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351. Writing 101: “Show; don’t tell”

뉴스관리자 기자2013.11.01 13:48:23

Writing 101: “Show; don’t tell”

 

By Todd Fahey, Professor at the Department of English Education

friendofliberty@yahoo.com

 

[Resembling the first lines of the introduction paragraph of a freshman-year Korean university student]: The purpose of this article is to tell you about the subject of How to Write in English.  First, let me tell you a little bit about myself...

     A reader who asks oneself, “Well, what’s wrong with that!?” has not experienced a Writing course taught by a writer.  Such a student is not to be blamed; the opportunity to study under “a real writer” is rare.  Upon graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in pre-Law, and having served two internships in law firms in the states of Arizona and California, I knew that my heart was not wedded to legal practice; the theory and argumentative structure of law is still one of my favorite disciplines, but the sitting in an office for ten hours daily and poring over endless case files, taking calls from harried and disgruntled clients and listening to sob stories would have been unendurable.

     I wanted to write.

     Hearing this, and having seen me as a straight-A student in the field of legal studies, my father thought my decision to be insane.  (His verbatim comment to me, upon hearing the news--a wry smile to the corners of his mouth: “OK.  ...But how are you going to eat?”)   Indeed, making a living as a writer is a difficult pursuit--not so different from the thousands of would-be actors and actresses in Hollywood who wait tables in restaurants while auditioning for movie roles, with only a hope and the passion to do so.

     My passion was apparent; the skill level at which I found myself--absent a degree in English--was another issue.  I had finished a full-length, unconventional non-fiction “novel”  the summer after graduation and loaned the manuscript to a Professor who offered to read it.  We were sitting across from each other at a coffeeshop in Santa Barbara, California, and I recall vividly his laughter and merriment...followed by noticeable wincing; eyebrows raised, more laughter...the screwing up of his nose.  It came, finally: "There's a book here.  But it looks like you fell asleep a lot in your grammar classes in 5th grade."

     One needs such critique, in the face of arrogance, to become good at something one loves.  (To this day, I thank the dear gentleman for his honesty; that five-second reaction changed me as a student of writing and as a human, generally.)

     At age 26, having earned a Master’s degree in Professional Writing (Fiction and magazine-length Non-Fiction) from the prestigious and ultra-expensive University of Southern California at night, by day working as a legal editor for upwards of ten hours at a stretch, adjusting and rewriting terrible drafts by attorneys who had not taken their grammar courses seriously, I had a flash which probably saved my mind: “I can teach Writing.”

     Thus, I have managed to eat for the past twenty years, while still pursuing my passion for the art of prose and poetics.

     Learning to create literary art--in all its beauty and fluidity--is a lifetime pursuit.  Simply to write well is a craft which will require time and energy and commitment; as students, however, this is our task.

     Agreed upon by the varied and mercurial personalities who come to be award-winning writers, and who took me under their respective wings during my own long tenure as a student in two graduate programs, was an aspect of writing well, referred to as: “Show; don’t tell.”  This wisdom has never left me, and I pass it along to class members in courses that I teach along the way.  Let the words, carefully chosen with aid from Roget’s or Merriam-Webster’s Thesaurus, stand as being impressive and expressive.  Structure the writing such that the reader knows the opening paragraph to be the Introduction”; that “these are the first, second and third supportive points within the classic three ‘body paragraphs’”--without ever using: 'First[ly]',...; 'Second[ly]',... and 'Third[ly]',...';  and that, yes, as the reader has now reached the final block of black ink on white background, “the Conclusion” is now underway. 

     To “tell” the reader of your strategy is to presume that the person who is perusing your work does not possess a working brain.  Place trust and value in your readers; they will hold you in greater esteem for the honor.

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