"What's the secret to writing a perfect paper?"
It's the most common question asked during our Writer's Workshops, and it's one we're more than prepared to answer. But on a sunny Saturday morning during an otherwise routine workshop, one student asked a followup question that immediately made things more interesting:
"Can you describe it in a song?"
She was a musician in addition to being a part-time graduate student, she clarified; she just thought more clearly when she could relate classroom concepts to music. I was mere seconds away from queuing up my ready-made playlist of School House Rock grammar singalong videos when she added, "Just about everything we need to know about life is already recorded in a pop song. It'd be cool if 'writing' was in there somewhere, too."
Obviously, I felt compelled to conduct a spontaneous experiment to test the merits of such a theory. "What's pop's answer to, say, global warming?"
She didn't hesitate. "Nelly - 'It's Gettin Hot in Herrre,'"
Peer Pressure? "Bobby Brown - 'My Prerogative.'"
Einstein's theory of relativity? "John Mayer - 'Gravity.'"
Suddenly, she brightened. "I just answered my own question," she said. "Mayer's got a lyric for writing, too." She quoted a line from "Say": It's better to say too much than never to say what you need to say again.
Brilliant as it was, this answer was wrong. But it represents a misconception held by many writers, and students in particular: more is better. These writers tend to believe a good paper is one in which they can work in all the great words they know and keep talking until they're reasonably sure a point has been made. Then, just for good measure, they'll review it all once or twice near the end. After all, isn't the point of effective communication to make sure you do all you can to get your point across?
"But I don't want to miss anything!"
I get it - really, I do. (Also, I'm incapable of not referencing Aerosmith's "Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" and saying that it's a great song but equally unhelpful for writing purposes.) But here's the thing about throwing everything but the cliched kitchen sink into your paper: you only end up confusing yourself and frustrating your reader. Neither of these is the byproduct of effective communication.
Instead, consider this advice from Bill Stott, author of the well-known Write to the Point: "Have something to say, and say what you mean to say as simply as you can."
Don't forget that the focus of any effective communication is on the recipient. Your reader must come away with a clear idea of what you think. And the clearest ideas are always the most succinct.
As a reader yourself - actually, just as a member of society - you already know this. When's the last time you read a textbook cover to cover to study for an exam or pored over every single word of your gym membership contract or the drug info sheets accompanying your prescription cough medication? Even better: when's the last time you honestly appreciated the million commercial breaks during the last crucial seconds of a championship game or any of the results episodes of American Idol?
We want to know what we need to know as quickly as possible. It's what we like to call getting to the point.
Don't let your paper be as frustrating and ultimately pointless as an American Idol results show. Rather than rambling aimlessly, dangling your argument before your readers like a reward for time served mining paragraphs (or even words) of unnecessary information, just say what you mean - and then stop. Making your readers search for and guess at your point does not make you a complex and prolific writer; it just makes you annoying.
There's no such thing as a perfect paper. But if you ever want hope of writing a pretty great one, the secret is this: get to the point. For those of you like my friend who needs a musical link to cement this bit of learning I can only offer the words of the venerable Marques Houston: We can beat around the bush but I just rather be around the bush...I just wanna get to the point.
Step aside, John Mayer. The kid who played Roger on Sister, Sister just schooled you. Tune in next week when One Republic takes on conjunctive clauses.