Vanity Fair

“We have these menus in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, and Russian, ” the butler says proudly. “Which one do you prefer?”

“It doesn’t matter, ” I say, puffing up like a peacock. “I can read in all of these languages. ”

We all have our small vanities. What is yours?

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Stop Helping Already!

I just heard on the news how Susan Rice, the US representative with the UN, says that the country is prepared to go against the UN decisions and “help” the people of Syria through unleashing military measures against them. I have a question: when will we stop giving this unwanted “help” to people who don’t want us around and concentrate on our own serious issues?

Casino

Last night we went to a casino. I’m a very occasional gambler. This means that every five years or so I go to a casino and spend $20 playing 25-pence slot machines. I never hope to win anything. It’s the process that I enjoy.

N had never been to a casino so he was eager to go. He was completely disappointed, though. As a huge fan of Dostoyevski, he expected a mysterious environment where long-haired gamblers lurk in the penumbra and ladies in moth-eaten boas hold lorgnettes in shaking fingers as they bet their last gold rouble.

Since there was nothing of the kind at this brightly-lit resort casino, N became instantly disillusioned with the entire concept of gambling

The Rules of Good Academic Writing, Part II

So here are the rules of good academic writing that I use:

1. Avoid announcing your intentions. Often people start a 3-page essay with “In this essay, I will explore. . .” What’s the point of wasting space on these declarations? Just go and explore whatever you want to explore already. Jonathan Mayhew, a literary critic whose style I admire, suggests that this signposting can be avoided even in books, let alone essays or articles. Here is a great post he wrote on the subject.

2. Avoid being verbose. Why hide your ideas behind a mountain of circumlocutions and endless introductory statements? The best kind of writing is direct and clear. I have a natural tendency to be verbose which means that I have to pare down my first drafts heavily. If your sentences tend to run on for half a page, there might be a verbosity problem.

3. Avoid choppiness. Writing in choppy sentences is not a good alternative to verbosity. When you create something like “Bildungsroman is an important genre. It has produced many works of literature”, try to combine the two sentences into one (These are very stupid sentences, I know. I’m just trying to give an example here.)

4. Be careful with the passive voice. There is nothing inherently evil about the passive voice. “This novel was published in 2012” is a perfectly legitimate sentence. However, often the passive voice conceals the author’s ignorance. If you keep saying that “Bildungsroman is considered to be an important genre” and “this issue is believed to be crucial”, you might need to stop and ask yourself whether both you and your readers can easily name the person or people who do the considering and believing.

5. Avoid generalizations. I can’t tell you how annoying it is to read essays that start with “everybody knows that. . .” and “it is obvious to everybody that. . .” First of all, if it’s so obvious, then why waste space saying it? Often, people hide their own very questionable opinions in such statements. Let’s avoid talking about everybody and everything and limit ourselves to the specific and provable.

6. Avoid stating the painfully obvious. Unless your reader is a 5-year-old, there is no need to say things like, “Spain is a country in Europe.” It sounds extremely condescending and makes your reader think that you are just padding your piece with platitudes because you have nothing to say.

7. Avoid providing dictionary definitions of simple words. See above for reasons why.

8. Avoid silly puns and broken down words. By broken down words I mean annoying constructions like “(under)-STAND-ing fem(in)ism.” Brrr, this is so eighties!

9. Don’t use terminology unless you are completely sure what the term you are using means. A metaphor, an alliteration and a hyperbole refer to completely different things and cannot be used interchangeably.

[To be continued. . .]

The Rules of Good Academic Writing, Part I

Please consider the following paragraph:

I am going to proceed based on the assumption that although the different identity groups that I analyze in my research, as well as many others, undoubtedly exist in the objective reality, any attempt to define them in terms of a shared characteristics that are assumed to be applicable to any member of the group allows to speak of these groups as ‘imagined communities.’ Now, the question arises regarding the reasons of why I consider that literary texts, and specifically novels of the above-mentioned period, will be particularly helpful in working out a definition of a term that seems to belong more to social sciences, especially given the fact that sociologists do not seem to be able to provide a clearer definition of this concept.

How do you feel about it? Now imagine reading an entire article or a book written this way. Scary, huh?

I’m almost too ashamed to confess that this is my writing. I wrote this eight years ago and felt uncommonly proud of my writing style. If you know anything about my personality, you probably realize why people were terrified of telling me how much my writing sucked. Finally, a brave friend downed a few drinks and found the courage to tell me that my writing was bad. The poor guy’s hands were literally shaking and he was speaking in a small, terrified voice.

At first, I thought he was simply being mean. Then, however, I stopped to think about it. Was it possible that my writing wasn’t as amazing as I believed it to be? In order to lay these doubts to rest, I asked another friend whose writing style everybody praised for its elegance to show me her work. She refused for a while because, as I now understand, she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Finally, she gave in, and I got a chance to read her work.

I might have been a sucky writer but I was a good reader. This is why I immediately realized that my friend’s writing was vastly superior to mine. As a result, I embarked on a journey to find out what it meant to write well in English and develop my own writing style.

In the second installment of this post I will share the principles of good writing that I have established for myself. Please understand that it is normal for people to have different approaches to good writing, so none of these rules need to be set in stone. As long as people love reading your stuff, you are fine. My problem was that nobody wanted to read the crap I wrote precisely because it was crap.