge of two hundred years ago does not have the same value today. It may have been updated, or maybe not. Either way, knowledge does not build onto each other like a house. It moves forward through time.
The second part is an addition of the video, still by the same professor, entitled “Writing beyond academia”. You can find it here.
Why is writing difficult?
Because people don’t do any writing that is real writing.
Real writing is:
A lot of people give writing advice of the likes “don’t use jargon”, “don’t use passive verbs”. These are text-based advice. This is not the type of writing advice you want. You want to know why you are writing what you are writing, and whether it is valuable or not.
No advice on writing makes sense if you haven’t clarified who is reading and what is the function of the text.
A text → changes → readers’ vision of
Write/think → about → the world
You write and think at the same time about the world. The function of the text you write is therefore to change the way readers think about the world.
This is when it becomes valuable.
The most difficult thing is not to go from high school to university, or from university to master’s. It is to go from school to the outside world, because the outside world is only about value. They don’t teach you to provide value at school.
The reason why writing short sentences is good is that it demands one’s attention for a shorter period. When people read the NYT op-ed in the subway, they can’t afford to focus on long sentences because the environment is full of distractions.
The function of the NYT op-ed is to entertain. Not inform.
However, you don’t want to be writing only short sentences. At the end of a sentence exists what we call “stress”. Stress is emphasizing the importance of information. If you write a paragraph with six short sentences, you are saying there are 6 important informations. If you write the same paragraph with 3 sentences, there are only 3 important informations (better).
There is no such rules about limiting the use of passive verbs, about limiting the use of adverbs and about not starting a sentence with because. All these rules about text are wrong rules.
Don’t tell readers what you wrote is important, as they are the ones that decide about that.
Value in a paper is not “here is what my paper will be about” (2). It is “here’s what my paper will argue”. (3)
“We are going to talk about democracy” VS “We are going to argue that democracy eventually crumbles on itself”.
These are different. The argument is obviously, much more interesting because it could change how people think about the world.
In academic writing, 95% of papers begin by telling the readers what question the writer has that will be answered. (1)
1 makes space for the reader. 2 does not make any space for the reader. The reader has no role.
“Ideas” and “concepts” are words with no value. You can’t do anything with them. However, “tool” is a word with a lot of value, because a tool has a purpose and a function. You can do stuff with tools.
Academic papers look at their readers in the eyes and tell them “I know what you think…and you are wrong”. When someone is telling you you are wrong…you have to listen: it is valuable.
To write to readers, you must know what they value.
Your job is not to reveal your head. It is to change their heads.
You can also say to your readers “I know what is valuable to you, and I am going to give it”. I know what you need, and this text can provide it. So you open with what they need, not with “here’s what the text is going to be about”.
We value reading about bad stuff, which is why newspapers…are writing about bad stuff. People, when looking for entertainment, are drowned to conflicts, tensions, trouble. We find it entertaining.
Language is a social activity. So, when you deal with language, you should have in your focus other people. Not yourself. Language is not about revealing your ideas. It is about giving value to the person in front of you. It is about telling them what they want to hear.
From now on when you write, you have to think about the reader. Don’t start telling people what you think. Tell them what they think. How they engage things.
For twenty years, as students, you spend time writing material for which you thought the reader (the teacher) would trust you. READERS DON’T TRUST YOU. They think you will waste their time, they think what you wrote is useless to them. It is your job to make them understand otherwise, by writing something that is valuable to them.
Language is a relationship between people.
Which of these sentences is clearer:
“The cat is chased by the dog” or “The dog chases the cat”.
Answer: it depends.
On what? On the reader. If you are talking to cats, first sentence is clearer. If you are talking to dogs, second sentence is clearer.
Concision is not the number of words on the page. It is how long it takes the reader to process. If you write about topics that do not interest the reader, it will take him longer to process.
The subject is the focus. The end of the sentence is the stress. They are both important. When we finish the sentence, we attached the stress back to the focus.
It is a similar to going from A to B. B is what matter since you want to go there. But how you will go will depend on A.
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