On Thinking Clearly, Writing Well, and Seeing Angels

Close your eyes for a moment and picture a gathering of angels. What do you see? Are they glowing, winged, flawless beings? Are they huddled or approaching? Hands in prayer or holding swords? How did you know how to picture them at all? If you tell me from works of art, I’ll ask you how the painter or sculptor knew. Think deeply. What might those artists have read, or even heard? The Bible, yes, almost certainly. But, depending on the age of the art, perhaps you are also picturing an image inspired by John Milton who, along with Dante, has a profound literary footprint planted in the human conception of both the divine and the profane. You may also be unaware that Milton wrote Paradise Lost while blind, dictating his masterwork, word by word, to his daughters, among others. I sometimes wonder if they changed anything, inadvertently or otherwise, in the author’s description of the angel who fell the hardest and landed, as Milton tells us, in the most profound darkness. It is, of course, impossible to know.

This is not a post in praise of Milton or his work, if that worries you, although I would be willing to write one. This is a note about writing: what it is, what it isn’t, and why it can be so hard. I’ve had cause to think about this a lot lately, as we’ve had parents bringing an increasing number of students into our offices and asking that we work on “written expression” with those students. Fair enough. Good writing can get a young person into his college of choice, which can open doors to him for life. The problem is that students rarely have difficulty solely in this one area. In fact, study after study has shown that difficulty writing generally comes along with a deficit in reading. We also know that even if a student is a fluent reader, a vocabulary deficit, often the result of poverty and/or the inherited nature of learning differences, will impact reading comprehension while at the same time preventing that student from becoming a deft and accomplished writer. Such is the connected nature of how we receive, process, and produce language.

If I were to draw a map of how one becomes a good writer, the starting point on that map would be vocabulary. Just words, really. Not words of any particular length, either. Good writing is far more a matter of specificity than it is of complexity. For example, if you are writing about a ball, what kind of ball is it? Is it large, medium, or small? Bouncy or hard? Stitched or smooth? Red or blue? You get the idea. I sometimes tell kids to imagine that the main character or item in a story that they are writing just committed a crime, and they must describe that person or thing to the police. If they don’t do it well, the police can’t do their job. Obviously, in the world of reading and writing, the reader is the officer, pushing for details. And the writer is there to provide those details, since he or she wants the reader to picture something or someone clearly enough to “catch” the writer’s meaning. Achieving this doesn’t necessarily require big words, just enough of the right ones.

Words, regardless of size or meaning, have two possible points of origin: speech or text. If a child doesn’t know a word from speech, he can’t recognize it in print. When this happens, comprehension is either paused or broken, depending on whether an adult or other resource is on hand to provide a definition that makes sense in the context of the writing. Needless to say, this is not the ideal way to grow one’s vocabulary. Most children learn new words best through explicit instruction followed up with conversation including the new word. And it may take weeks of such exposure before a student is comfortable using a new word in speech without prompting, and even longer before they would use it in writing. Kids, like adults, recognize that writing is a step up the ladder of communication from speech. It is both less simple, thanks to spelling and grammar, and more permanent. This makes emerging writers understandably leery.

It helps, I think, to not confuse good writing with copious writing. I never did well in school when I had to adhere to an arbitrary word count. I once fell in love with a professor simply because he said to use “only as many words as you need.” I know that this may sound like I’m contradicting myself. I did, after all, spend some time earlier on the importance of description and specificity. But simple expression also has its place in writing, and its impact can be staggering. For impactful sentences, it would be hard to beat Jesus wept for sheer emotional power. And yet it’s just two words. For something more contemporary and less sacred, consider Professor Snape’s answer when Dumbledore asks him if he still loves Harry Potter’s mother. Snape says, simply, “Always.” Neither of these two sentences would have been improved by the addition of more words. Taken as they are, wept has the awful weight of mourning to it; it hangs the reader’s head. Always doubles one over, as we know it’s attached to someone who’s gone. They are both precise words used with almost surgical skill. That’s exactly what good writers do.

Early in this post, I said that this would be a note about writing, including what writing essentially is. David McCullough said that to write well is to “think clearly.” He’s right, of course. Writing in its purest form is thought made visible, as Milton’s thoughts were through borrowed hands. But perhaps the most beautiful quote about writing comes from Voltaire, who called it the “painting of the voice.” Voltaire is not known to have been a simple man, yet there is something perfectly simple in his definition. Writing, like painting, is means, in this case talent and vocabulary, meeting inspiration. And, when it’s done well, writing has all the precision and color of a painter’s masterpiece. Writing is, after all, just another manner of crafting pictures. We make angels out of words, and demons. That is the singular gift of writing, that it allows us to describe, with often astonishing clarity, exactly what it is that our imagination sees.

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