Part Two Overview: The Writing of Formal Writing

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The first half of this book presented the form of formal writing. It showed you the expectations for formal papers, and you can see that those expectations are higher than they were with the informal papers of your misspent youth. Meeting those expectations will take some work, and that’s fine. You’re ready to be taken seriously.

The Humble Essay by Roy K. Humble, front coverBut it’s important to remember that formal writing is just a delivery system for ideas — for your ideas — so while yes, you need to follow the rules of formal writing to be taken seriously, it’s your ideas that matter more. They are what make your formal papers different from the other papers that your professor reads. More importantly, they are the best reward for writing the paper in the first place.

This emphasis on ideas means that you need a writing process that focuses on developing great ideas. You can’t just sit at the computer and see what your brain comes up with. No offense to your brain, but it can only do so much on its own. You have to help your brain with a writing process that feeds it new information and helps it build better ideas. And thankfully, that’s just the sort of writing process that the second half of this book presents:

  1. Educate yourself about your topic. Get to know your topic and then narrow your focus to dig deeper into the information about one small part of your topic.
  2. Identify and improve one good idea of your own about the topic. State your idea clearly in a single sentence and then improve your idea by making that sentence more precise and accurate.
  3. Carefully present your idea. Plan your essay, draft it, and then revise and proofread it.

This process varies a bit with different types of college writing, but the same basic pattern persists. You begin in relative ignorance, you work hard to enlighten yourself, and then you present one enlightening idea to others. And that, student writer, is what makes formal writing so much more satisfying than informal writing — those enlightening ideas. Papers will come and go. Grades will rise and fall. But the ideas stay with you.

This kind of satisfaction doesn’t happen with the first paper, of course. It takes time to get comfortable with the rules of formal writing, and it takes time to learn how to educate yourself and develop better ideas. The early rewards for your efforts are likely to be a lot of frustration. But so what? What new skill isn’t frustrating at first? Welding? Ballet? Marriage? Lawn bowling? Anything complicated is frustrating at first, and almost everything worth learning is complicated. That’s just how life works.

When I was nine years old, my mother gave me the option of not taking piano lessons anymore. “Darn it, Roy,” she said. “I have had it up to here with your complaining. Go or don’t go. I don’t give a hoot.” So, of course, freed from the dread of my mother’s hooting, I quickly ended my year and five months of piano lessons. Because piano lessons were so boring. Hours upon hours of practice, and for what? My only reward was a painful, hesitating version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” that made everyone at the Spring Into Music recital grit their teeth.

My sister Nadine, on the other hand, stayed with her piano lessons for thirteen years, and now she can sit down at a piano, close her eyes, and just play whatever comes to mind — any of a thousand songs. It’s a beautiful thing. It makes her almost tolerable. And when she’s done, she opens her eyes, smiles that pinched little smile of hers, and says, “Your turn, Roy.”

Don’t let that be your story, student writer.

Learn how to educate yourself and write formal papers with the foresight and dedication I lacked at age nine. Study this writing process, and put it to good use. Yes, it may be a little frustrating at first, but the frustration will be worth it. Be patient. Keep writing. Ask for help. It won’t be long before you break through the frustration and begin to truly enjoy thinking for yourself and sharing your ideas with others.

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