Unlearning to Write – By Jacob Brogan SEPT. 11 2015 11:47 AM

Illustration by Drew Weing

Illustration by Drew Weing

The first thing you learn when you set out to teach writing is that you will never teach anyone to write well. It’s a cruel joke universities play on humanities grad students. As you’re preparing to step into a classroom, they assign you an impossible task, one they cloak with a label like “Introduction to Rhetoric” or “Expository Composition.” Here are 20 undergraduates, they say. Show them how to make their prose sing. Staring your new charges down, you begin to speak. Your voice cracks. They see the fear in your eyes.

In this light, there’s something almost pathetic about most writing manuals, whether they’re taken up as pedagogical tools or personal aids. Flickering candles in dimly lit rooms, they offer little assistance to those who are truly in the dark.

This is the danger that looms over Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. A marvelous writer, Le Guin has always been attentive to the minutest details of her own prose. In her fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea, for example, she relies heavily on words with Germanic roots to convey the rawness of her windswept world. Attempting to help others write with similar skill, however, she too must reckon with the insurmountability of her task.

Based on workshops that Le Guin began teaching to “writers of narrative prose” almost 20 years ago, Steering the Craft—substantially updated from its 1998 editionbills itself as “a 21st-Century guide to sailing the sea of story.” It hedges its bets from the first pages of its introduction, insisting “it is not a book for beginners.” Make it past that initial warning, and you’ll soon discover that it modestly aims “to clarify and intensify your awareness of certain elements of prose writing and certain techniques and modes of storytelling.” Whatever else it offers, it will not teach you how to write.

It may, however, help you unlearn the lessons of those who’ve taught you poorly. Le Guin repeatedly inveighs against “fake rules”: wonky, almost inexplicable principles such as the idea that sentences shouldn’t begin with the construction “There is.” Such arbitrary dictates are, of course, the creations of those who’ve found it impossible to teach writing but been obliged to try anyway. I’ve been there during my own time in the classroom, found myself offering shortcuts in place of systems. Fake rules are testaments to pedagogical failure, but at least they give you the feeling that you’re imparting something, however false.

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No men allowed: publisher accepts novelist’s ‘year of women’ challenge – Who needs men? … the writers shortlisted for the 2015 Baileys women’s prize for fiction with chair Shami Chakrabarti Who needs men? … the writers shortlisted for the 2015 Baileys women’s prize for fiction with chair Shami Chakrabarti. Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Images Alison Flood Thursday 11 June 2015 03.00 EDT

Small press And Other Stories will produce no books by men in 2018 in answer to Kamila Shamsie’s call for direct action to beat gender bias in publishing

Who needs men? … the writers shortlisted for the 2015 Baileys women’s prize for fiction with chair Shami Chakrabarti

Small press And Other Stories has answered author Kamila Shamsie’s provocative call for a year of publishing women to redress “gender bias” in the literary world.

The novelist made what she called her “provocation” in Saturday’s Guardian, revealing that just under 40% of books submitted to the Booker prize over the past five years were by women, and pointing to everything from the author Nicola Griffith’s research, which found that far more prize-winning novels have male than female protagonists, to the Vida statistics showing that male authors and reviewers command more space than female.

“At this point, I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there is a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that men are better writers and better critics,” wrote Shamsie. “Enough. Across the board, enough … I would argue that is time for everyone, male and female, to sign up to a concerted campaign to redress the inequality … Why not have a year of publishing women: 2018, the centenary of women over the age of 30 getting the vote in the UK, seems appropriate.”

And Other Stories, the literary press that uses a network of readers to source its titles, has become the first publisher to accept the challenge. “I think we can do it,” said publisher Stefan Tobler. “And if we don’t do it, what is going to change?”

A small publisher, And Other Stories releases 10 to 12 new titles a year. “We’ve realised for a while that we’ve published more men than women,” said Tobler. “This year we’ve done seven books by men and four by women … We have a wide range of people helping us with our choices, and our editors are women … and yet somehow we still publish more books by men than women.”


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…only if it is important to sound or write smarter.

15 words you should eliminate from your vocabulary to sound smarter


Newsprint is on life support, emoji are multiplying faster than hungry Gremlins, and 300 million people worldwide strive to make their point in 140 or fewer characters.

People don’t have the time or the attention span to read any more words than necessary. You want your readers to hear you out, understand your message, and perhaps be entertained, right? Here’s a list of words to eliminate to help you write more succinctly.

1. That

It’s superfluous most of the time. Open any document you’ve got drafted on your desktop, and find a sentence with “that” in it. Read it out loud. Now read it again without “that.” If the sentence works without it, delete it. Also? Don’t use “that” when you refer to people. “I have several friends that live in the neighborhood.” No. No, you don’t. You have friends who. Not friends that.

2. Went

went to school. Or the store, or to church, or to a conference, to Vegas, wherever it is you’re inclined to go. Instead of “went,” consider drove, skated, walked, ran, flew. There are any number of ways to move from here to there. Pick one. Don’t be lazy and miss the chance to add to your story.

3. Honestly

People use “honestly” to add emphasis. The problem is, the minute you tell your reader this particular statement is honest, you’ve implied the rest of your words were not. #Awkward

4. Absolutely

Adding this word to most sentences is redundant. Something is either necessary, or it isn’t. Absolutely necessary doesn’t make it more necessary. If you recommend an essential course to your new employees, it’s essential. Coincidentally, the definition of essential is absolutely necessary. Chicken or egg, eh?

5. Very

Accurate adjectives don’t need qualifiers. If you need to qualify it? Replace it. “Very” is intended to magnify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. What it does is makes your statement less specific. If you’re very happy? Be ecstatic. If you’re very sad, perhaps you’re melancholy or depressed. Woebegone, even. Very sad is a lazy way of making your point. Another pitfall of using very as a modifier? It’s subjective. Very cold and very tall mean different things to different people. Be specific. She’s 6’3″ and it’s 13 degrees below freezing? These make your story better while also ensuring the reader understands the point you’re making.

6. Really

Unless you’re a Valley Girl, visiting from 1985, there’s no need to use “really” to modify an adjective. Or a verb. Or an adverb. Pick a different word to make your point. And never repeat “really,” or “very” for that matter. That’s really, really bad writing.

If you are visiting from 1985? Please bring the birth certificate for my Cabbage Patch Doll on your next visit. Thanks.

7. Amazing

The word means “causing great surprise or sudden wonder.” It’s synonymous with wonderful, incredible, startling, marvelous, astonishing, astounding, remarkable, miraculous, surprising, mind-blowing, and staggering. You get the point, right? It’s everywhere. It’s in corporate slogans. It dominated the Academy Awards acceptance speeches. It’s all over social media. It’s discussed in pre-game shows and post-game shows.

Newsflash: If everything is amazing, nothing is.

8. Always

Absolutes lock the writer into a position, sound conceited and close-minded, and often open the door to criticism regarding inaccuracies. Always is rarely true. Unless you’re giving written commands or instruction, find another word.

9. Never

See: Always.

10. Literally

“Literally” means literal. Actually happening as stated. Without exaggeration. More often than not, when the term is used, the writer means “figuratively.” Whatever is happening is being described metaphorically. No one actually “waits on pins and needles.” How uncomfortable would that be?

11. Just

It’s a filler word and it makes your sentence weaker, not stronger. Unless you’re using it as a synonym for equitable, fair, even-handed, or impartial, don’t use it at all.

12. Maybe

This makes you sound uninformed, unsure of the facts you’re presenting. Regardless of the topic, do the legwork, be sure, write an informed piece. The only thing you communicate when you include these words is uncertainty.

13. Stuff

This word is casual, generic even. It serves as a placeholder for something better. If the details of the stuff aren’t important enough to be included in the piece? Don’t reference it at all. If you tell your reader to take your course because they’ll learn a lot of stuff? They’re likely to tell you to stuff it.

14. Things

See: Stuff.

15. Irregardless

This doesn’t mean what you think it means, jefe. It means regardless. It is literally (see what I did there?) defined as: regardless. Don’t use it. Save yourself the embarrassment.

Whether you’re ghostwriting for your CEO, updating a corporate blog, selling a product, or finishing your doctoral thesis, you want to keep your reader engaged. These 15 words are a great place to start trimming the fat from your prose. Bonus? You’ll sound smarter.