Revision and Editing Workshop: being deliberate, specific

Since this is a Writing Intensive course, I am sharing with you this week, as you complete your second critical essay, some ideas and strategies for more effective essay writing: for this project and (I hope) beyond this course. Think how important specificity is for Momaday–what it means to have a name, and what the name means. Think how deliberately Flynn focuses on the ways we use language and images, or don’t use them, with specificity. Think how specific Momaday is in the representation of his name, his family, the place where his childhood, as he puts it, takes place.

The theme for several strategies: being specific in the sense of being deliberate. You have probably heard that before. Be specific, be concise, be concrete. I emphasize specificity as something we writers do when we begin to think deliberately about refining our drafts, editing them. Drafts necessarily start out more general, wander around ideas and language; they are not supposed to be specific or refined at the beginning. The specificity and control that effective writing demonstrates (the sense that the writer is in control of the argument or expression, has chosen words carefully, has crafted the essay) comes through revision.

Strategy #1: Notice the ways your sentences may be more passive than active. A key signal for this: lots of constructions with “is” or a version of this helping verb. For more on that, consult this post I have on my composition blog. Be deliberate in saying who is doing what to whom–and with this begin to use more specific and imaginative verbs.

It is stated by Momaday that one of the things that is important in his life is imagination. (passive contstruction, where the key idea gets buried at the end)

Momaday imagines his identity…(active, bringing up the key idea to the front).

A digital tool you can use to visualize how your writing might be emphasizing “is” and not enough of your keywords: Wordle.

Strategy #2: Notice and be more deliberate about the variation and variety of sentences: mixing longer and shorter, not all of one length. Think about the ways that you can move your reader from one sentence to the next (transitions between sentences, not just paragraphs) and also move your focus–by moving in and out of more complicated sentences and emphatic, shorter ones. Here is a post that has a sample of what sentence variation can do in your writing (from my writing pedagogy blog I use for faculty).

Trick: Hit return after each sentence. Does sentence length vary? Consider emphasizing a key idea or argument by moving deliberately into a short sentence. (I think of this as a close up).

Consider this example of moving from longer to shorter in a key moment (say, an introduction, highlighting a focus or thesis):

IN 1956, nearly a century after Fort Sumter, Robert Penn Warren went on assignment for Life magazine, traveling throughout the South after the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decisions. Racism was thick, hope thin. Progress, Warren reported, was going to take a while — a long while. “History, like nature, knows no jumps,” he wrote, “except the jump backward, maybe.”

This kind of specificity in your focus, at the level of your sentences, thus effectively and impressively reiterates the specificity you can and should bring to your close/slow reading. For more on what I mean by close reading.


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