sharpening my brain on unclear writing

The last time I was in school was seven years ago (I got an M.Div.), and I worry sometimes that that time-delay has hurt me (now that I’m planning on going back to school once again). But, you know what, I don’t think so.  My writing center work has continued to sharpen my mind.

I don’t think many people — other than those teaching writing — realize how much mental exertion it takes to take a confused (but often potentially interesting) paper and 1) help the student see what she’s said clearly, 2) what doesn’t make sense AND WHY, 3) dig deep enough into the details of her inchoate analysis to come up with a sense for what she really WANTS to say, and 4) help her — without being too directive — figure out how to do it. It’s one thing to point out my own reactions — what makes sense, what doesn’t. But it’s a whole other thing to help her see why what doesn’t make sense doesn’t make sense and point out exactly how she’s confusing the reader. It’s amazing how much brain power it takes to wrestle direction out of jumbled writing.

When studying dense but clear writing, you work to make connections in the text itself and with your own thinking. When analyzing dense but UNclear writing, you work to find the connections that AREN’T there but should be. There’s enough thought there — like enough crash debris for an accident investigator to piece together what went wrong. But, like a crash investigation, it takes a lot of work.

I guess I never really realized how much harder it is to analyze poor thinking than clear thinking. That seems obvious, but it’s not, not until you really experience it. And most of us don’t experience it because we simply don’t spend much precious time on poor thinking/writing in the first place. But when you’re intent on helping inexperienced thinkers/writers, it becomes your bread and butter.

Of course, a lot of the weaknesses I see in students’ writing are easy to point out. But a big chunk of the pages I’ve analyzed over the last several years is brain-tiring stuff. After a few of those consultations, my brain feels like it just over-done-it at the gym.

Maybe the only writing harder to analyze is the obscure writing of some philosophers. But at least with them the reader often struggles with the prose in the hopes of a profound payoff. The ideas may well be worth the struggle.

Working with inexperienced thinkers is well worth the struggle, too. But it’s different struggle. It’s a struggle for them. It’s for their improvement. But I also believe and hope it’s been for my improvement as well.

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One thought on “sharpening my brain on unclear writing

  1. Where did I recently see a quote that went something like, “Easy writing is damn hard reading”? Of course, it could also be “Easy reading is damn hard writing,” but I like the former. It’s the one us writing teachers know best.

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