BEAUTIFUL EXPRESSIONS: Good writing is like archaeology rising from the dirt
WRITING is thinking, let us count the ways. You need ideas in your head before you write; you need to understand what you are thinking before you put your ideas down on paper; on paper you will be able to see what's been jumbling up in your head; you will be able to see your ideas clearly in words, you move them about, your organise and re-organise your thought.
And then you make them sound right, you try to make them persuasive, attractive and not drive away the crowd. You begin to choose your words.
In the process you learn that words have meanings, they are nuanced, carry rhythms and have sounds, even when they are floating in your head. Why does poetry make you happy or sad, take you to distant places, stir your feelings and make you laugh or weep? It is merely a collection of words, but words gathered in a deep moment of thought. "Emotion recollected in tranquility," so Wordsworth said.
The idea that writing is only for the humanities is bunkum; writing cuts across the board. To learn a person must write.
Writer and teaching instructor Steve Peha could not understand how a fourth grader he met was having difficulties trying to add up two fractions until he made him write down the method he was using to reach his conclusion.
"We never do this in math. This is writing," the student protested.
Peha coaxed him to do it anyway and it was then that Peha realised where he had gone wrong. Peha, in other words, had got into his head and understood how he was developing his thought. What was also happening here was that the student was looking into his head too, and realised how he was jumbled up.
When writing teacher William Zinsser was at the Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota in the 1980s to train teachers how to make their students write better, a philosophy professor gave him justification for his work. The best students' papers were the ones that showed him how they couldn't arrive at places they were trying to reach.
Nowadays we have assessments at the tick. They used to call this objective testing: students are asked to choose from say, a choice of five possible answers, the one that he thinks is the best answer to the question. Talking to a teacher recently I discovered that this disease has reached into language teaching, too. Never mind the sentence but give a tick if the student has an element of the correct answer. The sentence is broken but the facts are right.
So we have engineers who cannot formulate a thought in a sentence, communicate effectively with clients and find it hard to write a report. Go to any comments section of a web page, or your Facebook and you'll see how far this disability has reached. It has made millions for agencies that help our engineers and scientists and doctors turn to for help to express what they themselves cannot say in words.
When a teacher makes an assessment of a student's written work, he or she is looking not only at the arguments but also at the person making the text. Soon the student will learn the value of organised thinking, precise thought and the power of words. He or she will discover that words can sway or put people to sleep, enlighten or draw or disperse a crowd.
We used to sit down in class to sift wheat from chaff in a passage, a paragraph or a book. It used to be called précis writing, but précis writing is now dead. There is no better exercise for a close examination of the written work than that because by examining the nuts and bolts we begin to understand how the clock works.
Good writing is not only the domain of literature students or dreamers sitting there in poetry corner contemplating thoughts. It is for you Professor Hadron Collider, Dr Sick Physique, Mr Number Cruncher. This is what was once fashionably called writing across the curriculum and it ought to be revived so that we -- and that's you and me -- can be properly educated.
This is what Zinsser was trying to teach all those years ago because good writing is the compilation of thoughts beautifully expressed, thinking lifted from the mires of your head so effectively that it will make archaeology rise from the dirt, transformed into an edifice of work. Read Bertrand Russell on philosophy, read Oliver Sacks on neurology, Steven Pinker on words. These are complex subjects so beautifully spoken that even the uninitiated will want to read them out loud.
They say if you can read poetry in any language and understand it, then you have mastered the language. So read poetry too because those poets are not just dreamers but thinkers who have just summarised for you the essential beauty, the essential truth in a bouquet for words.
Then go to your corner and learn to write your subject so that people will want to read it to the crowd.
Wan A Hulaimi New Straits Times Columnist 13 January 2013