Day 55: On Writing Well

Thanks to the responses from the students at the Global Studies Program at Thammasat University in Bangkok where I had the honor of giving a talk on the topic All About Writing (and the Art of Doing it Well), I had the opportunity to sit down and write about how I think makes me want to write well (although this does not, in any way, imply that I write well). Well, I think my writing is not bad. Well, I should not contradict myself especially after that I posted my opinion on why I think modesty is bad for the society in general.

Well, fine, I think I do write well, and here are some of the tips I want to share with you. Writing is good for you. It’s good for your brain, as it helps you organize your thoughts and therefore your life. Writing is good for your mental health because it helps you to rethink the happenstances in your life, giving you a second chance to appreciate every moment of it. There are many research results that show that people who write regular tend to be much more satisfied with their lives than people who do not write (and you can find them in some of my earlier posts in which I write about why I write). Writing is also good for your career, as it helps you to set you goals straight whether that be your short-term or long-term goals.

  
Make no mistake about it: those who write down their goals have a much higher chance of accomplishing those goals than people who don’t; and the reason for which is simple, writing down your goals not only remind you of what you should do, but it also helps keeping you on track. Think about how many times in the past that you’d forgotten to get something done — simply because you’d forgotten it. There are so many benefits to writing. Long story short: Writing is good for you, so start writing! Do it everyday and make it your habit! In this post, I’ll keep it short by using original questions that the students had sent me as the prompts (with slight modifications to some of them to make them ready comprehensibly).

  • How to be inspired to write? Especially when you are completely blocked and halted The trick is to get to the keyboard and start typing — and try not to hit that demonic button called “backspace.” Just keep typing. Some experts said that it’s easier to get going when writing with your hand, rather than using the keyboard, and if this is teh case for you, hit the notebook with your pencil instead. Personally, I think the main problem is not that we don’t have anything about which to write, but the fear that what we write might not be as interesting as we would like it to be. Come on. We’d never know that anyway. Even some of the greatest writers of all time sometimes aren’t sure about whether or not what they’re writing about would turn into anything good. Yet, the fact that matter is that it’s precisely because they don’t know whether or not what they’re writing about would into anything good is actually what gives them the pressure-free attitude to focus their attention on the writing itself, and not the fear that surrounds it, that makes them great writers. This kind of fear is unproductive. We wouldn’t know whether what we write would be useful or not until we have written it down, would we?
  • As Non has studied in many top university, I am curious about what mottoes does he apply in his routine that keeps him moving forward to become a successful and inspiring person?I have a lot of mottoes, but most of them don’t have anything to do with “success” as such — they are almost all about morality and the meanings of life. The pivotal moment in my life was when my father suddenly passed away in 2010, which changed everything for me. I used to be a counterproductively individualistic, self-preserved, selfish, and absurdly cruel being. The irony was that I wasn’t even mildly successful then neither, yet I thought I was because of my counterproductive egotism. Simply put, I didn’t care about any one else, but myself. It’s until my father, who I never thought would leave me — at least not when he’s just 60 — passed away that I eventually woke up and started to think much more carefully about the meaning of it all. Suddenly, I realized that the meaning of it all has nothing to do with what other people think, especially what they would like to think for me as “markers of success”; and it was then, perhaps, which was the moment I suddenly realized I had lived someone else’s life all along. That was the time when I began to think about what made me happy, and the answer was clear: I was happy every time when I was told that what I did made other people happy. Of course, as many of you perhaps already know, I have been sharing some of the thoughts that keep me going on my blog.
  • How can we detect what is the strongest argument among other? And which sorts of evidence would be considered strong enough to support the respective argument?When considering what is the best argument to make, think of two factors: the source of knowledge, and the premise on which you are making your argument. You will be likely to fail argumentatively if the source of knowledge lacks credibility. And we have talked about the importance of premise — pick the premise that is relevant to your argument. For instance, nobody in their right mind is going to make an argument about the scientific importance of gravity wave (which is a hot topic right now) based on a superstitious notion of a particular religious premise, right?
  • What is a useful habit to know in order to avoid mistakes in academic writing ?To always think critically and never take anything at face value; and to believe wholeheartedly that a good question doesn’t have to be complicated, but simple — all you have to do is to look at the problem from a different angle.
  • Do you find any differences between writing essay in Thai and English? Is there any linguistic aspect by which one language to be,either simpler or more difficultly, expressed compared to the other one? In terms of grammar, English is much harder because of the tenses. The writer has to keep in mind always the tense which he/she is writing in, which is not easy because it’s not always the case that which is clear. On the other hand, Thai is also hard because of the linguistic nuances concerning social hierarchy and honorifics. I have yet to write anything in Thai for the past decade and I have a feeling that it’d be very difficult for me to do it well, although I always ready for the challenge!
  • What do you do when you get what they called “writer’s block?” Sometimes I just cannot think of what to say and get stuck.Same answer as in question#1.
  • I am interested in writing a blogs also. Is there any recommendations you have for people who are new to this that will help make the starting process easier? To have a theme. What would your blog be about? Is it going to be about your life, your thought, your photos, etc? After the theme is set, then all to have to do is to start writing it. Make it interesting! Think of the kind of blog that you yourself like to read. What makes them so interesting? A lot photos? (nobody wants to read a lot of texts, right?) or maybe a lot of casual informal language? Whatever that be, you may want to start your blog by assimilating the style of the blog that you like. Be consistent as if millions of people are following you and waiting to read your blog (although in reality only a handful are). Once you have gained the right momentum you won’t ever slip back to the state of dormancy again.
  • How do you decide on what you want to write about? I have many ideas and questions I like to explore, but sometimes I am not sure if it is really the right topic. There’s no right or wrong, right? Unless you are given a prompt, e.g., as in your exam, then whatever you write is yours and yours alone. I like to read all kinds of things (from books to magazines, to Facebook posts, to online catalogs, to whatever whatever) and usually I spend a lot of time everyday doing nothing but observe and listen to other people talking on the street and so on (am I weird? 🙂 and these are usually the sources of what I want to try to put into words (i.e., essay). Often, I write about what I want to try to understand. Again, you’ll see what I mean in my blog 🙂
  • What do you do if you started writing something, and halfway through, you’d decided that which is not what you really want to address? If that happens to me, should I stop and find something else I rather write about or continue even if i lost the drive for this question? Yes, and no. It depends on what kinds of writing you’re doing. If you’re being asked to write something very specific, then it might be useful to stop for a moment, have a cup of coffee (or a glass of wine — but never a mug of beer) and think about what you might better and more efficiently address the question about which you are writing. On the other hand, if it’s an expository writing, the technique is to keep going. You’ll go in loops from time to time but you’ll get back to a certain point where your thoughts and ideas usually lace together. So, be patience. Let it sit a few days and go back to it again.
  • What should I do for the process of shifting my novel-style writing to academic writing?The audience for academic writing won’t be someone who share with you your subjectivity (e.g., your close friends), thus you’d want to be clearer in your expression, which usually means 1) more formal in narration; 2) more rigorous in delineation, and, last but not least; 3) more mindful of the readers in making your assumption about what you think they might or might not know already.
  • What is the most important part of the essay?The question, and how you answer it 🙂
  • How to write great introduction and conclusion?  What do you mean by “get to the point as fast as possible?” How many sentence into the introduction should the main point be stated?  What tips do you have to make sure that we have a hook or a catchy phrase in the beginning of any writing to make sure the reader is interested in the piece and continues reading?Come on, really? You’re asking me “how to,” after all those tips in the lecture. Alright. Fine. A great introduction has to follow the “Herzfeld’s rule” [or the rule that states that whatever you have to say you’d need to say in the most concise, succinct, and comprehensively way in the least amount of time possible otherwise someone as important as Professor Michael Herzfeld (who is probably one of the world’s most productive writer) would not have the patience to listen to you]. It has to be short and punchy. It has to be able to grab the attention of the audience instantly. Usually, a question takes the reader right where they should be. Use a rhetorical question if you have to. Use a well-know quote, or idiom, or set phrase if you think it’d to the job. The conclusion shouldn’t be a repeating of what you have just written — it should provide a few bullet points of takeaways.
  • Why is it that after having majored in a subject like Anthropology and lived in Shanghai, he writes about “sex ?”In addition to the fact that I love sex (surprise, surprise), it’s due to my true belief in the idea that sex is the most beautiful thing ever. For those who haven’t indulged yourself in my Sex Trilogy on this blog, I’d highly encourage that you’d give it a chance. The truth is, after having spent so many years studying so many things, I have come to the conclusion that my lifelong journey that on the surface seems to be about searching for an objective truth through reason, is nothing but an excuse to find my own self trapped between the natural drive for a good sexual companionship and the societal expectation that sex must be something more than animistic. Isn’t that so interesting that sex, cross-culturally, seems to be a subject that brings shame and embarrassment, when it is what we do, as human beings. Isn’t that so interesting?
  • An intro is a thesis of your argument but in the concluding sentences, it also reiterate the same argument. How do you create an ending sentence that differentiates from your intro sentence?Think of you giving your essay to President Obama, who would have only one minute to read your 20-page essay. Of course he won’t have the time and would probably flip through all those pages and jump right to your one paragraph conclusion. In the short conclusion, what do you think someone as important as he should want to take away from your essay? The answer to this question is how you’d write your conclusion.

Finally, I want to share with you one book on writing that I hold dearly, and, I can see it with confidence that I believe these books can change your life too. So, please take them seriously!

the-sense-of-style-3-638

The cover of the book as originally published in 2014. I have the e-book version of the book and is looking at purchasing the audio version!

It’s Harvard cognitive psychologist (and also historian, philosopher, and so on) Steven Pinker’s latest book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. It’s probably one of the best books on writing in the past decades if not the entire twentieth century. The book is not a manual on how to write well in the strictest sense of the term (but there’re portions of the book that are specifically about how to improve your writing) but a book that tells you why writing we tend to think that writing well is difficult. Dr. Pinker believes that we believe that writing has to be difficult because there’re so many people out there who are watching you and waiting for you to make mistake. This is something that I could resonate with very well. When I was younger and learning to write, I was afraid of writing even a short passage. Why? Because my teacher would find something wrong in that passage, and than I would be punished for making it! (Damn it).

Well, lo and behold, the world of English language is no different from that, argues Dr. Pinker. In The Sense of Style, Dr. Pinker explains why the standards on which the notion of writing well rest is not always as objective as we would think through the history of how words get picked to be added into a dictionary by its editors, and how a set phrase, a neologism, and expression are socially created. I am sure that I’m not the only audience who was amazed by everything I read when I read it for the first time. I was like, “what, it’s that easy for a new meaning to be added into an existing word in a dictionary???” I always thought that whatever listed in the dictionary are fixed, objective, and rule-bound. Anyway, let me spoil the book no more. Hence, argues Dr. Pinker, writing well is all about how you’d like to put your thoughts into words, rather than how you’d follow what the “grammar police” of whom (Dr. Pinker calls “the purists”) would want us to do so in the style that if you do otherwise you wouldn’t be let into the “gentlemen’s club” of the English language.

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