Video Summary: The Craft of Writing Effectively, by Larry McEnerney

Larry McEnerney

Summary reading time: 6 min

Videos length: 2 hours

Larry McEnerney is (was?) the director of the writing program of the University of Chicago.

He was known in academia for having a much more “readers-oriented” view about writing than his peers.

One of his classes was recorded and posted on Youtube where it gathered millions of views – for good reasons.

You can watch the video at the end of the summary.

10/10.


Video Summary: The Craft of Writing Effectively

A journalist writes to explain something after he has done the thinking.

An expert writes to think about what he is writing.

Writing is 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 the thinking processes of readers.

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:

  • Clear
  • Organized
  • Persuasive
  • But above all else, writing should be valuable.

Your writing should change people’s lives. If it doesn’t, they won’t read it.

When people read something, it is to find value in it.

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 is the readers.

-> is what you write valuable to readers? Always ask yourself this.

Now, let’s say you write a paper and someone tells you what you wrote is neither clear nor important.

Are they right? Yes.

Don’t defend your writing.

If the audience doesn’t find the paper important, it means it isn’t important.

In schools, students write assignments where they explain what they have understood.

“What students understood” is not valuable reading because nobody cares -> the teachers gets paid to read these assignments.

-> students are trained to show teachers the inside of their minds -> nobody cares about what is inside your head in the real world.

You never want to explain why your work is important. It has to be obvious.

Do 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 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”.

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 no one wants to be wrong -> what you are saying has value to them.

You need 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.

Knowledge does not build onto each other like a house. It moves forward through time.

Video Summary: Writing Beyond Academia

“Writing beyond academia” is another video from Larry McEnerney. You can find it here, or read the summary.

Why is writing difficult?

Because people don’t do any writing that is real writing.

Real writing is:

  • Valuable
  • Persuasive
  • Clear
  • Organized

A lot of people give writing advice of the likes “don’t use jargon”, “don’t use passive verbs”.

These are text-based advice, you don’t want this type of advice.

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.

Your purpose as a writer is to change how the reader thinks about the world.

You write and think at the same time. The function of the text you write is therefore to change the way readers think about the world.

This is when writing 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. They teach you to express what you think.

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 pieces of information. If you write the same paragraph with 3 sentences, there are only 3 important pieces of information (better).

-> it’s a question of balance.

Rules regarding limiting the use of passive verbs, adverbs, and not starting a sentence with “because” are wrong rules. It all depends on whether these can add value or not.

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 the reader.

If you are talking to cats, the first sentence is clearer. If you are talking to dogs, the second sentence is clearer.

Don’t tell readers what you wrote is important -> they are the ones that decide 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 discussions. The argument is obviously, much more interesting because it could change how people think about democracy.

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 what is in your head. It is to change what is in theirs.

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 the bad stuff, which is why newspapers…are writing about the bad stuff. People, when looking for entertainment, are drowned in 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.

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 similar to going from A to B. B is what matters since you want to go there. But how you will go there depends on A.

For more summaries, head to auresnotes.com.

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  • Post category:Summaries
  • Post last modified:May 13, 2022