Brother Felix was a cross between Attila the Hun and Saint Francis of Assisi. I was his Achilles' heel. He taught honors English at Mount Saint Michael. By the end of my freshman year I could write the heck out of anything.
Brother insisted I keep a journal; the first one I named “1961.” I've been writing ever since. Maybe you've seen me at Penelope's or Starbucks with my head buried in a computer, struggling to find that one magical phrase I could be happy about. There I write “Thoughts from Dr. Joe,” correct student essays, write letters of recommendation, edit essays for the university and edit a series of stories I hope to publish.
Lately I've received a few emails from parents asking for advice I might give students on writing college essays.
Somerset Maugham once said, “There are three rules for writing; unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Writing the college essay is merely incidental to becoming a good writer. If you write well, the essay will take care of itself.
Good writing is difficult; even great writers rarely consider themselves successful at it. There's an ancient oxymoronic theme that applies to all disciplines that was noted by Confucius: “The superior person is distressed by their lack of ability.”
The first ingredient is self-discipline.
James Joyce said, “I begin to write staring at a blank page until my ears bleed.” I write one sentence at a time and then edit profusely. In life you don't try to do things; you simply do them.
The students I help are amazed by how much time it takes to write. Writing is creating proficient expression. One muses over thoughts and ways to express those thoughts, staring at words, watching and listening to their flow, and searching for ways to say them better.
You have to fall in love with words and the power they have to represent what you feel. Love, laughter, heroism, friendship, and virtually every emotion we feel, are inspired by words. Developing a good vocabulary is essential to those who aspire to write. Young writers must learn to appreciate the melodic beauty and life-changing possibilities of groups of words that flow together.
Pay attention to grammar. It's analogous to playing a piano. To play it well, it must be played by ear. Good grammar is neither an embellishment nor an accessory; it's the law.
Reading is a writer's best tool. Read good literature. Read the classics. Reading enables one to explore the texture and meaning of human experience. It leads us to insight and rich reflection, hence wisdom. Pulling from the classics is the depth and wealth of a writer and connects one to the language of civilization.
Observation is essential to a writer. It enlarges knowledge and feeds inspiration. An old Italian proverb tells us, “To him that watches, everything is revealed.” The ability to look closely at life, people and happenstance creates myriad possible connections, which in turn become the focus of story.
Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of eternity, of life, and of the marvel structure of reality. Remind your aspiring writer that a writer is someone who is astonished by everything.
The greatest inducement toward writing is experience. All knowledge is recorded experience. John Locke said, “No man's knowledge can go beyond his experience.”
Those who venture to take a thought and put it to paper are writers and are not defined by degree or ability, but by the simple act of writing. They write for themselves and hope of changing another along the way. Tell your aspiring writer to pick up a pen. That's the first step.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.