Whether we call them misconceptions, alternative conceptions, or myths, here are five things that can get in the way of our best writing.
1. First draft is final.
Who hasn’t done this? Depending on the piece, I still have to resist the temptation to do this. It can seem so harmless, especially if we’re confident that the final product will be sufficient. Work expands to the time we give it, right? The problem is that writing is also a “mode of learning.” In our first drafts, we are still figuring out not only what we want to say but maybe even what we actually think. Writing can be a surprise. It is after revising that we can write for the reader and clarify our own thoughts and purpose.
2. Rhetoric is a bad thing used to manipulate others.
Yes, rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Yes, it can be used immorally. BUT rhetoric is all around us. We all use it. It is a tool through which we make and interpret meaning. Rhetoric doesn’t have to be self-centered like manipulation, but rather it can be other-oriented. Through rhetoric, authors and speakers enter into a relationship with their audience. When we think rhetorically, we think about our readers with their needs, concerns, and specific contexts. If you’re thinking about what would be the most effective argument or word choice, you’re thinking rhetorically. If you’re thinking how you words will impact the feelings and values of your listener, then you’re thinking rhetorically.
A great resource for the study of rhetoric is Gideon Burton’s Silva Rhetoricae. Once I got past the shock that it was designed with frames, it became one of my favorite sites.
3. Don’t give away your argument too soon.
Personally, I’m partial to this one. I love the ideal of reader and writer collaboratively exploring a topic together until the surprising discovery of truth. But there is a way to write an introduction (the problem statement) that helps get the reader on the same page and might be expected in some contexts. First, describe what we already know. This is called the stable context. It brings readers in with something that’s not too new and builds your credibility. Second, either describe what we don’t know or offer an example that shows us that the stable context doesn’t accurately represent the complexity of reality. This is your destabilizing moment. Then your reader is ready for your main claim.
4. The five paragraph essay is a go-to format.
Ah the five paragraph essay. Simple. Elegant. Easy to master. But what do we do when writing a ten page paper, a twenty page article, or a blog post? There comes a point when the format starts to buckle under the pressure of the content. It may have first seemed like a foundational genre that would stay with us throughout our lives, but it was actually a learning tool. The key to take away from it is that we need to start with a clear introduction following the problem statement format and then support that introduction in as many paragraphs as needed for the reader to understand.
5. I just need someone to check my grammar.
It can be so easy to get bogged down in wondering if I have all the commas in the right place or if I used that semicolon correctly. And what will people think if I start sentences with coordinating conjunctions? When we start thinking this way, then we start seeking out editors instead of readers. Please just look at my grammar. I need help. But what if what I really need is a clearer (more clear?) introduction? Or what if my writing loses focus halfway through? During that kind of revision, it won’t matter if I had a comma splice in a paragraph that is eventually removed.
And as far as the place of grammar, I don’t think I can say it better than Stephen Fry: