Anyone who’s been following this blog might have noticed that I dropped off the face of the earth for about four months. During that time, I’ve been adjusting to grad school, by which I mean reading a lot of literary theory, drinking instant coffee, and giving B+’s to freshmen. Here’s a list of 9 important things that I’ve picked up from grading essays and producing term papers, which could be useful for both academic and creative writing.

1.There’s no shame in admitting that you don’t know something

If you need clarification, ask. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with being wrong sometimes. When you find people who know more than you, take advantage because they can teach you something. If you can’t find people who know more than you, you’re in the wrong place.

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Grad school looks kind of like this, except you never leave your room and you only eat pasta.

2. Pay attention to definitions.

If you don’t know what a word means, look it up. If you start breaking out the SAT words to impress people and you aren’t 100% on what they mean, I guarantee that there is someone out there who will know exactly what it means (or who’s got access to a dictionary), and they will catch you in the act. Moreover, it usually doesn’t mean what you want it to mean. Don’t pick the fanciest word; pick the most accurate one.

3. Elevated language is not necessarily better.

This goes for academic writing and for fiction alike. Sometimes complicated thoughts require complicated syntax. Sometimes complex sentences are a stylistic choice used to create tension or move through a particular image or idea. Complexity isn’t bad but it isn’t inherently good either, and unnecessary complexity runs the risk of obscuring your meaning rather than clarifying it. It’s not going to salvage a weak idea, and it’s not going to fix a faulty argument. Like most other things, complexity is a tool. Think about what kind of language you’re using and why.

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I just wrote it in Latin so it will look smarter.

4. Clarity comes before everything else.

If people can’t understand what you’re saying, no one’s interested in how nicely you’ve said it. (Unless you’re Judith Butler, in which case, fire away.)

5.You are not Judith Butler.

And that’s okay.

6. Focus on the connections between your ideas, and make sure that you show how everything links up.

Not only does this mean having an awareness of how things connect to each other, but also of how they build towards something larger. So for fiction, this would mean cultivating an awareness of how all of the subplots and minor events support the overarching plot, and how these things reflect on one another.

By the same token, when you move from one idea to another, think about how they relate to each other and why you’re explaining them in this order. In fiction, keep an eye on how you move between events. Be aware of how the tone has to change, where (and whether) you need to break the scene, and what leaps have to be made to get to the next point. How do your plot points relate to one another? Are they setting each other up, and does each one follow logically from the ones that happened before?

6. Do your research.

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But is 14 sources enough? Is anything ever enough?

If you are writing about something that you aren’t familiar with, read up on it first. Show it to people who are familiar with it and ask them if you’re doing it right. Likewise, check out other work in your field (or genre) and get familiar with the foundation that you’re building off of. If you know the tradition that you’re working within, you can play with the tropes and expectations, challenge ideas that are already out there, and find gaps in the existing record that need to be filled.

7. Make connections with people both inside and outside of your area of interest.

Connections are important. The people outside your area can offer a fresh perspective, fill in gaps in your understanding, and get your mind moving in directions it normally wouldn’t. The people within your area can help you brainstorm and workshop, since they’re familiar with your work. Build–and become an active part of–a support network.

8. For anyone who’s thinking about making a living as a starving artist, it’s totally possible to subsist on coffee and Renaissance literature.

Advisable, no. Possible, hell yes.

 

 

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