Writing Lessons 10 – Students And Novelists

This one is for students going to university – either first years or postgraduates – as well as aspiring novelists: keep it simple!

I spent two years fairly recently helping students at Exeter University with their communication skills, working for the Royal Literary Fund’s Fellowship Scheme. 

It was a great experience, although very daunting. After all, I have no degree. I was dealing with students who were a great deal better educated than me, and covering a wide range of disciplines – religious studies, English, business, law, and medicine, amongst others, and at every level of competence up to PhD.

The first thing that became clear to me was, that the students were all too often trying to write to an academic standard, rather than simply attempting to communicate. What do I mean? All too often students would use long sentences, long words and long paragraphs to try to show how clever they were. They thought that professors and others wanted to have lengthy, convoluted arguments in their writing. 

This would be fine, perhaps, if only the most basic errors weren’t being made. For example, I had one student give me a paragraph that was almost a page long and only had a couple of sentences. It was impossible to see what she was driving at. Another had a word in the middle of a paragraph that meant the polar opposite of what she was trying to say. She didn’t know what the word meant, but thought it looked ‘academic’. (Incidentally, I found 90% of the students visiting me were female; I think most males were embarrassed to come and ask for help, or perhaps never heard of the RLF service.)

When writing essays, letters, or books, the key, indeed the only, criterion that matters is making your writing comprehensible. That is the factor that is most crucial.

I have the pleasure of knowing several very bright people in education and in business. And no, I don’t include myself in that number. However, it does not matter which field you look at, all those in education and business want to have clear, precise, and ideally concise documents. They do not want to have to read a text five times to get to what the author means. 

In business, the briefer the document, the better. Ideally keeping facts and data on one or a couple of sheets. A manager wants to know what your thoughts are, what are the logical consequences, or the best approach to take in a given situation. 

In education, the reader wants to know your thinking, how logical your thoughts are, how well briefed you are, and how your thoughts flow. Categorically, he or she does not want to know how well-thumbed is your thesaurus. They want shorter, comprehensible sentences that flow, one into the next. 

I always considered (I have no idea whether this is true) that algebra and philosophy emerged at about the same time, and were developed by the Greeks into the modern disciplines. I believe that both fields, while appearing entirely at odds, are in fact quite similar. An essay, for example, will start at a given, accepted point, and then will develop by bringing in new themes, one paragraph at a time. Each new theme is explored, demonstrated by quotations from texts, and developed. The next paragraph is linked by that developed theme to a new one, and so the argument develops logically and elegantly to a conclusion.
In the same way, algebra starts from one point, and in a series of logical developments runs on to a conclusion. Both, it seems to me, use similar approaches. 

Where an algebraic equation is considered elegant if its series of steps are simple, the same is true of an essay. Keep to shorter, more active sentences, and your essay will be easier to understand. The logic of your reasoning will be clearer. And that has the result that your lecturer will be able to spend more time with his/her family, or not miss the latest episode of ‘Lecturers in the Sun’, or whatever it is that they watch of an evening. 

Leave your lecturer happier, and you will find you gain more marks. 

Einstein once was supposed to have said, ‘If you can’t explain it to a six-year old you don’t understand it yourself.’ While I was at Exeter, I often used to mention this. My strong recommendation to all students was that they should take a leaf out of his book, and write as though explaining their theories and essays to a younger sibling. By using language that could be understood by a younger brother or sister, you will write with more clarity. That means your lecturer will be able to understand your points faster, and that means they’ll be happier. And happy lecturers tend to give more marks. 

This may sound overly simplistic and, perhaps, wrong. It may not work for some university professors. Some lecturers will obviously want different things from their students. However, I firmly believe that the overriding principle to good writing, no matter what you are writing about, is that you keep it simple. Whether you are writing a treatise on the Cold War, on Nuclear Fusion or an essay on a novel is irrelevant. If you are writing, you are trying to communicate. Putting the reader off because you are trying to show off how clever you are, will never work. Too often the reader will be cleverer than you.

I will return to this subject in a little while, when I have some examples of poor writing and how to correct it at first edit. While at Exeter I developed my own system for dissecting text and making it comprehensible which may help you.

In the meantime, if you are a student and think you need more help, do please  get in touch and I’ll help if I may. Alternatively, ask at your university for the Royal Literary Fund members who are there to help you. They are all professional writers, and they are paid by the RLF, so their services are free.

Happy writing!

One Response to “Writing Lessons 10 – Students And Novelists”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Michael on mentoring students…


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