Saturday, April 22, 2006

Terrible writing

My teacher told me that "it's an insult for you to come to this composition class which is designed for beginners". Two days later, my confidence in composing was totally destroyed by one of my friends who asked me to help him translate his writing from Chinese to English. Despite the difficulty of figuring out the real meaning in his Chinese writing, I was not competent to put it in words to make a presentable article in 2 hours. I would have to say that was the worst writing I have ever done.

I wonder how to write an article in a short period of time and have it turn out to be meaningful and grammatically correct. I spend time searching for a proper word to use in a sentence then check the spelling and finish it up by checking the grammar. With the help of the spell check feature embeded editing software, I can do it better than the traditional way, hand writing. Still, I have difficulty in coming up with some ideas to put into my writing. I agree with Daniel's recently posted: "If there is a skill that Taiwanese/Chinese students do seem to lack, I think is it not so much critical thinking as "bullshitting"."

The reason why I don't usually talk about things I don't know anything about or read a chapter in a book and then immediately have lots of theories and questions that I am ready to talk about is that I have been haunted by the idea "if you have no brilliant ideas then you're better off keeping your mouth shut or it will make you sound like a fool." Also, I try to avoid any provoctive sentence in case of a commotion, unless the article is set to be provoctive. So politeness usually is one of the highest principles when writing. Michael Turton once said: "Chinese politeness is a like a pearl -- a beautiful secretion around a major irritant." Unfortunately, I would have to agree with his point of view here. It seems that thinking too much curbs my ideas, and a simple solution to it is to write down whatever comes across my mind. However, getting rid of the meaningless, provoctive, and ordinary thoughts should make a great article that is concise, meaningful and inspiring. Isn't that worth spending time on? I think that's a dilemma we all have to face everyday.

Back to the question: how to write an article in a short period of time and have it turn out to be meaningful and grammatically correct? Anybody?


Daniel said...

I think your English writing is excellent. If I could teach my own students to write like you, I would be very happy (and I'd also be remarkably well paid). The thing that maybe gives you away as a Taiwanese person is how formal your style is - not inaccuracies.

If I can separate out the accuracy part and the creativity part, and just look at the generation of ideas:

There are exercises that are supposed to help you open the word gates. One is called "Morning pages". Before you write anything serious, fill two pages by hand with no plan. You write whatever appear in your head, and don't stop until the pages are full, with no self-censorship.

Another is to practice word associations. Begin with a word like tree, then write next to it a word that occurs to you: leaf. Then "floating", then "air", then "cloud". I find this extremely hard to do for more than a few minutes - poets recommend doing this for ten minutes a day for two weeks and then seeing what patterns have appeared.

Another is to plan with mind maps - you've probably heard about this already.

How do you plan your writing?


How is your reading level? A great book on writing is "Bird by Bird", by Anne Lamott.

It talks a lot about self doubt, writing bad first drafts, and is really funny. It's not a very clear book, however, in terms of writing rules, as it's full of stories and jokes. If you are ever in Taipei, I'd be happy to lend you my copy.



Hanjie said...

Cool, Daniel, thank you for the advice. I'll try to find that book and read it.

Hui-Ping said...


Your English writing is well above average among most people I know. I enjoy reading your articles a lot and you always have interesting insight and ideas to share. Considering that you do not live in an English-speaking country, you are doing a fine job expressing yourself in English. Sometimes, I think it is a shame that we Taiwanese have the tendency to write the way we speak. In English, the spoken language is slightly deviated from the written language.

It takes time to practice and I am sure just like everything else you enjoy doing, you will find your "tune" in it soon..

柳絮青衣 said...

Hi, Hanjie.

After reading the article on your blog, I really feel shame-making. I am a graduate student now, at the sametime, another role is a teacher. I almost never write the article in English nor talk with somebody in English during these years. Actually I got the master degree but...I think I am not good enough. Daniel's suggestion is right. ..."Can Asian students think critically? Can they challenge the teacher's word in a classroom?"...Well, It is necessary to work more and more. For myself and my student, I have to do.
"Thanks God, you give me a good friend. He is a good guy...Hanjie."