“Writing is hard work. . . .If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.”
—William Zinsser, On Writing Well
“How long do you want this paper to be?”
It’s an irritating question from a student. It assumes that the subject assigned can be measured out like twine and cut to the desired length. But even worse, it puts the burden of responsibility on you, not the student. The student is merely the supplier trying to fulfill the customer’s order.
That order can be filled by copying and pasting, pulling together a quilted arrangement of unattributed quotes, stitched throughout with a few original but insipid transitional sentences. Or if the hour is late and the need is high a paper in the proper style and length can be bought.
The machinery for grinding out such fodder is well-oiled, maintained with precision, and apparently provides a lucrative return-on-investment for the entrepreneurs in the business. Despite Turnitin.com and other means of sniffing out such chicanery, upwards of 50 percent of students cheated and plagiarized in 2002, says Donald McCabe, an expert on cheating from Rutgers. That percentage has dropped ten points recently, but many universities are installing anti-plagiarizing software, anti-cheating hardware, and student-monitoring devices in classrooms.
We can look at this another way. While the outcome may be framed as plagiarizing or cheating, the context in which this plays out can lead to other conclusions. People act out of character when they are afraid or unsure; they try to reduce the odds of failure by any means necessary. If they’re afraid of writing they’ll do almost anything to avoid it.
Writing is hard, says William Zinsser, and he should know. During a career as a journalist, critic, editor, and teacher he has written over 15 books, many of them on writing. His best-known, On Writing Well, now over 30 years in print, has been revised, updated, and expanded through four editions. Each time Zinsser returns to it he reworks, rewrites, and cuts. What makes it so hard? Making it simple, making it clear.
He points to Thoreau’s Walden as a model of plain and orderly simplicity. On every page we see the deliberate and patient stride of the celebrated walker from Concord who rid his life of clutter by reducing it to the essentials. And we, says Zinsser, can free ourselves from clutter by thinking clearly. “Clear thinking becomes clear writing,” he says. “One can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.”
E. B. White agreed in The Elements of Style, saying, “Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.”
Writing is hard because clear thinking is hard. This is a surprise only to those whose writing originates from their inner mud-puddle. “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” says the Tao Te Ching. Simplify and clarify.
Which brings us back to the question we began with: “How long do you want this paper to be?” They are the words of someone acutely aware that the teacher holds most of the power in the classroom. They are the words of someone trying to minimize pain and maximize benefit. Someone who has learned to hide a lack of meaning behind a pile of clutter.
At times, as a teacher, I have answered that question with Sphinx-like equivocation: ‘How long? As long as it takes to make your point persuasively.’ There is a cloud of assumptions behind that answer. It assumes that the student knows a persuasive answer from a hole in the ground. It does not show that writing is a process. And it can encourage the confusion of length with erudition and spontaneity with creativity.
If we want students to write well we need to help them learn several things. First, clear writing is a product of clear thinking. Second, clear thinking usually begins as a social process of ideas thrown together, pressed down, shaken up, and poured out. Third, clarity and simplicity emerge through subtraction, not multiplication. We get to the meaning of the idea by throwing away everything that doesn’t advance the story. Finally, all of this takes time. Simple is harder because simple takes time. Better to do one long paper well than to do three short ones badly.
"I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter," said Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, in a letter to a friend.
And with that gentle reminder I shall cease.