On writing

  • Posted on: 30 December 2015
  • By: govert

Ride your bike. First plan the route

An overwhelming amount of guides can be found on the internet about how to write a proper paper. Most of them are quite useful, and probably most of them at least contain something that I do wrong all the time. Hence, this text is not written with the pretention to provide the conclusive guide to writing college papers. It is written because the things I see many of my students do wrong, are so stereotypical, and easy to prevent.

For most Dutch persons, riding a bicycle is nothing less than part of their nature. A remarkably large part of the typical errors in students’ written works can be compared quite well with riding a bicycle. Hoping that metaphors help memorizing, I will connect the problems and solutions in writing to their equivalents in the lifeworld of the cyclist.

Indeed, it starts at the beginning. People in the Netherlands hardly ever take their bike just to ride their bike. They use it to go somewhere. (Of course, the time people spend touring or even for athletic purposes, is immeasurable; nevertheless it is negligible if compared with the functional transport by bike.) This implies that the route is chosen according to some optimization – usually the shortest distance, but sometimes also to avoid slopes or windy trajectories.

In writing, it is similarly important to know where you are actually heading for. And indeed, shorter usually means better, provided of course that no essential information is left out. Limit your work to the point you want to make. Kill your darlings: eliminate sections that do not really contribute to what you want to say, no matter how beautifully they are written.

(At this point, honesty demands to say that I did not actually plan this text quite well. Similarly, it is sometimes better to just try to cycle where you have to go as quickly as possible, without first figuring it out on the map. However, the efficiency of this approach declines exponentially with a decreasing knowledge of how a particular city is organized. The same goes for writing: it only works if you want to convey an idea that has taken shape to the back or your mind over several years; which is not often the case with a paper you write for college. Do as I say, not as I do.)

Get on your bike. Don't fall.

Once you have mapped the fastest route, it is time to get moving. Start at the beginning, and then go on till the end.

The opening sentence of your text is like the first few meters of a ride on your bicycle. You have to get onto it, attain velocity immediately, and keep going. Otherwise you fall - painfully. In writing, you have to attract the attention of the reader in the very first few words, and make sure all the time that you provide the reader with enough reasons to stay with you. More generally, the first sentence must be so catching as to keep the reader with you for at least the first page; the first page must seduce the reader into the whole first chapter; and after the first chapter, no further options exist for keeping the reader with you, if only because people typically stop after the first chapter if a book ‘does not work’. Get to the point, and give the reader's mind no reason to wander astray.

Use both hands! Use both hands!

There is one more thing that unites cycling and writing. If you were, like I was, born into a culture pervaded by bicycles, you are likely to have acquired the skill at a fairly young age. Young as you are at that time, you have not yet developed the ability to oversee things in their full complexity - the wealth of impressions caused by your newly started adventure may lead you to start doing other things with your hands than steering, while you are just learning. Fearing the worst, your mom or dad will try to protect you against the evil of pavement hitting your head by yelling something like 'use both hands, use both hands...!' Sometimes I wish parents continued doing so until their kids finish their first book. It is simply a horror to read the phrase 'on the other hand' without it having been preceded by 'on the one hand'. Remember: use both hands, use both hands.

One thing at a time

Just as much as with cycling, in writing you better concentrate on one thing at a time. As recent years brought the omnipresence of cell phones and other gadgets, they also rocketed the number of times that I was nearly run over by some idiot making a phone call or worse, writing a text message. Remember: when cycling, do not do too many other things that are not cycling.

When writing a proper sentence, paragraph or chapter, the question should always be on your mind whether you aren't doing too much. Ideas that are not related, should not be in the same sentence. More specifically: if different things are together in one sentence, their relation must be crystal clear, signified by words that unambiguously articulate the relation.

Always lock your bicycle

It is always tough if your bike gets stolen. However, I also hardly feel pity for people who were so stupid as to leave their bike unlocked. I also feel little pity for people who think the basics of putting something onto paper are just unimportant remarks, at least way below the intellectual level at which they think their work should be judged.

The art of writing a paper indeed knows many layers. However, no matter how intellectually impressive your work may be, the reader's eyes will be caught first by the most superficial one: its appearance. Therefore, before going into the depths of structure, usage and planning, make sure you avoid what I tend to call Capital Sins, things that are really too stupid to burden your reader with. They are:

  • No author name on (top of) first page
  • No title
  • No page numbers
  • No date
  • No subheadings. If you don't know, at least indicate 'introduction' and 'conclusion', and preferably something in between.

You think these are obvious? Well, yes, sure, they are! But you explain to me, then, why the vast majority of students makes at least one of these mistakes - even the intelligent ones... Just as I know people with several degrees who think they can leave their bike unattended for a few minutes.

Avoid collision (even if the other party should yield)

Even if people don’t give you the way they should, it is still wisest to avoid collisions. If it doesn’t save you some bruises, it at least saves time. Similarly, there are some things that you may consider common courtesy to your reader. Even if they are not obliged or asked for, they are generally valued:

  • Provide an abstract. Tell the whole story in 300 words. If you cannot capture your argument briefly, then probably the whole text is not that much either. Indeed, if you cannot explain your route by a handful of landmarks you pass by, you probably don’t know the route at all.
  • Make a clear layout and keep it consistently. Paragraphs should be recognizable, either by indentation or by a bit of white space between them. Lines should be well-spaced, preferably sparser than single distance. Margins should be wide, as a text width of more than 13cm is tiresome to read, and your reader may want some space for notes.

Put your bike in the shed

You usually arrive home again after some time. Just as it is wise to put your bike in the shed and make sure everything is ready to be locked up for another night, it is good to think once more about the things you passed by. It can be rewarding, indeed. In writing, it is always good to recapitulate your major things when approaching your conclusion. Just to make sure that you have actually said all you needed to arrive at this conclusion. And preferably, not much more than that.