Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How to Be Perfect

Yes, "the old ones are the best ones". This version of the joke is my favourite and precisely the form in which I first heard it. It is this scene from The Muppet Show that I think of when I tell the joke in lectures and seminars. I don't always get a laugh, sometimes because I don't tell it right. In fact, it's a bit harder to tell in words because you have to set up the fact that the answer comes from a musician: a tourist in New York stops a guy carrying a saxophone case on the street. "Do you know how to get to Carnegie hall?" asks the tourist. "Practice, man. Practice," says the guy. I suppose he could also be a street musician, as in the scene above.

Anyway, I've been telling students at all levels that if they want to master academic writing they have to practice. They have to write something every day; they have to articulate what they know regularly. Musicians practice their scales as well as pieces of actual music. I normally suggest two exercises that vaguely resemble these two kinds of practice. First, as a kind of "scale", re-type the words of an exemplary text you have found in the literature. Pick a paragraph, and type it out again and again. Don't think too much about it, just type. After a while, you should be able to do it from memory. Then go back and see what sorts of mistakes you are making. Some of those "mistakes" are actually the interposition of your own style.

Next, take the key sentence (the main point) of that paragraph and restate it in your owns words. Now write a paragraph of your own to support that claim. Write about six sentences, edit to make a nice clean paragraph. Then do it again. And again. Work at it about 30 minutes each day. In both cases, of course, you are free to switch to another exemplary paragraph when you feel like the one you've been working on is too easy.

Okay, now for some freer improvisation. Give yourself a claim that you know to be true, something you are confident you can defend. Write the claim down. Now, spend those 30 minutes, once a day for a week, composing a paragraph to support it. If you're fast, you may be able to do it twice in 30 minutes. You should certainly be striving to write a competent paragraph in support of a well-defined claim in under 30 minutes. That is, if you know what you want to say, it shouldn't take you more than half an hour to write a first draft of a paragraph (about six sentences) explaining it.

The old ones are the best ones. Here's one now: practice makes perfect.


Jonathan said...

I'm sure you've heard Charles Bernstein's variation on that joke.

--How do you get to Carnegie Hall?


Thomas said...

I think I have heard that one. My sense of humour says its too easy a twist. I would have gone a bit further:

A visitor to the Duke campus asks a student, "How do you get to the Friedl Building?"

"Theory, man. Theory."

Maybe there's a more apt campus, where the comp lit program is housed in Whosit Hall.