HistoricLee Relevant

An Education in History Education

Writers are made, not born

So sayeth my Master’s committee chair, David K. Johnson. He always assigned his favorite book about writing for first-year graduate students, Revising Prose by Richard Lanham, and I was not exempt from this ritual. Dr. Johnson emphasized the need to write, revise, revise, and revise some more. Even though I was not fresh out of an undergraduate program (I had a few years of real world experience under my belt by then), I didn’t imbibe Lanham’s lessons as well as I should have.

So, here I am, co-authoring a book about the pedagogical use of music in social studies classes, and I’m finding my own writing stale and dry, lacking in flavor, not crisp. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spot a book that may help: Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace. OK, OK, Revising Prose was there, sitting on my bookshelf next to Style, but maybe I just need to learn these lessons without Dr. Johnson staring over my shoulder.

The big lesson I took away from Lanham during Dr. Johnson’s classes?  Avoid the “to be” verb at all costs.  Williams explicates the rationale for that rule: characters need to take action. “To be” only points out that something exists or is something else. Also, Williams suggests turning abstract nouns (nominalizations) into verbs and adjectives (though I think that verbs are preferable).

Characters and action, not abstractions and nominalizations.

So, here I am, learning, yet again, to be a writer.


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