What is “good” writing? Many people mistakenly consider “good” writing to be characterized by long, flowing, flowery sentences that test, tease, and bend the rigid rules of grammar, using countless commas and unnecessary language and verbiage to lull the reader into a sense of complacency and confusion; that is, until the reader receives the pseudo-break of a semicolon, only to be thrown back into the baffling, confusing, and some could say perplexing, depths of a sentence that never seems to reach its foregone and tragically inevitable conclusion. There is a place for sentences like this, and that place is your personal diary or journal. However, superfluous writing does not belong in academic essays. In fact, I think that academic writing should be the exact opposite; it should be simple.
In every piece of writing, the writer and the reader play unspoken roles. The writer is there to communicate ideas to the reader. The reader is there to interpret those ideas. As a writer, why make the reader’s role more difficult than it needs to be? To me, the best essays are clearly written and well-organized. They have concise, arguable thesis statements. They have well-written paragraphs that are situated in a predictable, structured fashion. They do not contain writing that serves no purpose other than to confuse the reader or to put the writer’s extensive vocabulary on display. Once again, the writer’s role is to communicate ideas to the reader. The best essays are the ones that do so in the clearest way possible.
My defense of simple writing may seem like a defense of boring writing by default, but I disagree. Unnecessarily long sentences exhaust the reader and steal attention from the piece as a whole. Think of every sentence as a simple brushstroke. Individually, a singular brushstroke seems insignificant. However, once the artist combines that brushstroke with others, the piece as a whole becomes clear. Writing, like any art form, is often at its best when it is simple and accessible. This notion especially holds true in the field of academic writing, where the writing that seems dull actually shines the brightest.
During my first upper-level creative writing course, my Poetry Workshop professor commented on a progress report, “You often write about your obsessions.” Most of my poetry is reflective of my personal experiences of gender, race, and family dynamics, but I had never thought of any of these things as “obsessions.” My professor intended for his statement to be a compliment, and I thought about it for a long time after reading my report and then adopted it into a mantra of sorts: “write about your obsessions.”
I have interpreted his words to mean that I constantly write to explore my interests, whether conscious or unconscious, and to seek out information that is important to me. I now use this idea of writing about obsessions to guide both my creative and academic writing.
In the context of creative writing, it is easy for me to identify personal experiences and aspects of my identity as topics for my poetry. Most kinds of writing serve the purpose of exploring a topic or finding some kind of resolution to a question or problem; creative writing is arguably the most personal way of accomplishing this purpose. When I apply the concept of writing about obsessions to my creative work, I usually end up with more questions than answers, which is preferable, because they get me thinking. I ask myself questions like “Why is this idea or theme significant to me?” “How can I best convey my feelings about this obsession?” and “Am I obsessed with this idea, event, or person in a good or bad way?” Identifying my underlying motivations for any given poem helps me feel more connected to my work and makes for clearer writing.
Writing about obsessions is also applicable to academic writing, though in a more abstract and constrained sense. Whenever I have to write a paper on a topic I am not particularly enthused about, I take time to think about what I want to know and how that may relate to the assignment. When I find the answer, I have an easier time writing the paper because I can investigate a question that satisfies some obsession of mine, however superficial it may be. It seems like a stretch to find something you’re obsessed with in, say, a Biostatistics research paper, but the point is to avoid limiting yourself. Thinking about obsessions goes a long way in pinpointing your own interests and making the writing process more meaningful and enjoyable.
Obsessing in this sense is more about writing the work that you would want to read.
(Image via https://openclipart.org/detail/196174/question-girl)