Essay writing 101, ‘Young Blood’ style
Please drop the “S” at the end of each word and remove yourself from the crime many nonnative English speakers (and writers) are guilty of.
Stuff, furniture, equipment, luggage and aircraft are collective nouns—at least the ones often (mis)used—and will always be spelled as is.
“Let that be your takeaway from this panel if only one lesson sticks to your mind,” said editor-author-lifestyle reporter Pam Pastor, a panelist at the Inquirer Young Blood Workshop during the recent Philippine Readers and Writers Festival (PRWF).
Organized by National Book Store at Raffles Makati, the fifth edition of PRWF had an entire weekend of engaging events for book lovers, writers and authors.
Pastor was accompanied at the workshop by Palanca award winner Ruel S. De Vera. Both are editors of the “Young Blood” books and are at the helm of Inquirer’s pop-culture beat as section editor and associate editor, respectively. They critiqued presubmitted first-person nonfiction essays, offered practical writing tips and answered questions not usually addressed in the schoolroom.
The constructive criticisms also had input from the broadsheet’s new Opinion editor Gibbs Cadiz, who was held up at work and thus couldn’t join the panel. Cadiz, Inquirer’s former Theater section editor and Lifestyle deskman, is now in charge of sifting through hundreds of submissions for the thrice-a-week Young Blood column.
Young Blood publishes essays from 29-year-olds and younger. Some pieces end up on the pages of the best-selling namesake anthology, whose sixth book was released just last year.
The essays are gauged not just by any random yardstick.
“First, we look at craft, meaning you must write it well,” said De Vera. “Second, it must be an original authentic experience. We want to see something in the work… that you are unique in experiencing it.”
Here’s a recap of lessons from the Young Blood Workshop at PRWF:
The rules of grammar
- Stick to the rules of grammar. Sure, rules are meant to be broken, but do so only when you have mastered them.
For our educators, if there’s one aspect to control in teaching how to write in English, make that strictly enforcing the rules of grammar on your wards.
- Use very simple sentence structures, in particular the S-TV-DO (subject, transitive verb, direct object) rule, urged De Vera. “Always write in the active voice… which will make everything shorter and it forces you to write more clearly.”
- Check the spelling. There’s no excuse for misspelled words because of spell check. And when introducing, say, a book, movie, even Catholic prayers like the Angelus, be sure of the spelling and what it is exactly.
- Capitalize the “I.” Always.
- Avoid double negative phrases. For example, “my sandwich barely untouched” still means the sandwich was touched, Pastor pointed out. Use instead either “the sandwich was untouched” or “sandwich barely touched.”
- Avoid run-on sentences. The longer the sentence, the more chances of mistakes, said Pastor. It is uber-long if you run out of breath reading the passage. But if it can’t be avoided, make sure to at least use punctuation to break the text for easier reading.
- Make sure tenses are consistent.
- There’s no single rule for prepositions. The only way to learn proper usage, said De Vera, is to know how each one is used and what it’s paired with in the prepositional phrase.
- Mind the “it’s” versus “its”; “every day” versus “everyday.” It’s (with apostrophe) is the contraction of “it is.” Its (without apostrophe) is used as a possessive of the pronoun “it,” as in “the kitten in its litter box,” “a company notorious for its diabolic ways,” “each province has its own cooking style.” Put a space between “every” and “day” if you mean each day, every single day. Everyday (one word) is a modifier, or an adjective to describe something, as in “my everyday struggle,” “my everyday clothes.”
How to keep readers hooked
“It’s really hard to keep people’s attention, especially now with all the distractions… the stuff that’s out there for people to read and consume and enjoy,” Pastor said. What could stop them from picking up their phones and checking Instagram instead?
- Clarity should be the primary goal if writing for an audience (as opposed to writing just for oneself).
- Practice brevity. Don’t dilute the message with way too many words (for example, replace “way too many words” with “verbosity”), or going overboard with symbolic writing. Readers often won’t make an effort to understand coded, convoluted prose.
- Write how you speak—but not exactly how you speak. Pastor said one of the best compliments for a writer is to be told, “When I read your work, I can hear your voice.” But drop the “anyway” and “LOL,” unless used in the right context.
- Don’t preach. Readers should enjoy what they’re reading, but they won’t if the writing sounds preachy, said Pastor. “You cannot demand of the reader, ‘Let us now work together as one and save Mother Earth.’ Instead write something… so compelling that when the piece ends readers would actually want to take action.”
- Know your audience. It will help you deliver your message in a way that appeals to the target readers’ sensibilities. There can be diverse readers for platforms like the newspaper. Be kind to them by writing in a way that would click with the young as well as with their grandparents.
Playing with fonts, dramatic devices and Chekhov’s gun
- ALL CAPS and italics for emphasis should be used sparingly. Capitalized phrases or blocks of text have the effect of “shouting” at the reader. “If you pick your words carefully and if your structure is correct, your reader will get what you’re trying to emphasize,” said De Vera.
- Avoid repetitions. De Vera’s recommendation: Use only in the first paragraph and then the last one. “Don’t use at the start of each paragraph because it loses its ability to be special.”
- One-sentence paragraphs are meant to be used as dramatic devices, said De Vera. Too much of it creates many pauses that can be very hard to read.
- Yet another dramatic device: Chekhov’s gun. The idea is to introduce something that will be used later on. Inversely, don’t bring up anything you have no intention of using in the narrative.
- Either drop the clichés or own them. “The idea is to take something and make it your own,” De Vera said. Think about how an overused topic can be reflected in or specific to you.
- Avoid words you don’t really know how to use. Otherwise, Pastor warned, you’ll risk coming across as if you’ve overused the thesaurus function of MS Word.
- There’s value in good description. Be very concrete and provide specific details that paint a clearer picture for the reader.
- Writing about sounds requires vivid words and lines that jump out at you. Again, it’s about making the writer’s experience come alive in the reader’s mind.
The problem with endings
- If you have trouble finishing a piece, look for the question or for the story and then answer or work toward it. “Ask yourself, ‘Did I answer the question I asked at the beginning?” De Vera suggested. “Every piece begins with a question—not literally but thematically. If you introduced a story, did you end the story?”
- Don’t force the ending. “If this is refusing to be written today, maybe it’s not the day, unless there’s a deadline,” said Pastor.
“Sometimes you need to sleep on it, take a shower, or just switch to doing something else. There might be something you need to get out of your system before finishing the writing. Sometimes, it’s just not ready to be written… Writing should not be punishment for you. If it is, then think about how it’ll be for your reader.”
- Eat. Hunger can distract from writing; food can be inspiring.
- An unfinished story is a surefire way to get disliked by readers. Don’t leave them hanging, and especially not with an ellipsis ending.
- People tend to overwrite endings, said De Vera. “When I write something and think I’ve finished it, I just delete the last paragraph. Usually the paragraph before that is a better ending.”
On reading (a lot): “Read the stuff that you think is good writing, because that will infect you,” said De Vera.
But, Pastor clarified, reading your favorite writers doesn’t mean aping their styles, too. One should read as a writer, taking note of what in the author’s writing style appeals to you.
On writer’s block: “Sometimes all you can do is put it down on paper,” Pastor said. “What stops you is the pressure of waiting for perfection to pour out of you, but it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes sentences don’t come in the right structure yet, so that’s where stream-of-consciousness writing comes handy. But… you have to [eventually] shape it into something readable, enjoyable and something that flows.”
On bad writing habits: De Vera, who teaches in university, said the bad habits were an effect of forcing students to write in a uniform way in the classroom.
“It’s very important for students to feel like they have control over how they write,” he explained. “Teachers should enforce the rules of grammar strictly, but loosen up in terms of what students write about. Also, let students sound like students.”
On beating deadlines: It helps to bribe oneself to get the writing done immediately.
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