Thursday, April 12, 2007

Writing Tip: Look It Up. Write It Down

When I was a freshman in college, taking a 200-level English composition class, my professor was a curmudgeonly hard-ass*. Yes, he was a good-hearted curmudgeon, but we didn't get that 'til much later.

After we students had delivered our first essay--written under the gun as a 45-minute in-class assignment--he returned our graded papers with the dramatic assessment, "I see there's one person in this class who wants to pass."

Having gotten a strong 'A' and some nice praise from my previous writing professor, I assumed I was that one.

Wrong.

My essay earned me a 'D.'

The one person who wanted to pass proudly accepted her 'C.'


If this had been the first response to my writing in the world of high academia, I would have been badly shaken. As it was, the 'D' unnerved me and forced me to rethink where I stood.

Anyway, this is all just a long-ish preamble to set the stage and the tone for the real tip.

In addition to the writing assignments, this class required us to read many broad-ranging essays from prominent writers (John Updike, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, and many, many more). Early in the semester, as we were discussing one of these essays, our professor stopped, pointed to one of the students--let's call her Gena--and said, "What does the word cleigenmeiser** mean?"

After doing an uncomfortable cheek-shift in her chair, Gina said meekly, "I don't know."

From the look on the professor's face, she might as well have relieved herself on the aged tile floor. With a resigned sigh, he pointed to someone else and repeated the question. The response, predictably, was similar.

One more time, he glanced around the room for a victim. My only thought was, how the hell can I make myself invisible?

After a third student embarrassed himself, the professor said, "The word is here in the essay. Right here on the page. If you don't know what it means, how can you possibly understand what you're reading?"

It's all very obvious, I know, but there wasn't one of us who had done the obvious thing.

The professor continued. "If you see a word you don't understand, Look. It. Up. Write the definition in the margins if you have to. And keep going back to that definition until you've got it down."

The notion of avoiding embarrassment at his hands was strong motivation to follow that advice, and I have defaced many books in the wake of that lecture.

Anyway, this memory came charging back last night when someone in our writing class mentioned that she had no idea what a word in one of the stories meant. I wanted to shout out, "Look it up. Write it down." But God gave me just enough manners to hold off 'til I could write this blog post.


*Sadly, I can neither remember nor find his name.

** I have no idea what word he pointed out. But the point is that it was as foreign to everyone in that room as I'd expect cleigenmeiser to be to you now.

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